A trio of strong, stylish episodes lead us to Mr. Robot‘s “Stage 2” – and hopefully some answers
Season 2 of Mr. Robot has been quite the roller-coaster ride, both for the show’s characters as well as viewers. There have been moments this season that I enjoyed as much as (if not more than) the highest highs of Season 1, but also some significant lows (Elliot eating Adderall amidst his own throw-up, too many characters dying for seemingly no reason, Elliot’s depressing hometown) that had me questioning my faith in the show’s new direction. Esmail has taken us on a very different journey this year, and I don’t think we’ll know if it was truly successful until the end of the season.
That said, the huge (and in my mind, spectacular) reveal in “Handshake” – that Elliot has been in prison since the beginning of the season – was enough of a win to give the show some serious momentum going forward, and it re-ignited my interest in Elliot’s portion of the story. The show’s other main characters, meanwhile, have been moving the plot forward in Elliot’s absence since the beginning of the season, and going into Episode 8, “Successor,” it’s definitely time for the cast to come together and move towards the endgame, right? Well, not exactly.
Episode Eight – “eps2.6succ3ss0r.p12”
While Esmail swears that “fooling the audience” is never his intention, there’s no doubt he enjoys subverting our expectations at every turn, and “Successor” is certainly up to that task. After “Handshake” removed some of the distance that had formed between the viewer and Elliot since the start of the season (and gave us a huge reveal about his current status), “Successor” chooses to completely ignore Elliot in favor of further exploring Darlene’s difficulties in succeeding him as the leader of fsociety. It’s an interesting theme that is developed over the course of this episode (as well as the next few), especially because it somewhat recasts Elliot in the role of capable leader – a role I never saw for him previously. Now Mr. Robot, on the other hand…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
There were a few big, “I can’t believe that just happened” moments in this episode, the first of which was E Corp’s general counsel Susan Jacobs catching Darlene and crew red-handed in her apartment. It was a great, surprising moment that ripped me out of “TV-viewer” mode and pulled me right into the dilemma, and my genuine concern let me know just how much I’ve come to care about these characters. The fsociety crew then proceeds to hack Susan’s life to find some blackmail-worthy dirt to ensure her silence, and it was another phenomenal example of how well this show demonstrates the art and science of hacking. I could watch this sequence over and over and likely learn something new each time, and it’s a prime example of just how authentic and layered the show can be.
The other big jaw-dropper this episode was Darlene’s decision to kill Susan – an act that neither we the viewer nor Darlene herself believed she was capable of. First, however, Darlene unties Susan, offers her a cigarette, and proceeds to tell us a story about the monster Susan truly is. I wasn’t fully convinced that she deserved to die for being a heartless, calculated lawyer who had earned the nickname “The Executioner,” but for Darlene this is personal. Honestly, I was surprised at how little this murder changed my view of Darlene’s character, which tells me that Esmail’s decision here had her acting 100% in character. Nicely done.
In the end, “Successor” was solid, and one of my favorite parts of the episode (as well as the next two) was the evolution of Cisco’s character from irritable hacker/Dark Army contact, into a guy you could totally understand as Darlene’s love interest. He’s a character that always intrigued me when he showed up in Season 1, and his increased role as this season has progressed has been a pleasant surprise (although I admit that it’s likely a calculated effort to endear the character to us so we care deeply when he’s later killed). That said, we’re not quite sure what to think of his motivations, and by the end of the episode Darlene has discovered that he’s reporting on her to the Dark Army and slugs him in the head with a bat. That’s certainly one way to end an episode. Darlene also learned about something called “Stage 2” on Cisco’s computer, which is no doubt very important, and that brings us to Episode 9, “Init 5”.
Episode Nine – “eps2.7init5.fve”
After an episode of very strategically delayed gratification, Esmail lets the narrative floodgates loose at the beginning of “Init 5,” and catches us up on what we “missed” between last season and the start of this one. It’s a great (albeit brief) little vignette, and it reveals that Elliot went to prison after pleading guilty to hacking Lenny and stealing his dog. It obviously had to be something other than the 5/9 hack that put him inside, and while this is a clever explanation, I did hate to see the satisfaction that Lenny took in it all. Anyway, we also got confirmation on a number of things that were pretty easy to guess by this point. For one, we learned that Leon was Elliot’s man on the inside from the very beginning who showed him the ropes and was able to smuggle in things like notebooks and Adderall. So yeah – those bases are covered.
We also learned that Ray is in fact the warden of the prison, which is fine and felt like a nice reveal, except that he doesn’t seem to be in any trouble with the authorities even though we saw him get arrested a few episodes back. I really hope we get some closure on this issue by the end of the season, and that all of these narrative threads from the “pre-reveal” era aren’t just discarded as the main narrative moves ahead.
Anyway, back to Elliot. Upon exiting the prison, there was a wonderful hug between him and Darlene that was well-earned and absolutely perfect. Darlene is in a very precarious position at the moment, and Elliot is finally back to relieve some of the burden on her. The scene is beautifully shot, as cars sporadically whiz by in the foreground, temporarily obstructing our view of the siblings in the background. Their warm moment of connection is regularly punctuated by interference from the industrialized world and it’s just brilliant – both thematically and visually.
So now that Elliot is out of prison, finding out what “Stage 2” actually is has become the new problem du jour, and it feels a bit like a macguffin. The fact is that Whiterose and the Dark Army have some sort of endgame and the show has found a nice buzzword in “Stage 2” to sum it all up (and it does pay nice homage to Project Mayhem from Fight Club – arguably Mr. Robot‘s most clear inspiration). But in a show that is all about going against genre tropes, I have to admit that “Stage 2” sounds a bit cliche, at least at this point in popular culture.
But we have another problem at hand – namely that Elliot and Mr. Robot are “overheating” and separating in some way that bodes very poorly, especially for Elliot. This would have been a cool idea for, say, another season, but c’mon – this season has been all about Mr. Robot and Elliot learning to co-exist together and cooperate. More division is not what I was hoping for, and it makes the first seven episodes feel moot in some ways. I don’t love this direction, but I will give it some time – like The Dark Army’s mysterious “Stage 2,” Esmail supposedly has a carefully devised master-plan, and I’m going to try and just go along for the ride. I will say this, however: Season 2’s endgame really needs to justify having these two characters at odds again.
Oh but wait, there’s even more: At the end of the episode, the hacking of a Dark Army phone reveals that “Stage 2” is actually Elliot’s plan – which probably means it’s really Mr. Robot’s plan and that Elliot knew nothing about it. This is getting pretty crazy, and honestly, it’s hard to believe that a group like the Dark Army that guns down groups of FBI agents and then commits harikari to avoid capture would follow orders from someone with as diminutive a presence as Elliot. I’m sure there’s much more to the story here, but for now, I’m not sure what to think.
There’s quite a lot of plot packed into each of these last few episodes, and that’s certainly a nice change after the much slower pace of the first half of the season. This episode also saw Dom pay a visit to Angela to deliver some veiled threats and it was another excellent scene for Dom’s character. And for the grand finale – we see three main characters all in different precarious situations. First there’s Cisco who has gone to Susan’s townhouse to recover a tape (the very existence of which annoys the hell out of me, by the way) and sees someone. Darlene then has a knock at the door of Elliot’s flat and sees…someone too. And just then, Elliot gets back home, and sees Tyrell’s black Escalade parked in front of his place. Oh shit. The window rolls down – and it’s Joanna. “Hi Ollie,” she says. And scene. Say what you will about cheap cliffhangers – these three teases left me eager to dive into Episode 10.
Episode Ten – eps2.8h1dden-pr0cess.axx
So here we are, at the last episode before the two-part season finale, and “Hidden Process” is a pretty fantastic episode. Angela and Cisco have a bonding session throughout that makes me absolutely love Cisco, but now I’m all but certain that he’s dead meat (and I’m already pissed off about it).
Regarding the three cliffhangers from last episode, we first learn the identity of the person Cisco saw in Susan’s apartment – it was that random fsociety member, remember him? the guy who was in charge of the Washington op? – badly injured and on death’s door. Darlene wants to let him die because he’s “seen her face,” but Cisco starts trying to talk her out of it. This is a very effective scene, as I found myself really hoping – fingers crossed, praying really – that she would listen to Cisco and not take a further step into the darkness. And maybe the show heard my prayers (or more likely, cleverly predicted them), because the next scene shows Darlene and Cisco at the hospital. Way to go taking the high road, guys!
Elliot, meanwhile, gets caught up in the equally creepy and elegant world of Joanna Wellick, and is tasked with tracing the phone calls Joanna has been receiving, supposedly from Tyrell. Their interaction is excellent, as is the story Joanna tells Elliot about her diamond earrings and how Tyrell “always does what’s necessary.” If Tyrell is alive, these two will make one hell of an S&M Bonnie and Clyde next season. This sends Elliot off on another hacking mission, but first he’s gotta hit the computer store. The next few scenes are some of my absolute favorite all season, and they hearken back to the hacker-chiq aspects of the first season that helped make it so unique and compulsively fun to watch.
First there’s the shopping scene which I absolutely loved, as it’s directed and shot with tremendous energy and rhythm. It’s really fun watching the anti-social Elliot shopping for anything, but especially the computer stuff that he knows so well. It’s like that scene in every action movie where the badass action-hero is gearing up and picking out their guns and equipment; Elliot picking out a PC, burner phones and other hacker gear is the modern, real-world equivalent. Next the action moves to Elliot’s apartment, where he goes MacGyver on a Pringles can to make a long-range WiFi antenna, and proceeds to execute one of the coolest hacks the show has shown us yet.
This hack is especially cool because it feels real; when a computer system is deemed impenetrable, Elliot exploits the weaknesses of people instead – in this case the police – and combines that approach with some elite hacking. The result is one of the show’s most effective hacks, and one that’s akin to the Steel Mountain hack of last season. But that’s not all this scene has to offer. In Elliot’s apartment, the show pauses at one point and takes a few moments to scan around the room, while Elliot’s monologue tasks us – the viewers – with trying to spot an important clue that he keeps missing. It’s one of my favorite moments of the entire series so far because it’s completely original and endlessly intriguing. According to the writer of this episode, there is a visible clue somewhere in this scene, which doesn’t surprise me considering the show we’re watching and makes it even cooler.
The rest of the episode is generally solid as well, as Darlene and Cisco bond in a diner and Dom works doggedly to locate them before the Dark Army does. The tension is real and doesn’t use typical film tricks and music to artificially escalate the situation. All I can say about the cliffhanger ending – when a Dark Army motorbike speeds up to the diner and unloads an automatic clip before committing suicide – is that I really want Cisco to survive, but that Darlene will likely be the only survivor. We certainly have lost a lot of people this season, and that’s before we even consider what may have happened to Mobley and Trenton.
The one thing I didn’t love about this episode was Philip Price’s conversation with Terry Colby where Price talks about his ambitions and discusses his perception of his own power. Aside from “one or two” people, he feels that he’s the most powerful man on Earth, and I’m having some trouble buying the premise. I do like how this ties into the first episode of the entire series and the ominous voice-over about “a few people controlling the world”, but it’s one hell of a premise to swallow, and it somehow seems to clash with the smaller hacker story we’re experiencing 95% of the time. I feel like there is an identity crisis going on here, and I hope the show somehow finds a way to bridge the gap between the smaller-scale Elliot and fsociety hacker storytelling, and the sweeping “Whiterose and Price control the whole world” premise we’re being asked to buy into.
But on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, the best scene of the episode – and one of the best of the series – was between Elliot and Angela on the subway. These characters have been so estranged for so long, and we’ve learned so much more about Angela this season, which makes this kiss – the consummation of the strange romance that in some ways is the driving force of the whole series – so powerful. I can’t express in words how much I loved this scene, and hats off to Esmail and co. for making us wait so long and earning it so thoroughly.
Onward to the Finale
This trio of episodes – “Successor,” “Init 5″ and Hidden Process” – definitely delivered on the show’s trademark mix of style, strong characters and intriguing revelations, with the first episode taking us deeper into Darlene’s world than ever before, and the second two accomplishing some final table setting in advance of the finale. Despite wearing its many influences on its sleeve, Mr. Robot is turning out to be a completely original and unpredictable beast, and these episodes are further proof.
So far, Season 2 has been a success, but often for its artfulness more than its plot. The magic has been in everything other than the plot – in the acting, in the directing, in the characters, in the show’s unique approach to story presentation, and of course, in its ability to thoroughly surprise with big twists and WTF moments. That’s not to say that Season 2’s plot is a poor one, as I’ve enjoyed the narrative so far; but due to the nature of the show (especially this season), we won’t really know how effective the story was until experiencing the (hopefully) big, amazing finish.
“Successor” – 8.5
“Init_5” – 8.5
“Hidden Process” – 9.0