This review contains spoilers from the two-part premiere of
It strains against the child’s cries, the scripture’s words, but the song’s anachronism is unmistakable. After the assassination of Gideon Goddard by a self-styled patriot in a blood-red bar, the tune carries us into Joanna Wellick’s kitchen—music box, baby monitor, unknown caller—and thence into Elliot Alderson’s church circle, where the day’s passage promises a new heaven and a new earth. The sentimental ballad, “Till We Meet Again,” became popular in the closing stages of the First World War, offering reunification, now and in the next life, to those separated by conflict: “And the smile will erase the tear blighting trace/When we meet in the after awhile.” In Mr. Robot, of course, romantic notions gain no purchase; even its depictions of sex tend toward the sadomasochistic, the exquisite pleasures of pain. For writer, director and series creator Sam Esmail, the song is unsettling, its assurances muffled by intimations of apocalypse. Now that the revolution’s begun, the after awhile’s already here.
With asymmetrical compositions and blunt, emphatic dialogue—”We have been on our knees for too long, and it’s time to stand up,” Elliot’s sister, Darlene, urges fsociety in the episode’s first half. Mr. Robot is an assertive series, to the point that it might appear mannered, engaging politics only in the abstract. But in the final moments of “unm4sk,” it is also slippery, strange: To bring the distant past and the Biblical future into its portrait of a present that resembles our own suggests a sense of developments spinning out of control. “It’s almost as if something’s come alive,” Tyrell Wellick remarks in the opening sequence, the subject obscure, the tense uncertain, as if he were facing Frankenstein’s monster. If the first season of Mr. Robot planted the seeds of transformation, the second, on the basis of “unm4sk,” may see that transformation take on a life of its own.
From the perspective of the episode’s end, its long, floating prologue, passing through an arcade, a broken window, and a hospital monitor before Elliot’s brain scan becomes the Rorschach blot of a composition book, signals this interest in the ungovernable flow of events. Elliot’s childhood “accident” results, it’s implied, in the neural rearrangement from which Mr. Robot is born, though the notion of a higher purpose in his rewiring is held, for much of the premiere, at arms length. Instead there is Elliot’s interminable routine, the repetitive images of his friend, Leon, obsessing over Seinfeld’s “cold, random universe” in that garish pink diner, or of pick-up basketball games in the local park. Elliot’s existence, depicted here as one of muted, careful monotony—even Esmail’s compositions are more balanced—is an attempt to create “a perfectly constructed loop,” of the sort he imagines us all to prefer. “Isn’t that what everybody does?” Elliot asks at one point. “Keep things on repeat? To go along with their NCIS and their Lexipro? Isn’t that where it’s comfortable? In the sameness?”
As unsubtle as ever, Mr. Robot blunders into simplistic allusions—”Facebook likes and Vine stars”—and familiar implications—the domineering influence E Corp’s CEO has on federal regulators, who’ve approved a $900 million bailout following last season’s erasure of debt in an effort to save the global economy—but it succeeds in weaving Elliot’s unraveling into the country’s, and vice versa. The razor-thin line between order and chaos continues to smudge; Elliot’s journal grows frantic as Mr. Robot, his finger in the wind, senses the sweeping changes afoot. In one superb sequence, set to Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home,” an E Corp exec dons one of fsociety’s trademark masks and sets $5.9 million aflame in the shadow of a skyscraper. Though it’s Darlene who orchestrates this dramatic bonfire of the vanities, it’s run through with Elliot’s insurgent spirit: The scene’s last, lingering image is that of the building’s highest reaches, with the fire’s orange heat lapping up from the bottom of the screen. Capitalism itself is ablaze, or near to it.
That fsociety’s endgame remains unclear, at least beyond turning order into chaos, implies a potential for derangement, not unlike Elliot’s maniacal laughter. The series’ anti-capitalist sensibilities have long sustained an anarchic streak, but “unm4sk” presents the Robin Hood affect of the hacker collective as a new problem, and not simply a solution. Against the ingenious, foreboding interlude in which fsociety turns E Corp attorney Susan Jacobs’ smart house against her, there’s the ordinary woman unable to withdraw money from the bank; against Elliot’s determination to “unmask” those around him, there’s his own admission that “Sometimes my mask takes over.” As one might expect from a season premiere, the episode leaves too many loose ends to offer a firm assessment—the trajectories of Grace Gummer’s FBI agent and Craig Robinson’s dog owner among them—but it’s nonetheless permeated by a niggling feeling that Elliot’s actions have set in motion a chain reaction he cannot rein in.
For the new heaven and new earth of the Book of Revelation, the after awhile of the wartime song, first require destruction: the end of days, the epochal conflict, the cleansing flood. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain,” the leader of Elliot’s church group reads. “For the former things are passed away.” With “unm4ask,” the question Mr. Robot seems to pose is whether the promise of Elliot’s revolution is worth the price, whether fsociety’s high ideals might pass away with all the rest, and in this it assumes a darker complexion.
Writing for Indiewire last year, I described the series’ “connection between revolution and revelation” as one “alive to Elliot’s notion that you may have to destroy the world in order to save it,” but here the figurative edges toward the literal. Speaking of intimations of apocalypse, the term derives from the Greek apokaluptein, “uncover,” “reveal.” To unmask, in other words, even if we don’t yet know what’s underneath.
Matt Brennan is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Indiewire, Paste, Slant, The Week, Flavorwire, Deadspin, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.