Can Mr. Robot Break Its Stalemate?

(Episode 2.04, "init1.asec")

TV Reviews Mr. Robot
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Can <i>Mr. Robot</i> Break Its Stalemate?

This review contains spoilers from episode four of Mr. Robot Season Two.

At an impasse with his other half, Elliot Alderson accedes to a game of chess. Against the advice of his therapist, he meets Mr. Robot in a peaceful, empty park, but as their hands dart and dash across the board, no clear winner emerges. One stalemate becomes two, and two become three: It’s impossible to outsmart your opponent, of course, when that opponent is yourself. After “init1.asec,” it’s clear that Mr. Robot now confronts the same deadlock, between director Sam Esmail’s imaginative energies and writer Sam Esmail’s narrative scope; slackly paced, even sluggish, tonight’s episode relies on a single montage and a last-act volte face to escape the sense that the series has stalled, as hemmed in by its choices as Elliot’s next move. Without its usual thicket of extra-textual allusions, or indeed the dramatic fireworks of assassinations, protests, and hacks, Mr. Robot reveals itself to be, as its title character remarks, “a futile battle,” “two halves in a perpetual war,” though fans can still hope the solution differs from Elliot’s. “Annihilation is always the answer,” he suggests to his therapist. “Annihilation is all we are.”

Whether or not you can sink your teeth into Joanna Wellick’s obscure machinations and midnight tears—or, for that matter, Darlene’s bathroom dalliance—”init1.asec” neglects to use its 65-minute expanse to create suspense, much less complicate our understanding of the characters: It is, in essence, an interminable stalemate, straining to bring Elliot back into E Corp’s orbit. If Mr. Robot were the least bit ruminative, this ranginess might be forgiven, but it’s as blunt as a butter knife—the sort of series in which Darlene’s insights (“In this day and age, it’s sicker not to have panic attacks”) might be mistaken for Angela’s affirmations (“I dissolve all false messages”), if Angela purchased her self-help materials at an anarchist bookstore. Mr. Robot is often bracing—jet-black in its tone, rebellious in its politics, striking in its style—but it’s certainly not subtle, and Esmail seems incapable of bringing the episodic structure in line with this brusque affect. If Mr. Robot’s dialogue suggests an anti-capitalist missive, its general long-windedness comes closer to Das Kapital.

This is unfortunate, because the key moments in “init1.asec”—the opening flashback, Elliot’s vision, and the closing salvo against the FBI—suggest a slimmer, more efficient arc, one that slices through the fanciful conceit of the chess match to find the episode’s human core. Darlene’s coded message, “init1,” turns out to be an emblem of their mutual affection, and it’s this that influences Elliot’s decision to interfere with the FBI’s investigation. In fact, the siblings’ testy relationship with their father brings them together, and sets them apart; it’s no coincidence that Darlene’s skepticism, in that first sequence, comes as Elliot dons his father’s jacket along with fsociety’s mask. When Elliot intercedes, after all, his motive is not the voice inside his head—not the desire, as Ray puts it, to achieve “divinity”—but something simpler, more elemental: He wants to protect his sister.

For Elliot as for Angela, “init1.asec” hinges not on prophecies, with their connotation of fate, but rather on beliefs, on dreams, notions of progress small enough, personal enough, to slip through the cracks of Esmail’s more grandiose instincts. Bringing her mantras to fruition alongside his own, Elliot’s reverie thus registers as the episode’s most arresting moment, perhaps because it shirks Mr. Robot’s penchant for broad sociopolitical commentary in favor of a future we can wrap our hands around. Set to a jewelry-box rendition of Green Day’s “Basket Case,” Elliot’s idyll is the series’ sunniest sequence to date, and the hopes it expresses—with the exception of a skyscraper collapsing in the distance—are at human scale. “Will I finally connect with those I deeply care for?” Elliot asks.

Will I reunite with old friends long gone? See the ones I love find true happiness? Maybe this future includes people I’d never dream of getting close to. Even make amends with those I have unfairly wronged. A future that’s not so lonely. A future that’s filled with friends and family. You’d even be there. The world I’ve always wanted. And you know what? I would like very much to fight for it.

Against Leon’s reference to the Enlightenment, to the idea that chess is a form of self-improvement, against Ray’s list of Biblical prophets, hearing the voice of the divine, the smiling montage of Elliot’s imagination feels, for a moment, as if it might be within reach, and in this Mr. Robot finds the focus to move forward. The final moments of “init1.asec” promise, at minimum, a course of action to break the series’ stalemate, even if—to paraphrase Price’s response to Angela’s demand—the future worth fighting for is all in his head.

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.