Mr. Robot's Disappointing New Normal

TV Features Mr. Robot
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<i>Mr. Robot</i>'s Disappointing New Normal

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

Before she urinates on the executive’s grave, Whiterose pauses for a moment to correct her assistant. There are, she implies, no accidents: The appearance of chance in the deadly plane crash is but the illusion of chaos, a failure to find the pattern connecting otherwise disparate events. This is, as it happens, Mr. Robot’s structuring principle, the fretful perspective of the truther, the prepper, the con. The organization tasked with regulating nuclear power is in the pocket of the plant owners. The bailout of American corporations is in the hands of the Chinese. The home is a prison, the son is the father, the unsettling dream is a sign. That “init_5.fve” is a “return to normal,” as Elliot explains, is thus a reassurance and, perhaps, another ruse, asking us to recognize and accept the series’ bait-and-switch as one of the rules of the game. Despite the hour’s streamlined shape, however, it’s hard not to hear in the title card’s cue a certain petulance on the part of creator Sam Esmail, as if to preempt the criticism that this season’s big “twist” was in fact a dead end. “Now I’m not looking for absolution/Forgiveness for the things I do,” Depeche Mode assures us, “But before you come to any conclusions/Try walking in my shoes.”

I suppose it’s fitting, in the moral universe of Mr. Robot, that Elliot’s crime is so insignificant: The series’ premise, in essence, is that we punish small-time crooks (i.e., for the theft of an asshole’s $1,200 dog) while corporate malfeasance continues apace. And Esmail admittedly draws the parallels between “init_5.fve” and the season premiere with sharp, efficient strokes; from Ray’s brief appearance as the prison’s warden to Leon’s interest in NBC’s “Must-See TV,” there’s a liveliness to the glimpse of Elliot’s 86-day stint that’s largely been missing this season. (“You know, my man Paul Reiser, he just doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” Leon comments, in one of the series’ rare flashes of humor. “Man is spectacular. Phenomenal.”) As to the reasons for Elliot’s guilty plea, the purpose of the eight-week detour, or Darlene’s inaudible message at the prison gates (anyone out there lip read?), your guess is as good as mine. The new “normal” for me, at least as it relates to Mr. Robot, is not to waste too much breath asking.

To wit, one might wonder why Whiterose is so interested in the Washington Township nuclear plant—listed in the folder Angela finds on her supervisor’s computer alongside Flint and fracking, in case you needed to know where we were, politically speaking. I expect all will be revealed in due time. The same could be said of Elliot’s evolving relationship with Mr. Robot. Where the pair once fought their long argument to a draw, Elliot now seems to flicker out of his own skin and into his father’s, watching from afar—much as he does via the court’s video hookup, which might be a clue as to the origins of this discomfiting new development.

See? I’m accepting that Whiterose orchestrated Elliot’s early release, that our hero is the mastermind of “Stage 2.” I’m recognizing that the underlying pattern of events has not yet become clear to me. There are no accidents. In Esmail I trust.

What Mr. Robot in fact asks of its audience is not trust but submission, to stop struggling, as Dom says to Angela of her recurring nightmare, against this frustrating season’s strange tides. In practice, this means adhering to the belief that Elliot is still the center of the story, even as the series has moved on. Once again, it’s Grace Gummer’s knowingly lighthearted performance—forcing her way in to Angela’s apartment with snacks and a wide smile—and Portia Doubleday’s knowingly icy one, that supply the series’ court and spark. In particular, Angela’s near-constant skittishness as she tries to turn whistleblower, generates a far more convincing sense of the stakes than, say, Price’s promise to “rain chaos” or Whiterose’s not-so-veiled threats. Stiffening her back and widening her eyes as she goes rogue in E Corp’s offices, stopping short in that eerie corridor at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Angela is a reminder that even the most cunning plan is subject to forces beyond our command, that the problem with the truther, the prepper, and the con is not their lack of explanation, but the fact that they have an explanation for everything.

With “init_5.fve,” Mr. Robot returns, for now, to something like equilibrium, and like succ3ss0r.p12 it concludes with enough clouds on the horizon to hold the interest another week. But there’s no doubt that the series has become, to steal from the season’s finest hour, a “walking shadow.” As Elliot himself admits, “init 5 is supposed to bring color and sound. Instead, the world’s gray and quiet.”

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.