This review contains spoilers. Not caught up with Mr. Robot Season 2 yet? Read our spoiler-free review of Episode 1 and 2.
“Have you ever wondered what the world would look like if 5/9 never happened?” That’s the question asked by China’s Minister of State Security of Agent DiPierro. Or Dominique, she flusters. Or Dom.
The always-excellent Grace Gummer and BD Wong are on stellar form for their conversation, after her young agent drifts from a state party in Beijing and finds herself confronted with his private collection of clocks (if that doesn’t ring alarm bells, what will?) and a wardrobe of women’s clothes. They’re his sister’s, he tells her. He’s lying. Because, of course, he has his own alternate name he goes by: Whiterose, the leader of the Dark Army.
That revelation sends your mind racing, and the show’s indulgent pacing, hitting pause on events to watch two strangers share a private moment of reflection, gives you the chance to process its implications; this government official, whom the USA surely suspect of being partly to blame for the devastating hack against E Corp, is more powerful than they realise. But what does that mean for his secret meetings with E Corp’s Philip Price? Whose side is he really on?
Whiterose’s switch between her transgender reality and the identity she puts on for her state role is not unlike the duality of Mr. Robot and Elliot – or the contrast between the personal and professional life of Dom.
“Some say there are alternate realities playing out that very scenario,” adds Whiterose – and it’s no coincidence that Sam Esmail’s script has already mentioned an FBI operation called “Berenstain”, alluding to an age-old Internet theory about parallel dimensions and animated kids’ TV series (the best kind of theories). His is a world full of parallels, echoes and divides. For a brief few minutes in Episode 5 of Mr. Robot Season 2, they collide, not with a bang, but with a whisper.
The bang comes later.
For Elliot, just the small tapping of a computer keyboard is explosive enough, as he succumbs to his Mr. Robot alter-ego and gets back on the web, ostensibly helping out Ray, while actually breaking into the FBI. We watch in an almost absurd opening montage, as he talks hyperactively about hacking and revels in the power at his fingertips. It’s porn for coders, fetishising tech jargon – like an adult sequel to The Matrix, if it spent the whole runtime staring at a computer screen. It’s just as indulgent as the unevenly slow Whiterose scene, but Mr. Robot gets away with it both times for two reasons: 1. Its painstakingly cool style, and 2. Its grasp of emotions.
Take Darlene’s visit to Angela, the other big component of the episode, as she begs E Corps’ new PR lady to assist in hacking the FBI, who have holed up in their building. Portia Doubleday’s ever-conflicted face gives the request (just drop a device in the corridor, simples) all the weight it needs, as her old world of being Elliot’s protective friend crashes into her new one, full of sanitised offices and cold, steely backdrops. When she meets up with her old flame, though, she wastes no time in ditching his dumbass phone into his dumbass drink, after he starts trying to snitch on her to the Feds about that supposed audio CD they both plugged into an Allsafe computer back in Season 1 – and her expression conveys all the barely-concealed panic, anger and determination her painfully taut ponytail suggests.
Elliot, meanwhile, is discovering that he’s not the only one with two sides of his personality; Ray, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, turns out to be a total douche, and, indeed, perhaps none other than the Dread Pirate Roberts, owner of a new Silk Road-style marketplace – and, in a parallel dimension, the true love of Buttercup in The Princess Bride.
Elliot does some snooping and finds an online store for drugs, weapons, children – and, just as his old self toys with the idea of bringing down another dubious online person, Ray and his goons abduct him and beat the crap out of him (and, judging by the gruesome sample they bring, did something even nastier to their other IT guy).
It’s a cruel beating, not least because we can see so clearly the logical reasons for it – and so can Elliot. Joanna Wellick’s intimidating authority stems from a similar approach: her henchman doesn’t hesitate to bump off Karim, after he increasingly shows signs of being a threat. Not by merely shooting him, but by drugging him so he can see his death coming, paralysed to stop it.
“Let him die with answers,” is her chilling logic. “Otherwise we’re nothing but murderers.”
It’s a great little scene (and Stephanie Corneliussen is wonderfully creepy), but it’s a shame that this still feels less like a parallel dimension to the other storylines and more a standalone universe – even a mysterious call from a mouth-breather, who may or may not be Tyrell, doesn’t do much to further the protracted game of Where’s Wellick? that most of the characters in the series seem to have forgotten we’re playing.
Nonetheless, the other strands of Esmail’s are so slick and gripping that we’re far from logging off at this stage – DiPierro’s investigation has never felt more relevant, thanks to a thrilling finale that sees a gang of gunmen assault her and fellow agents in the lobby after the party.
Esmail shoots the entire thing in an understated single take, not to make a big deal out of how flashy he can be, but to ramp up the incident’s visceral immediacy – we don’t see the attack coming before she does and find ourselves equally pinned down behind a counter, as bullets hail down on her. It’s here that Mr. Robot demonstrates its crucial line of code that keeps us plugged in to the programme – the ability to make the cold, hard world of computer crime feel urgently real. It’s a devastating bang, as the different parts of the story finally come together – and we can feel the reverberations.
Season 2 of Mr. Robot is available to watch exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes arriving every Thursday, within 24 hours of their US premiere. All 10 episodes of Season 1 are also available to stream, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like free next-day delivery on Amazon products, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.
Photos: Peter Kramer/ Christopher Saunders / USA Network