Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 5. Not seen Episode 5? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 3’s opening episode.
Season 3 of Mr. Robot hits its halfway point with one of the show’s best episodes to date. Sam Esmail’s series is a singular vision of a carefully controlled world descending into chaos, with its first season stunning viewers with a cliffhanger that promised nothing but uncertainty. Since then, it has struggled to regain that astonishing abundance of disorder, echoing the efforts of Elliot (Rami Malek) to wrestle back control over his own split existence. After stretching the bond between he and Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to breaking point, though, Season 3 rediscovers the show’s heart of chaos with a dark, gripping chapter that starts off at a sprint – and doesn’t pause for breath.
That’s partly due to the script, from Kor Adana and Randolph Leon, which finally gives us Stage 2, after almost two seasons of talk about the Dark Army’s ominous major plan. Before you can get too frustrated by the lack of progress, Runtime Error delivers it all in one visceral payload of adrenaline: not only is Stage 2 happening, but the UN is also voting on the annexing of the Congo by China. Oh, and Elliot has been fired.
The first two points become apparent in the background, bleeding into Elliot’s world through news and the media as he heads into work, but it’s the latter that becomes the most pressing concern – a fitting entry point of audiences in an age where unemployment is a perilous threat in itself. For Elliot, of course, being fired means no more access to E Corp’s network, which means he can’t block the Dark Army’s sneaky cyber diversion that is now bypassing his deliver-halting hack. All those paper records are on the way to the backup facility – and the building’s ready to blow.
And so Elliot, aptly, takes a leaf from Neo in The Matrix, ducking beneath his cubicle desk and crawling around the office to try and find a way to get back online without being detected by faceless security guards. It’s a superb sequence, which Rami Malek carries out with a wonderfully physical performance: for someone who spends so much of Mr. Robot delivering terse voiceovers, he relishes to show us the oft-stationary Elliot in motion. It’s made even better by the sheer impossibility of it all: with his black hoodie and backpack, he couldn’t stand out more from the bland, beige corporate world of the company, where people sit at their desks meekly and wear suits passively. One nail-biting moment sees Elliot barge into a meeting and pretend to be part of it – a pretence that Malek does so intensely, with furtive glances to the nearby security guards, that it’s obvious to even the supporting cast that he doesn’t belong there.
Underneath it all lies the panicking knowledge that Elliot can’t remember what’s happened since the last episode, which means he has a four-day blackout in which Mr. Robot was able to take control – and it’s that determination to grasp control again non-stop that infects Esmail’s camera, turning the entire episode into what appears to be a single, long take, filtered through Elliot’s consciousness.
The result plays out in a real-time that’s gorgeously constructed, right down to the point at which Esmail cuts from one subplot to another: a riot builds outside the E Corp HQ, and when the protestors (angry about unemployment and the failed economy in the wake of the fsociety hack) break ranks and infiltrate the building, we’re swept along through the crowd to where Angela is. She, of course, is working with the Dark Army to make sure that their plan goes ahead (and helping them to back up some important data before Stage 2 kicks off) – and, while that means in practise that she spends 5 minutes looking for a USB stick in an empty office, Portia Doubleday’s performance is so good that it’s just as tense; she’s visibly, increasingly unsure about her role in this whole scheme, aware that she still has that same desperate loyalty and passion for revenge but has also become a pawn in a much wider game.
This is also the episode that Elliot finally realises her betrayal – and it’s a betrayal he learns about from Darlene, who turns up in person outside E Corp to tell him about her betrayal too. It’s a double whammy of reveals that signals the shattering point for Esmail’s one-take presentation, as Elliot learns his sister is working with the FBI and Angela is working with Mr. Robot. Elliot heads back in the building to confront Angela, which promises one heck of a pay-off in the next episode. Before then, though, this shot of adrenaline concludes with the thrilling reminder that the whole riot outside the E Corp HQ is part of the Dark Army’s plan to stage a distraction for Angela to do her thing: even in the most visceral burst of chaos, there’s still someone out of sight holding the puppet strings. In the words of Elliot, the fuse may have been lit, but that doesn’t mean he can control the explosion. With only five episodes left to go, the question is: can anyone?
Season 3 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 and 2 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: USA Network