UK TV review: Mr. Robot Season 2, Episode 4
James R | On 03, Aug 2016
This review contains spoilers. Not caught up with Mr. Robot Season 2 yet? Read our spoiler-free review of Episode 1 and 2.
Stalemate. That’s where we start in Episode 4 of Mr. Robot Season 2.
As is so typical of Sam Esmail’s show, that term is literally true – he has a real talent for finding concrete depictions of abstract concepts, just as he uses tech terminology (Google “INIT1”, the episode title, and you’ll find yourself with a Linux command for changing to single user mode) to convey more complex issues outside of the binary, digital realm. And so, with Craig Robinson’s Ray lending Elliot (Rami Malek) a chess set, a contest begins between Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) and Elliot – whoever can beat the other on the board takes charge.
It’s a neat little idea, partly because of the age-old tradition of trying to beat yourself at chess, and partly because it gives Esmail the chance to bust out another stylish montage, as the pair move pieces at lightning speed, repeatedly ending up in the same spot. Stalemate.
But in our now weekly flashback, we see that Mr. Robot has had the upper hand for longer than we might think: we witness the origins of Fsociety, even before the abandoned arcade, when a younger Darlene and Elliot sit down to watch their favourite movie: the hilariously-named The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie (pirated, notch). The serial killer in that (fictional) flick, it turns out, wore the mask that became Fsociety’s signature – a brief try-on of a copy from Elliot later and we already begin to see Mr. Robot waiting to take charge. The idea of hacking E Corp and rants to Darlene about changing society start here. Goodbye, single user mode. Hello, Player 2.
But we also get to see the other half of Elliot more than ever before, as he indulges in a daydream of his perfect world: a dinner in the middle of the street, featuring all of his friends and loved ones, from Angela and Leon to even the Wellicks. They sit and clap, while Basket Case trills in the background (a lullaby cover of the Green Day song that works so well, you forget the countless slow, tinkly, piano covers of songs used by every advert ever these days) – and, in true Fight Club style, the group watches a skyscraper topple to the ground. Elliot may be cynical and bitter about the world, but deep down, it’s because he wants to make a positive, better one for people he cares about.
Is fighting Mr. Robot, then, putting him on the side of the system or the revolution? And is refusing to get back in the hacking game damaging his dream further, or making it more likely? Elliot’s a complex dude, all right – and Rami Malek is, once again, superb, seizing the chance to be more versatile in his mannerisms than ever, from sad laments to smiling fantasies. Even his putting on the Mr. Robot mask in the flashback is a subtly chameleonic performance.
Portia Doubleday continues to prove just as brilliant, as Angela struggles to get through each day at E Corp. We discover, sure enough, that she’s taken Philip Price’s evidence and wrought revenge upon the men who were responsible for the leak that killed her parents – and it’s a step into the EvilCorp family that, due to Doubleday’s perpetually shifting facial expressions, we still don’t know she’s certain about. But as she recites her self-help mantras (“My beliefs create my own reality”), confronting Price about why and how he’s manipulating her, it becomes clear that she’s far from in control: he dismisses her conspiracy theories with a patronising chuckle, leaving her looking like a child in the street.
And yet there is a conspiracy in play – we saw that in the conclusion of Season 1, when White Rose (the fab BD Wong) met with Price in secret. Here, they talk once more about their evil plan, which remains elusive, but definitely involves Angela. What is the Dark Army leader planning?
That’s certainly the thread that will tie Angela’s storyline to that of Darlene and Fsociety, as they become increasingly paranoid that the Dark Army is somehow involved in bumping them off, just as the FBI narrows down their search. Grace Gummer’s agent, DiPierro, even finds an empty bullet case at the arcade – one belonging to the popcorn-encased gun Elliot took out on his night with Tyrell?
After three episodes of slow-burn, it’s satisfying to see Mr. Robot begin to bring its strands together – we are, after all, a third of the way into this second run. It’s a shame, then, that the Wellick storyline, which seemed so important in Episode 1, isn’t quite succeeding in feeling as relevant – despite Stephanie Corneliussen’s superb performance as Joanna Wellick, who is determined to get Tyrell’s severance money, but is also determined to make it clear to her new fella that she likes him because, erm, he can’t provide money and all that other stuff Tyrell did. We’ve seen before how callous and calculating she can be, so when she does make her move, it promises to be devastating – if only the build-up was a bit more gripping.
The series, though, is unquestionably rediscovering its balance, as we venture further and further outside Elliot’s mind – and, crucially, he does too. The barriers are coming down, which gives the programme a little more room to breathe. In between the chess battles, Elliot agrees to help Ray with his server migration, giving us another chance to admire how menacing Robinson’s supposed friend is. He tells Elliot that hearing voices can be a sign of a prophet – is he being serious, trying to help his mate, or telling him something that Mr. Robot told him to say, or just talking nonsense? Who knows? But we’re certain he’s not nice, as he leaves his goon with Elliot to watch over him.
It seems like a small detail, but it’s also another sign that we’re perhaps not stuck in a delusion inside Elliot’s brain after all – compared to the internal conflicts of the Mr. Robot sequences, Elliot’s current situation keeps featuring more and more detached characters acting in independent ways. Elliot’s agreement to help Ray also shows that he is prepared to compromise, even just a little, so that he can get access to a computer and help Darlene. (There’s that sweet, caring Elliot again!) It’s a promising step for the show’s momentum, but also a worrying harbinger for Elliot’s mental state – don’t forget, he caved into Mr. Robot and agreed to a chess match, something that shows Mr. Robot has the stronger willpower.
Elliot’s final, audacious declaration that he’s hacking the FBI sounds like the kind of ambitious, insane claim that Mr. Robot would make – and it takes us right back into the cyber-thriller territory of Season 1. If Mr. Robot can continue to balance its mystery, murky tech analogies, astonishingly cinematic presentation and accomplished character drama for the next six episodes, Season 2 isn’t looking like such a stalemate after all.
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