Mr. Robot Review: Episode 7

SEASON 2, EPISODE 7: eps2.5 h4ndshake.sme

Control can sometimes be an illusion, but sometimes, you need illusion to gain control. Fantasy's an easy way to give meaning to the world, to cloak our harsh reality in escapist comfort. After all, isn't that why we surround ourselves with so many screens? So we can avoid seeing. So we can avoid each other. So we can avoid truth. - Elliot Alderson

Two weeks ago, I wrote this...

Speaking of which, I'm still not fully ready to embrace the popular theory that Elliot has been in a mental institution (or a prison) since the beginning of the season.

I will admit, however, that as I watch any scene he's in, I can find a way to place that in a fictionalized world in the mind of someone doped up and in an asylum. It works the same if he's in lockup, and would explain his routine and his bedroom, as well as things like watching aggressive basketball games or playing chess in an empty park. It's fun to think about, even though I hope there's something deeper to the story than a trick played on the audience.

It turns out there wasn't something "deeper," and indeed Elliot has been in prison since the beginning of the season. There will be some people who will absolutely hate this, but I can't put myself in that camp. I'm not thrilled about it, because it's the second time in as many seasons that Sam Esmail has done this sort of reveal. Last year, it was the non-existence of Mr. Robot himself, and now, it's the revelation that we've again been living inside of Elliot Alderson's brain.

When a colleague of mine first mentioned the theory, I tried to write it off, but with each passing week, it made more sense. Last night, when Elliot went back to the basketball game at 2 PM, I knew it. I wasn't sure it would be revealed that quickly, but once Leon brought a shiv to the "alley," it was even more obvious. The choice of weapon, added to the fact that these men were likely about to gang rape Elliot (you could hear the belt buckle), all felt appropriate for depictions of correctional institutions on TV.

Alderson's comments to us showed one important thing about the series' decision to take its story down this path. Esmail knew some people would be upset, so he semi-apologized, while trying to explain why it was necessary for his antihero to create the fantasy world. If you were miffed, keep in mind that it's been consistent, so it wasn't a cheap out. Last week's "sitcom" was another layer of fantasy, placed on top of the first fictional construct, because the first refuge was no longer safe.

Elliot's routine, from his room (cell), to the same restaurant (cafeteria), to the same companion (inmate friend), to the same park for basketball (yard), and even the old-school telephone (the kind of thing on the wall in lockup), all do back up the con, We weren't lied to, because it was all right in front of us since the start of the year. Generally, the logic behind it works.

However, I don't know the moment Elliot was arrested, nor do I know how the Ray storyline fits into anything, because the dark web wouldn't exist behind bars. What was he arrested for exactly, because if it were Five Nine, his therapist wouldn't be talking about him getting out of jail? Those are things that need to be further laid out, in order to keep the structure intact.

It's a good thing the end of the episode was so compelling, even if it left you angry, because once Angela Moss stopped talking to Dom, her story became incredibly boring. No one believes Phillip Price cares about her, and as she went behind her father's back, asked for a job in risk management, and spoke up in an afternoon debriefing meeting, I remembered what I disliked about the character at the start of the year. Portia Doubleday needs to be the human on the show, not the ignorant tool of people that simply want to use her.

Angela was basically a dud last night. Even less interesting was Joanna Wellick's role, and why we're even seeing her at this point is somewhat questionable. I couldn't care less about her new beau.

The Wall Street bull's testicles dropping through a skylight in the House chamber was by far the coolest thing this show has ever done. Seriously, even with as many visual highlights as we've seen, including the sitcom and various commercials, this one was funny, it was quick, and it was effective. It fit the mold for fsociety, this time utilizing subversion and access to make a point. It also showed what Darlene and the group were smirking at in the new fsociety hideout.

One thing that bothers me about living inside of Elliot's head is that we're not ALWAYS inside his skull. We wouldn't see Joanna Wellick taking the pig's blood or red paint bath, we wouldn't see Darlene's life outside of conversations with her brother, and we certainly wouldn't see Angela Moss, nor Dom's investigation, either in China or in New York. It's a problem, because only sometimes are we actually being screwed with, and our knowledge of things Elliot wouldn't understand doesn't match up properly.

Mr. Robot has always enjoyed keeping the audience off kilter and constantly guessing, but I'm going to tell you, this needs to be the last cute little trick it plays. At the end of the episode, when Elliot asks if we can be friends, our answer is yes, but only if he's being honest about never deceiving us again. The reason the Keyser Soze ending worked in The Usual Suspects is because it happened once. The reason the twist in The Sixth Sense succeeded is because it happened once. Esmail can keep us guessing, without playing with the framework of his series in this way for a third time.

What Sam Esmail needs to do now is spend the rest of the season telling a real story, where characters make choices and then act on them, and he also probably needs to finish the thought on Elliot in prison. How did he get there? How long is he going to be there? Why is Leon in there, and what power does Whiterose have at this stage? You can only leave people in the dark for so long.

Breaking Bad was virtually never obtuse, but it was just as, if not more prolific, and certainly as well executed as Mr. Robot has ever been. Mad Men was best when it wasn't playing with its audience, and The Sopranos was often terrible when we went inside of Tony's head. The Leftovers is one of the few shows that's ever been able to pull it off on multiple occasions.

If, at the end of the season, we're back here talking about all the mind games that the series played down the stretch, it may officially be a tiresome conversation. Eventually, the icing isn't enough. There has to be actual cake behind the curtain, or people will start to back away from the bakery. Some of Season 2 has been terrific, and some has been disappointing. That's not altogether unexpected, especially with a project this inventive, but Esmail now has to land the plane. It's time for lasting substance, but with the cinematography we love about the series.

Mr. Robot is two different television shows. There's the story of the hack, Five Nine, and the results of the hacktivism and an overly consumerist culture. Then there's the psychological thriller, where we may or may not always be trapped inside the head of a young man with dissociative personality disorder. Are those two shows ever going to become one again? It seems that we're approaching that time, because we now know Elliot's circumstances, but when Mr. Robot talks about Alderson leading, what does that mean? How much trouble can he be in, if everyone around him is talking about his release?

It means he's not in jail for Tyrell Wellick's murder, though Mr. Robot tells Elliot he shot and killed him with the gun Darlene hid in the popcorn machine. That revelation came BEFORE we found out he was in prison, so was that a lie? That's the problem with all the twists and shifts. Once we stop believing or trusting in the reality of what we're seeing from one scene to the next, there's no reason to watch. That's why we need a break from the mental breaks and drug hallucinations and fake movies and dream sequences. It's about integrity and feeling like our time isn't being spent watching fiction within fiction.

Oh, and now that we're in prison with Elliot, he needs to get out of there quickly, because jail stories have been overdone something fierce in 2016. Because of it, Esmail's fantasyland is better than the alternative, because at least we saw something different. The jig is up, so we need him free so he can get to the mission that originally hooked us.

I'm @GuyNamedJason on the Tweets. With their response time, I would guess they have us surrounded by now. You better get out before they get up here.