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A game of chess almost destroys everything on Mr. Robot

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“‘I declare it’s marked out just like a large chessboard!’ Alice said at last. ‘There ought to be some men moving about somewhere—and so there are!’ she added in a tone of delight, and her heart began to beat quick with excitement as she went on. ‘It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played—all over the world—if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn, if only I might join—though of course I should like to be a Queen, best.’”

-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland & Through The Looking-Glass

Elliot Alderson has never trusted dreams. It’s debatable whether Elliot has ever trusted himself in any capacity, but his unconscious is a place he fears especially. He knows all too well what’s possible when he’s not in conscious control, when he lets go and fades to the background of his own mind. It’s where he loses time. It’s how he performs actions he doesn’t remember doing after the fact. It’s the place he goes when Mr. Robot takes over, and when the identity he conceives of as himself recedes into the background, a prisoner in his own head, unable to sound the alarm.

But Elliot gets a suggestion in “init1.asec” that changes his mind. It’s not from Ray, who does his best to get the taciturn young man to open up to him, and it’s not from Krista, who does her best to achieve the same end. No, this idea comes from Leon, who finally comes to the last episode of Seinfeld, and having finished recapping it for Elliot, notices the chess board between them. After explaining how chess was used as a form of self-improvement during the Enlightenment, Leon asks him a simple question. “Do you dream, Elliot?” We’ve seen the visions in Elliot’s head before. We know they hold clues to his fractured psyche. But for the first time, Elliot sees the positive nature of dreaming, and realizes there’s more to it than a reflection of self. It can be aspirational—a way to conjure a vision of your best self, and even better, your best life. It offers the promise of something better than just existing. It’s the world as he could make it.


Dreams provide a counterpoint to the central conceit of this episode: The chess game fought for control of Elliot’s mind. Or rather, the game Elliot thinks is going to be played, and Mr. Robot knows is going to quietly end in a stalemate, time and again. And that’s not because Robot is a step ahead of Elliot; if that were the case, he’d win the game. Instead, it’s an understanding of futility. He wasn’t lying to Elliot, earlier—he really is tired of the endless back-and-forth, the struggle, the jockeying for position. But he knows the senselessness of trying to defeat yourself, of thinking you can sever a part of yourself. Robot knows this because he could never operate without Elliot, just as Elliot could never fully suppress him. This episode felt like it was taking a step back from last week, in that regard. Just as Elliot seemed to be coming to terms with coexistence, along comes the potential to be rid of Mr. Robot forever, and he jumps on it, no matter the consequences to his mind, despite Krista’s warnings. (Krista knows a lot now, too. He’s been very open with her, it seems.) But playing yourself isn’t a losing game, or a winning game. It’s a stalemate.


And so we have dreams, the ideal balance to chess. The game’s rigid boundaries, strict rules, and limitless combinations of moves appeal to Elliot. But dreams animate hopes of winning, even as they supersede and intrude upon the absolute logic of the game. Elliot’s dream contains multitudes, far beyond the duality of his identity. He sees himself becoming close with Angela once more, celebrating Darlene’s engagement to Cisco, and—arguably most affecting of all—he entertains the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his sins. The scene of Elliot going to the home of Bill Harper, and apologizing for what he did to him during the infiltration of Steel Mountain, was surprisingly moving. Not just for the imagined hug (a bold dream for someone who hates to be touched), but because it reveals the essential sadness Elliot harbors about the choices he’s had to make to do what he’s done. Some things aren’t okay, no matter the good in the end. Hurting someone innocent is never acceptable, revolution be damned.

Everyone else is dreaming this week, too, though of radically different options. Darlene’s dreams are altering her reality, as the paranoia resulting from her ongoing fight against Evil Corp is starting to bleed into everything she sees. Wherever she turns, there are men following her, real or imagined. Mobley and Trenton’s suspicions got into her head more than she let on last week, and Darlene is starting to crack under the pressure. It’s an init1 situation—the first thing Elliot ever taught her on a computer—and she can no longer pretend she doesn’t need his help. Even if she wavers briefly in her allegiance to him (frustrated and upset, she suggests they might be better off if Mr. Robot were steering the ship), it’s only from the isolation and panic she feels. Bathroom sex with Cisco aside, there’s no one she can turn to besides her brother, when it comes to actual emotional reinforcements. And when she utters “init1,” Elliot takes action. She’s his sister; it’s what they do.

Which is why the episode begins before we ever met Elliot Alderson. (You’d be forgiven for wondering if this was again the door knock that ended season one—until Darlene is revealed, wearing the Fsociety mask. Or rather, The Careful Massacre Of The Bourgeoisie mask.) We not only see the moment Darlene reentered her brother’s life—itself an “init1” moment where she needed her sibling—but the moment Fsociety took shape. The plan against Evil Corp, the job at AllSafe, the hack…it all formed the moment Elliot put on his father’s jacket and lowered the mask over his face. It took the adoption of a wholly foreign persona, but dressed in the clothing of the familial and fatherly, for Elliot to give birth to everything that happened since. He doesn’t seem to know it now, but Elliot chose the mask. He needed it. It gave him purpose, but more importantly, it gave him his father back. Talk about dreaming of a better life.


But the most baldly ambitious dream of all of them might be Angela’s. She thinks she’s put together the puzzle of why Phillip Price is so interested in her, and it’s not just her sparkling personality. She believes he wants her to get the contingency removed—the third-party monitoring—and that she’s in a position to demand a new office, a new job, and new respect in exchange for her part. She might even be right; Price doesn’t ever tell her she’s got the facts wrong. He apologizes, and says, “This is all in your head.” We’ve seen what’s in the heads of people on this show. That hasn’t stopped visions from coming true. And it certainly hasn’t prevented financial empires from crumbling. It’s unclear if Phillip has ever—would ever—lie to Angela. But if not, he’s enormously impressed with her. If only she felt the same way. Hearing a voice in your ear saying, “All your dreams are coming true right now” isn’t as effective if it’s not your own.


Last week it was hoped the mention of the Dark Army was preceding the return of Whiterose, and Mr. Robot didn’t disappoint. The business arrangements between Price and Whiterose go even deeper than we suspected. And this is how we know Angela’s importance: When Whiterose complains that Price is only going forward with “her,” it’s almost impossible to imagine they’re talking about anyone else. But there are other machinations in their bickering, as we hear tell of Whiterose’s impatience with Price’s “Ecoin” plan, and interest in just what the FBI knows about what happened at the arcade. This conversation hints at multiple plots bubbling just below the surface, and for now, no one’s talking. Whiterose has dreams, too, but for now, they mostly involve hoping the right pair of earrings were selected. Patience may be a virtue, but Whiterose is forgetting that lack of it is an exploit.


Joanna Wellick’s dream is a simple one: She wants her damn money. Scott Knowles scornfully rejects her offer to give up her husband and provide him with the murder case he wants, instead preferring to revel in the knowledge that Tyrell Wellick’s child is getting exactly Scott thinks is deserved. It’s a dangerous play, but when your spouse has already been killed, who’s to say what your level of care would be? But the more interesting reveal of Joanna isn’t her dream, or even the lack of it, as she tells her genial bartender boyfriend just how worthless his own dreams are. (Dreamers don’t always fare well in this world, as Tyrell has figured out.) The fascinating conversation is the one with Karim, the parking lot attendant we last saw in the season finale of season one, telling Elliot that Wellick’s car was only paid up for three days. Joanna has been paying him off, which means she knows something about those three days. Is it possible Elliot’s sidewalk confrontation with her at the end of last year wasn’t the first time she met him?

Spirituality is becoming front and center in this season, as Ray delivers a last-act monologue to Elliot about prophets. They all heard voices, too, he says thoughtfully, perhaps hoping Elliot will take the bait and open up to him about what’s in his head. Instead, Ray gets his wish: Elliot’s going to help him with this mysterious online business, that apparently requires using TOR (For those of you who share our ignorance of this method of anonymous internet usage and behavior, here’s a handy primer.) But Ray can’t let it go; hearing voices can be divine, he says. If you let them. But it’s not clear Elliot wants to let anything happen to him. He wants to take control, and make his dream a reality. He would very much like to fight for it.


Stray Observations:

  • Elliot’s dream had a number of symbolic elements, and not just the collapsing of the building. There’s a place for us at his table. And a slowed-down, plinking version of Green Days’s “Basket Case.” (Thanks to owl-eared commenters who noticed it was not, in fact, Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” as I first assumed. I now know better and have also discovered the uncanny similarity between the two vocal melodies.)
  • Speaking of music, anyone know what piece that was commanding our attention at the opening title shot, where Elliot is looking through the holes in the mask to the TV static behind it?
  • Esmail was really channeling his inner Kubrick this episode. Most impressive: The shot of them sitting on opposite sides of the chessboard in Elliot’ room, framed as hemmed in by the doorway, as though the walls were closing in on them. Almost as good: The repeated cuts in the park after each chess match to a long shot, their size in the frame diminishing with each successive game.
  • The name of the FBI surveillance program, about which Darlene and Cisco know so little, is “Operation Berenstain,” which I really hope is a reference to the mysterious issue of The Berenstain Bears and potential parallel universes.
  • The show really did echo shades of Lewis Carroll tonight, with Darlene’s ex-boyfriend telling her to meet in a bar called The Looking Glass.
  • There hasn’t been a true standout yet, but damn, this season has been really consistently solid thus far.