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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

On Mr. Robot, everybody wants to rule the world, at least a little

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I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone
to truly consecrate the hour.
I am much too small in this world, yet not small
to be to you just object and thing,
dark and smart.
I want my free will and want it accompanying
the path which leads to action;
and want during times that beg questions,
where something is up,
to be among those in the know,
or else be alone.

-Excerpted from “I Am Much Too Alone In This World, Yet Not Alone Enough,” Rainer Maria Rilke

Control can mean a great many things. Control of our bodies, control of our minds, control of the world around us…only, “the world” can mean a great many things, as well. The world can be the entire earth, as it is for Phillip Price. Evil Corp’s CEO wants to roam the planet as a colossus, secure in the knowledge that wherever he goes, and whatever he does, he will be the most powerful man in the room. (Except for one other person—well, two, actually.) It’s a kind of earthly divinity that dumbfounds men like Terry Colby, who view success as simply a societally recognized degree of power or wealth. Price can’t understand that mentality. What lurks behind his kind of control is a desire to be alone. God has no equals.

But the world can also be your own small little section of it, as it is for Angela. Her childhood longing to be Claudia Kincaid, the protagonist of From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler has shaped her identity—so much so, her anonymous handle in Elliot’s phone lists her as such. Claudia ran away from home, lived secretly in a museum, and embarked on a mysterious adventure, all thanks to her desire for a secret. She wants a unique treasure to bring her joy, something hers, and no one else’s. And she does it by delighting in a private world of her own design, where she is the architect walking incognito among the treasures of the culture. She longed to be the sovereign of her own adventure. But the world doesn’t always grant us our desires. Sometimes, as Dom suggested to Angela last episode, we have to stop fighting in order to survive. But other times, there’s no way to know what kind of world we might have discovered. Others have already decided for us.


And every so often, a part of us just wants another world altogether. Darlene dreams of such a world, as tells Cisco in the hospital waiting room. When she was abducted as a child, she wanted nothing more than to make that shocking turn of events her new reality. She wanted to awaken in a different home, with another family, and an alternate life. But the world, such as it was, denied her that chance. There’s only one reason Darlene doesn’t still miss that fantasy: It would have deprived her of Elliot. So instead, she turned her desire into a hope for a different kind of brave new world, one conceived by her brother, and interpreted by her as the better reality she never got to see blossom in her youth. Fsociety became Darlene’s chance to be that other person, and live that different life. But the dream is warping into a nightmare, now. “Wake the fuck up!” Cisco insists; he doesn’t yet understand that dreams of something better are all that tethers Darlene to her existence. Even in defeat, tired of of the deceptions and machinations, acknowledging she was never the leader she tried to be, her hopes lie in another world. And it’s one where she can be at peace. If Cisco wanted a part of that world, he should have ordered his own.

“h1dden-pr0cess.axx” is often a frustrating episode of Mr. Robot, but it’s also a deeply revealing one, in terms of representing the most important themes and concepts of the entire series. Its ellipses and subterfuges, like last week’s installment, occasionally cross over into outright baiting, with more soap opera-style cliffhangers and messy plotting. But Sam Esmail’s direction has never been more sure-footed, or his command of tone more in line with the very heartbeat of the show. This is what Mr. Robot is: A worried, elusive, existential cry, about what it means to be a person in a world seemingly intent on obfuscating that question. Its characters are always searching for their place in this life, sometimes certain a better day is just around the corner, other times convinced the revolution is just beginning. Like all of us, they feel simultaneously rooted to their lot in life and alienated from it, as though the programmer who shaped their code got just enough wrong so that it never feels right. Life is uneasy. Life is anxious.


And this episode captured that fundamental tone arguably better than any other this season. There were no big transformations, a la “h4ndshake.sme,” just gradual but steady fraying of the gravity holding everyone in their respective orbit, until by the end, it was unclear who was even left alive. Of the two big question marks left hanging in the air—whether Darlene and Cisco survived the Dark Army’s attack, and who has confronted (possibly also killing) Angela—the inescapable feeling of inevitability drove this story forward, a sense there was nowhere else to run. Angela and Darlene were the mirror images this week, their respective wishes to be done with the whole thing putting them on a collision course with the many players not willing to let anyone off the hook, especially a pair of women who have played such key roles leading up to stage two.

Speaking of key players, the boldest and most thrilling moment of the episode wasn’t even something that happened to anyone onscreen. It happened to us, the unknown, unseen companion of Elliot Alderson. And it could easily have come across as hokey, or some sort of absurdist stunt, like figuring out who shot Mr. Burns. When Elliot tunes out Joanna Wellick’s driver, the better to focus on us, he starts wondering what was so important in his apartment that it could have driven Mr. Robot back home. “Can you help? Can you look? Do you see anything?” he asks, and the camera rises to the ceiling, panning around the layout of his place, taking in every detail. What could the big clue be?


And here’s the kicker: It doesn’t matter. Whatever Mr. Robot has hidden, or whatever out-of-place detail is the McGuffin containing a clue to the fate of Elliot (or Tyrell Wellick), is completely incidental in the larger scheme of the show. What’s important is, we’re no longer the removed observer, looking to where we’ve been ordered, frozen in a rictus of framing. Now, we’re actively involved in Elliot’s mission. We’re a part of the story in a way we’ve never been before. It doesn’t matter whether some clever viewer susses out what the actual clue is—because the actual clue is us. We’re present in the room, looking around, a player in Elliot’s drama. And if we can be of assistance, we can also be affected by the material reality of the space. To paraphrase another troubled character, Elliot’s not caught in our story; we’re caught in his.

If there’s a moment of worry among the fraught action, it’s the question of Tyrell Wellick. When it was Joanna holding the cell phone, hearing sounds outside her own apartment coming through the receiver, it made sense there could be some rational explanation for the breathing and the lack of physical presence. But now, with Elliot answering the phone—and no “Bonsoir” to greet him, just heavy breathing—the sounds coming from the very same environment suggest a far bigger concern than how Tyrell could be hiding out so close to his wife. Because the implication of all this is that there’s some heretofore unknown problem with reality. It’s not on Elliot’s end, at least not consciously. He swore he’d never lie to us again. But as Elliot is learning, Mr. Robot isn’t as forthcoming and honest.


It isn’t just Angela’s warning to not trust his imaginary companion that finally catches Elliot up to where we’ve been all along (or at least since we saw Robot get into a car with Tyrell in last season’s penultimate episode). It’s Robot’s retreat in the face of the phone call, a way of confessing culpability, though to what, we’re not sure. Something is wrong with this world—every character is right about that. But it’s not the economy, or the political maneuvering of rebellions and corporations. It’s not even necessarily the ”trading countries like playing cards,” as Terry Colby calls it, though Price’s glib retort that history has always been thus implies he’s not nearly as forward-thinking as he believes himself to be. The problem is potentially seeping into reality itself, and a ghostly phone call is the herald of the coming breakdown. There are a thousand ways this could play out, but “dull” isn’t one of them. The reveal will likely either mark a thrilling new direction in the nature of the show, or it’ll be one hell of a shark jump.

While we wait to learn the location from which the phone calls are ostensibly coming, it’s worth noting Elliot’s response to Angela, before that wistful and touching kiss. “Why did you start Fsociety?” she asks, and his response is no response at all. “I didn’t want to involve you,” he says. His answer signals Elliot’s lack of confidence in his own past, coupled with the unknown road he’s barreling down. “Is this the future I was fighting for?” he wonders, as the crippled society outside the window of Wellick’s SUV stares back at him, as though mocking the idea revolution could ever be easy, or that there is an end to the perpetual motion machine of struggle. To give up, as Dom would have it, means you might have a steady life, a dependable routine, and a less perilous existence. But Dom’s sleepless nights aren’t soothed by going with the current. The paranoia of Mr. Robot’s universe saturates all its denizens, regardless of their choices. The walls are starting to cave in—how long before we, too, feel like Mr. Robot, squirming under the gaze of Joanna Wellick? “I feel like she can see me.” So say we all.


Stray Observations:

  • The musical choice in the opening credits, as Joanna gets dressed, was jarring and smart, reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s opening to Funny Games, another story where the fourth wall becomes a permeable membrane.(Here’s the U.S. version for you American exceptionalists.)
  • “Tell me you heard that, too.” Nice callback. And speaking of back, when Elliot turned around in the computing store Micro Center, and the electronic sign just read, “No,” I wanted more.
  • As long as we’re calling out the shaky foundations of our reality, should we discuss Price potentially referencing Elliot and Mr. Robot as the only two people more powerful than he? Feel free to offer alternatives in the comments as to the objects of his attention.
  • Similarly, I’m taking submissions as to this place on 82nd Street where the phone making the calls is apparently active, with god knows who on the other end.
  • Never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for Cisco, pulling Darlene out of her “let Vincent die” tailspin into cruelty.
  • The title of Terry Colby’s memoir made me laugh. Last honest man, indeed.
  • Joanna Wellick’s Lady MacBeth moment of the week: Telling Elliot the story of her first date with Tyrell. Making him have sex with another woman just to get her cheap earrings? That is cold as hell, and utterly in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from her.
  • Hope you like blackouts, everyone in New York, and presumably elsewhere. Brown-outs were only the beginning; now, it’s time to really have a nationwide (world-wide?) Elliot Alderson experience.
  • As always, I’ll be on Twitter all week leading up to the finale, throwing out the odd thoughts and guesses.