Sam Esmail is one of the most innovative creators to make his mark on television in a long time. But his greatest skill, after all, may lie more in synthesis and imitation than originality. Mr. Robot is brimming with visual and plot references to movies ranging from Taxi Driver and The Parallax View to Fight Club and Trainspotting, masterpieces of paranoia one and all. But one well we never expected Esmail to draw from? How about Too Many Cooks?
Adult Swim’s 2014 insta–cult classic drew on viewers’ familiarity with the language of Eighties and Nineties schlock sitcoms, as well as our appetite for the pitchest of pitch-black Absurdist humor. Esmail opens this week’s episode — entitled “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes,” because God forbid we have a title in a language spoken by a human tongue — with his own take on the genre, a sharp, jarring 180 from anything we’ve ever seen on the series before. Elliot finds himself in the backseat of a convertible piloted by Mr. Robot, with his monstrous mother in the passenger’s seat and Darlene beside him. A laugh track blares in the background as they make their way through a garishly bright green-screened landscape, delivering lines like, “Sounds like that cancer’s acting up again!”
We’re then treated to an opening credits sequence complete with an original theme song written by the guys behind the actual TGIF sitcoms it’s referencing (Step by Step, Family Matters, etc.). Oh, and did we mention that ALF makes a cameo? Esmail is nothing if not a completist.
The whole drawn-out thing is very obviously a vision that Elliot (or Mr. Robot — same difference) has retreated into while he’s having the ever-loving crap beat out of him by Ray‘s hired goons, the perilous situation we left him in at the end of last week’s episode. So there’s no real mystery for us to solve alongside our unreliable-as-hell narrator here, although the show seems to think there is. Your mileage may vary on how much you enjoy this 15-minute-long stylistic detour, which includes a bound and gagged Tyrell Wellick in the trunk, the Aldersons’ mom putting out a cigarette on Darlene’s arm to raucous laughter, and the aforementioned furry Alien Life Force committing vehicular manslaughter. (What, you thought this wasn’t going to be dark as hell?) It feels more like Esmail showing us a neat trick than something that actually serves the story — but it is a really neat trick.
Still, it’s almost a relief when Elliot inevitably wakes up in the hospital, in a very bad way from his pummelling. Ray, as is his wont, plunges into a long-winded analogy about how our hero is like his dog who was chained up in the basement when she was sick, masters and slaves, blah blah blah. We get it, man: You’re scary and you talk a big game. Can the show finally get Elliot away from these guys and back into the fray with everyone else?
Still, Mr. Robot has always been about the fictional worlds people build to justify our actions to ourselves, the filters we put over the lens to make life less sharp and painful. Tonight, Elliot needed the lukewarm chicken soup of the family sitcom. Meanwhile, needed to make like they were in a sexy heist movie in order to attempt fsociety’s quixotic hack on the FBI.
Now fully in fsociety’s fold, a shell-shocked but determined Angela gets a crash course in scripting from Mobley. The gang needs her to be the man on the inside, sneaking onto the FBI’s floor at E Corp to do all the necessary techno-flotsam. Meanwhile, Darlene cool-kids her way into the hotel across the street to pull off Part B of the hack, strutting her stuff in an ice-blond wig and white powersuit. The super awesome caper-movie music accompanying the break-in (the Suffers’ catchy “Gwan”) eventually also kicks into the soundtrack on Angela’s end, even though she’s more than a little freaking out about her new role as hacktivist criminal.
The sequence that follows is Mr. Robot firing on all cylinders: a tricky tracking shot in which we see Angela doing her bit in real time with Darlene and Mobley in her ear. A tense handheld camera keeps us on edge, with hastily memorized script inputs and flirt-with-FBI-dude close calls. And just when we think she’s in — pulses pounding! Sweat streaming! — Dom shows up to question her.
The episode moves from this cliffhanger back to a very not-well Elliot. There’s blood in the whites of his eyes and it sounds like he may have a collapsed lung, but that doesn’t stop Ray’s boys from picking him up and throwing him in the corner of some anonymous warehouse. When Mr. Robot finally appears, it’s not to play aggressor, hijacker or prophet: It’s to act as a protector, just as his real Edward Alderson was. Maybe imaginary friends aren’t so bad after all.
– Each episode has been seeded with scenes showing that the Five-Nine Hack may have unwittingly targeted the very 99 percenters it set out to save. This week we hear from Achmed, the bodega owner that Dom visits daily who’s being forced to shut down due to the tanking economy.
– Keep an eye on Cisco, Darlene’s sometimes-boyfriend and the Dark Army’s go-between to fsociety. The DA injected him with something sinister this week for his disloyalty, and Angela recognized him as the same guy who blackmailed she and Ollie last season.
– Seriously, though: ALF. The cat-eating alien from ALF was in an episode of Mr. Robot. Just sit with that for sec.
Previously: Fed Up