Mr Robot_2.0 Recap: Eps2.0_unm4sk-pt1/2 (Episodes 1+2)

What do you hide behind? What mask do you wear?


“How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask, when it’s as much a part of me as me?”

– Elliot Alderson, Mr. Robot_2.0

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The triumphant and foreboding return of Mr. Robot to USA Network last week began in one of the strangest ways imaginable. First the dropping of an extended late release trailer (featured below), then by “leaking” episode one three days prior to the seasons initial premiere date. USA had previously announced that the program itself would run for twelve episodes this time around, as opposed to last seasons ten, and this seems to be one of the reasons (we can probably expect an extended two-part finale based on what we know so far). In fact the first release was only half of one double length episode, an ambitious marketing stunt on the one hand, and a welcome change in terms of circumventing the episodic suspense that most of us are often arbitrarily forced to endure with the returning of any hit show (Game of Thrones). Pre-releasing it’s own airing and then following in quick succession with more content, in a nod to both hacking and pirating culture, has left Mr. Robot enough time to not only pick up where we left off, but to introduce a host of new characters as the claustrophobic veneer of Season_1.0 slips slightly into a more analogue but no less malevolent world.

So what of this lengthy double-bill? One thing that it certainly didn’t fail to do was deliver on it’s content promise. We’re dropped back in to the show, strangely, mid-way through where the featured trailer breaks from Tyrell talking to the camera as an Fsociety spokesperson, and we follow him around the Fun Society arcade while Elliot codes at a terminal, presumably launching the five/nine attack, from what we know of how this scene develops. When we see the two switch places and Elliot reach for what looks like the gun stashed inside a popcorn machine in season one, naturally in normal circumstances we would guess that Tyrell is now dead. However, this is Mr. Robot.

The episode name is ‘unm4sk’, which in keeping with the thematic melody of the show tells us all we need to know. Flashing from past to present, from Elliot falling out of his window to being confined to a now purely analogue existence in his mothers internet free household, Sam Esmail uses a typically stylised transition between a Rorscharch test and the black and white cover of our protagonists new journal. The journal itself “the only way to keep my program running” is Elliot’s attempt to maintain control over his life without the use of his weapon of choice in a bid to drive Mr. Robot, a now fully fledged Durden-esque character, out of his mind, so to speak. With Elliot not knowing what happened to Tyrell post-hack, and trying to force Mr. Robot to divulge this information to him by starving him of the control he wants, his sanity is drawn into question in a much more stark way than in the shows first season. Far from having reconciled with Christian Slater’s character in the wake of their attacks, the divide between the different versions of his consciousness have him hallucinating much more vividly than before, with Mr. Robot shooting Elliot in the face with a hand gun, before he gets back up and writes in his journal ‘He shot me in the head again’. At this point the blood start’s dripping over one of the previously written and heard lines from his anarchistic alter-ego ‘control is an illusion’ Essentially the premise of this season, if you read into the advertising campaign surrounding it. It’s heavy-handed in it’s own way, but that’s how the show does business, it’s flashy, referential television for people who like television.

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From the opening of the narrative, this season starts to feel a little different than previously, with Elliot not addressing us, his friend, directly. He can’t trust us, it seems, any more than we can trust him and as a result we’re not left with even our unreliable narrator as a broken guiding focus point for much of the episode. In fact the effect on the audience for the most part is one of confusion on a societal level, from the meagre dinners Elliot and his friend Leon ( an outstanding and profound performance from Joey Bada$$) have together in a diner in the low-rent district, to the constant 1929 depression references and allusions scattered throughout the episode. The show at this point revels in the confusion of the aftermath of global financial meltdown. It sees CTO Scott Knowles don an Fsociety mask and burn 5.9 million dollars in the wake of Darlene’s latest ransomware attack, easily one of the more powerful scenes of the episode, while Phil Collins ‘Take Me Home’ plays louder and louder. Cut to the gathering crowd and people filming on camera phones a giant pile of burning money, or a telling cutaway to the Ecorp tower complex behind the wall of flame and it all feels very Wall Street crash (I remember photographs of people wheelbarrowing piles of useless currency around the nations capital, while onlookers in the background stare). It’s a beautifully anti-establishment scene which includes elements of several themes touched upon throughout; voyeurism, value, control, and of course, masks both literal and metaphorical. Philip Price too indulges in a speech detailing how FDR misled the public into re-investing in the banking system of yesterday when asked to resign by a board of shadowy (they are all literally in the shadows) money men to whom he may or may not report. Following on, he continues,

Every day when that market bell rings, we con people into believing in something; The American dream, family values. It could be Freedom Fries for all I care. It doesn’t matter as long as the con works and people buy and sell whatever it is we want them to. If I resign, then any scrap of confidence the public is already clinging on to will be destroyed. And we all know a con doesn’t work without the confidence.”

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It’s the closest we’ve come to Price so far, in terms of him flexing the real control he has, but at this knife-edge point where the scales could be tipped either way we do have to wonder for how much longer will he be able to maintain his version of control. Faced with yet another Fsociety hack, the standstill of the housing market, and the disillusionment of the public towards Ecorp for not returning on their investments, the show has set up not only it’s protagonist but main antagonist for a fall, and really nobody seems to be coming out on top of the war so far. While the depression echoes from start to finish (to say nothing of the 2008 crash), the type of depression shown is perhaps not what you’d expect, no revolution in the streets save for the initial five/nine aftermath, and the disenfranchised in society are no better off, but there is a shift in power dynamics that we hope to see more of, along with hopefully a more detailed look into the lives of Joe Public that isn’t exclusively explained through over-narration from a TV (even if it is Barack Obama).

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While Elliot struggles ever more with his sanity and the execs at Ecorp struggle to maintain a reputation, the shows secondary characters are probably some of the most open-ended in terms of possible plot progression, which there is plenty of. Darlene is now heading up Fsociety and it’s associates with Mobley, hacking into the security system of Ecorp defense lawyer Susan Jacobs (Sandrine Holt, House of Cards), and using her house as a base of operations for other, larger projects. But for the first time the show begins to look at the world through more of a macro lens as FBI agent Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer, Francis Ha!) arrives on the scene in true red, white and blue TV Fed style, think SOA or The Shield. We haven’t seen much of her character in action yet, but from her debut, it looks set to be impressive. With the circle closing around Mr. Robot and Elliot, with Tyrell, Goddard, the secondary members of Fsociety, Vera and Angela all being potential loose ends at one point or other, we predict that the series will take it up a few notches in terms of it’s cat and mouse antics.

Saying that the plot isn’t without real genuine progression, it feels wrong not to mention Goddard (SPOILERS) in a little more depth. From the first part to the second he goes from telling Elliot he plans to crack under FBI interrogation while Elliot hallucinates Mr. Robot cutting his throat, to actually being shot in the neck by an unknown activist. It was one of the genuinely surprising twists of this week and while Mr. Robot isn’t afraid to kills its darlings, it’s a snap action that we don’t get given any real foreshadowing for. It opens up a tonne of further questions too; who was his assailant? (Something to do with the suspiciously absent White Rose?) and how much did DiPierro manage to get out of him before he died? Continuing from the last seasons dropped hints concerning toppling the status-quo, when Gideon says “It sure feels like something bigger than me is in control”, we’ll have to leave it up to next week to find out how far that stretches.

One thing the show does better than most any other on television at the moment is portray a totally human set of needs for each character, even the worst of them at points have ambiguous goals in mind and it never quite pays off to view any of them as entirely one thing or another. While Joanna maintains her Claire Underwood power driven scheming, juxtaposed wonderfully with her bondage and submission at the hands of her new fling, she doesn’t show any real worry about the fate of her partner, but possibly because she knows he’s not really gone, after all his security force remain on payroll, and from the moment she receives a mysterious package with hidden burner inside it, we too begin to have our suspicions that the familiar Esmail double-bluff is just around the corner (and sure enough, “Bonsoir Elliot” Tyrell is alive by the end of the episode!). But with relatively little to go on other than her ascension to financial power, what do we really know about any ulterior motives she might have?

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Angela too, could just as easily be working the system from the inside as she could actually have fallen victim to the money promised as an Ecorp PR manager, a suspicious title to hand someone who was suing you weeks ago?) Either way, the ambiguity of control and power is more the driving force of the show than ever.

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As a brave start to a much more open ended chapter in the Mr. Robot universe, the directorial changes to the show haven’t thus far impeded it in terms of pace, content or gravity. The skewed camera angles and off-kilter cinematography that made the show so aesthetically pleasing are all still there under Esmails directorial hand, appearing most pointedly in the jarring moments of realisation, be it Angela methodically repeating lines from her self help videos or Price giving his speech about the banking crisis, the show packs the visual punch that it always did. Still homage heavy in both set piece and score, unabashed at paying it’s dues to The Network (1976), The Parallax View (1974), from which it directly borrows the score, Lolita (1997) and of course, Fight Club. The dialogue is snappy, if a little sure of itself, but Rami Malek delivers his poignantly well written lines with the same beautifully disarming honesty that made critics sit up and take notice during season one. With the addition of characters Leon and Ray, both dropping thematic bombs through the unlikely mediums of basketball and Seinfeld, the show has gotten off to an impact heavy start that promises nothing but good things. Stay with us to find out how things progress.


 

 

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