Mr. Robot_2.0 Episode 3 – ‘eps2.1_k3rnel-pan1c.ksd’ Review

“An internal fatal error from which it cannot safely recover.”



“I will not be owned” –

– Elliot Alderson, Mr. Robot_2.0_eps2.1_k3rnel-pan1c.ksd

 

Kernel panic. An action undertaken by an OS upon detecting an internal fatal error from which it cannot safely recover… and the title of Mr. Robot_2.0 Episode 3. Referring as all titles in the show do to both a term or function in computing and a thematic device of the episode in question, this episode tackles Elliot’s fatal system error “the burrowing, the nesting, the scream”, Mr. Robot of course.

For a show that has dissected the role of narration and reliability in television, and played so heavily with the concept of an unreliable narrator, you’d have thought the team would struggle to top the drug trips and misdirection of season 1, but the show keeps us rolling with the punches being dealt to our protagonist’s fragile psyche even now. In a bid to subdue his malignant alter-ego, Elliot in this episode purchases Adderall from Leon (Joey Bada$$), overdosing himself by popping pill after pill in a bid to drive Mr. Robot out, forcing a crash to his system to prevent further contamination. The ‘control’ aspect of the show has as of this episode become so much more about the personal struggle between Mr. Robot and Elliot that after the drawn out, more expansive events of the first two-parter of the season, their personal character interactions have taken precedence over pretty much all else.

MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.1_k3rnel%u2010pan1c.ksd" Episode 203 -- Pictured: (l-r) Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, Chirstian Slater as Mr. Robot -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)


After staring a stubbled and furious Slater while dry swallowing just shy of a dozen Adderall at once, Elliot (as we saw in the teaser trailer some months back) is forcefully kidnapped by shady government types in a brutal scene that falls somewhere into William S. Burroughs territory in terms of it’s paranoia inducing menace (note, the elderly fellow in the suit and hat, very Interzone). Being black bagged and driven to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town and force fed liquid cement through a funnel, a scene which refuses to relent, closing in on every gurgle and choke. Then offering a momentary reprieve cut to Elliot back in his room forcing his hands down his throat and vomiting up the pills while Mr. Robot sits at his desk wearing the trilby, the shovel used to mix said cement resting close by. In what is proving to become an endless back and forth of shifting paradigms and expectations between what Mr Robot really epitomizes to Elliot, this scene represents the most cataclysmic upending of their relationship yet. After Mr. Robot delivers his “You will cooperate my son. I will make you, because I own you!” speech, Elliot’s rummaging through his own sick to retrieve the lost pills has even his tormentor aghast at his resoluteness in rejecting control of any kind; “I will not be owned.” It’s a powerful scene, especially accompanied by the introductory music to Mishima (also featured in the Truman Show), which tells the story of renowned Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who’s loathing of materialism leads him to set up a private army reinstating the Emperor, all hail subtext.

We’ve seen towards the end of season one, and the finale in particular how the balance between the two characters has become more frayed as time progresses, with Mr. Robot not just appearing in the form of young Elliot “we’re deep down inside you Elliot, you can’t leave us, and we can’t leave you” or talking directly to him in the cafe scene “You’re losing it kiddo. I’m only supposed to be your prophet, you’re supposed to be my god.” Elliot has now had a clean break from reality and personal control, and as the guiding vision that started this whole thing in progress starts to manifest itself in more violent ways in reaction to it being kept under lock and key, the show starts breaking down again. Similarly to the previous “drug episode” or the first season finale (the only other episode until now to feature glitching or time-lag), Kernel Panic revisits drug use as a fatal system overload beautifully. One thing that can always be said of Sam Esmail and Mr. Robot is that it’s a dab hand at mood coupled with style. Far from Elliot rejecting control being the crowning cinematic moment of the show, this episode lays it on so thickly and so jarring as to almost seem suffocating (in a good way).

As much a commentary on the effects of drug use as a sedatory method of control (Elliot controlling his analogue existence) as it is just a snappy, cool sequence, his five day stint staying awake and upping his dosage is one of those quirky and iconic TV moments that remind us just why this show is so deft at disarming comedic truisms with well produced flare. Parodying many an early Noughties pop video complete with illuminated stairways, a sequence of skipping and elated Elliots telling us “he’s gone”, the enjoyment of sports and talking and colours and washing up! Everything seems more real than real, why don’t things always feel this magical? The accompanying theme courtesy of Holy Fuck, seems more than appropriate, I think I even found God”. This is your brain on drugs.

kernelpanic6

Of course this isn’t the real world, and as the forth and fifth day of chemically induced insomnia breaks, so the show begins to break down. This is Bergman stuff, the TV equivalent of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Not wanting to draw too many other real world comparisons for this sequence, as it really stands alone as a masterwork of innovation. It’s imposing, maddening, with pixelating and blurred shots, speech rolling backwards, scenes and characters repeating actions and crossovers error message sounds and screenshots, the digital age equivalent of the breaking film reel. It’s one of our favourite sequences of the show to-date, not least because it kind of gives us a little foreshadowing of where and how things could progress with Elliot. He’s been stuck in a kind of limbo for three episodes now, each of which we see him slip into a deeper level of psychosis, all because of his rejection of his “prophet”. In as much as everyone is waiting for him to get back in the game and reconnect with Darlene, this is the episode that had to happen in order to swing that coming to pass, but it’s clear that he needs the control or at least the partnership of his sometime friend, sometime enemy. Although with Ray and his henchman being given a little more screen time, enough for us to work out that he’s trying to run some kind of Bitcoin farming business, we have to wonder how passively complicit the voices in Elliot’s head will stay once being given control of a terminal again. Will it be a peaceful understanding that the job at hand is larger than the ‘two’ of them individually? Probably. Our prediction, by the mid-to-close of this run the worlds favourite (fictional) coder will be more united having explored and exorcised some demons, and the program will run on perhaps a three act (series) total, closing with… saving the world?… Nah.

One thing we did get treated to is a return of the nihilistic anti-capitalist, anti-theist message the show carries with When Elliot forgets to turn on his content filter and blurts out a series of unforgiving truths on the nature of organised religion in society. It’s well written, and although we won’t spoil it by quoting directly, for fans of indulging in a good, well earned rant at the establishment, the show finds it’s feet for the first time this season thus far. It’s easy to see why the show has been dubbed the first truly anti-establishment show in memory.

 

kernelpanic2Aside: there’s a popular fan theory that Elliot is actually inside some kind of psychiatric unit for all of the scenes filmed at his mums house. There are bars on all of the windows, he’s only allowed a book, bed and desk, “Darlene comes to visit sometimes”, there’s phone privileges, set meals in the diner which could just as easily be an inmate cafe, and does he ever actually go outside without hallucinating? There’s the basketball games and church groups for sure, but those could just as easily be facility mandated and approved sessions. The show isn’t above pulling the rug from under us time and time again, and some of the right imagery is there. Personally though, it could be one step too close to Fight Club (the book this time, rather than the film) for our liking, and does it really explain Ray? He could be an orderly at whichever institution it is, or maybe all of this is just what the writers want us to think is happening… Tinfoil time.

 

Up until now one thing Mr. Robot has sometimes fallen short in delivering is fully fleshed out narratives for some of it’s secondary and tertiary characters, in lieu of visual flare and cinematic style, and of course the shows anchor, Elliot himself. K3rnel-pan1c.ksd, as well as being a beautifully ambitious psychological episode, manages at least in part to rectify this. For an episode that actually progresses the plot very little outside of the protagonist, this is actually a great thing in terms of this particular program. One of the gripes of the last season was the fact that the extraneous Fsociety hackers really didn’t do much, despite being well written for the small amount of screen time they got. The show back then was all about the internal monologue going on inside the mind of Elliot, and the world was centered around him. But as more characters and a more detailed look at the new world post-hack come into the foreground, this is something that had to be addressed, and it definitely is. One could level a criticism at the show potentially for bringing these characters back just to be picked off slowly by The Dark Army? Ecorp? Tyrell Wellick? Who knows, but as we don’t know for yet who’s picking who off and why, we’ll save any criticism of that for when it’s needed.

MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.1_k3rnel%u2010pan1c.ksd" Episode 203 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

We get some back story behind the “Fun Society” base of operations, because every hacker needs somewhere incognito to lay low in when the shit hits the fan. We find out a little more about how Mobley and Romero know each other and how Fsociety was formed, about Trenton’s home life (we can assume we’ll see at least a little more of her later on), we’ve mentioned Ray and his Bitcoin business, but most interestingly a real look at the sort of world Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) lives in both in and out of work. It’s grounded, intelligent and fun. Something the show has previously excelled at is delivering morally ambiguous characters all driven by real world needs. Antagonist, protagonist, both are just terms in a well written world that at it’s core seeks to ring true to a version of our world. Gummer’s character is like so many others in this world fundamentally alone. She watches painfully mundane television shows, awake in the early hours with her home based security system as company. Queue snappy montage sequences of getting ready for work, smoothly spliced scene and soundtrack transitional shots, and importantly the show lets us know that this isn’t just a TV cop chasing after something he doesn’t know how to catch, as so often happens in ‘tech’ shows. She has Alexa (her voice activated home control system) for one, keeps her belongings in a locked safe, is aware of potentially tampered ports on cracker home machines. More than anything it’s refreshing to have such in-depth development from a relatively small number of scenes, but economy is everything in TV land and Mr. Robot gets this right. She’s savvy, professional, and a compulsive and methodical snoop (the files used as packing for storage in the late Romero’s home). She’s not eye candy or in any way trivialised or there purely to offer fan service, and that’s how things should be done. In terms of it’s tech references again, economy is king when trying not to alienate the audience and inform them at the same time, anyone could watch this episode without prior knowledge of Kernel Panics or Phreaking or the idea of hackers always leaving a mark on their work (as in the giant F SOCIETY on the front of the base of operations, “You gotta be fucking kidding me” indeed). None of it is integral to the plot, but it’s there and referenced and not misinterpreted, it didn’t feature too heavily in the previous two episodes at all, but this reminds us of the tone of the show, even if it’s star is currently AFK.

robot_s2ep3_angelaKernel Panic starts to expand on Angela’s story line too, her interactions with Price and a little more potential exploration of his plans for her. Ostensibly the idea from her perspective seems to have shifted slightly, from infiltrating the system she despises from the inside in order to seek justice which we saw start to dissolve at the start of the series, to now adopting the role of confidant and personal weapon of the system that murdered her mother. It’s clear Ecorp and Price have larger machinations in place regarding her, maybe they know about her connection to Elliot, if they know who Elliot is (remember that assurance that Price gives to White Rose during the last scene of the Season one finale? “that individual will be dealt with”), or maybe they want a well placed sniper come fall guy when the time comes. Whatever the outcome of the scene, Portia Doubleday pulls off the quiet nervousness of someone trying in a hostile environment to assert herself with an absolute natural ease that singles her out as one of the more subtle but no less solid character performances of the show. Will she pull the plug on the two execs with the information she has? Of course she will. But how far will she get before the ramifications of her loose Fsociety connections catch up to her? We’ll have to wait and find out.

As much of a reprieve from just pushing the narrative forward as this episode is, it proves that so far the show has thought about the pace and end game it’s working towards. It certainly feels like, following on from the events of S01 that whereas they could have spent a long time building up to the hack, they haven’t done, and focused on a more accurate set of real world scenarios in the way things pan out. Some of the charm of the show is it’s ability to have it’s cake and eat it too in terms of the constant Hollywood homages, which may at this stage seem tired if it wasn’t for the fact that they occupy a universe, like with DiPierro, in which a brutal and lonesome fidelity hangs over the inside workings of the piece, if anything so far it offers at once a point of reference for buffs and a familiar edge for standard audiences, which can’t be a bad thing.

So far, we’re pretty gripped.

Stay with us!


– Max Colbert

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