Mr Robot: 201-202 “unm4sk” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
In the era of Peak TV, it’s often hard to spot exactly where the next critical hit will be coming from in the flurry of shows being put out by an increasing mass of networks. Mr Robot, therefore, became something of a sleeper hit last year, surprising critics and audiences alike by transcending its potentially cheesy premise and bad title as it carved out a bold, compelling story that spliced together gripping hacker drama with an introspective and occasional surreal character study to create something that felt like a breath of fresh air. Season one was a terrific run of TV from start to finish, and naturally, expectations were sky-high for the drama’s second run. Could creator Sam Esmail possibly live up to the tough bar he’d already set?
If the two-part season premiere, unm4sk, is any indication, then this expanded sophomore run looks like it will retain all of the considerable momentum built up by the end of last year’s opening season. The opening two episodes here were deeply unusual pieces of TV, eschewing well-established rules of season premieres and throwing its central characters into vastly different situations to the previous season, but, if anything, this simply served as a confirmation of Mr Robot’s impressive originality – thankfully, there’s still no other shows on TV that are quite like Mr Robot.
The clear focus of unm4sk, fittingly, is the theme of masks and deception, a theme that permeates through every scene of the two episodes. Every character’s arc and every major plot twist served to further the multi-faced exploration of ‘masks’ (and the questioning of what, exactly, a ‘mask’ can even be), and despite the seemingly extraneous nature of certain scenes, there’s a real sense that every dialogue exchange or character development contributes to the bigger picture. Of course, to talk about the themes that unm4sk explores, it’s hard to look further than the central battle of Elliot and Mr Robot, two halves of the same whole whose grapple for supremacy is the riveting anchor that grounds a sprawling couple of episodes in a clear ‘A’ plot.
Mr Robot has always been a demanding show of its viewers with Elliot’s fourth wall breaking voiceover and the usage of the unreliable narrator trick; but here, with Elliot’s central storytelling it’s downright accusatory. The most obvious case of this is Elliot’s newly suspicious voiceover, berating the viewer for withholding information and, in a clever deviation from last year’s formula, actively keeping key moments from the viewer as a punishment, but the entire plot as a whole is particularly inward-looking and existential, throwing questions onto the audience to contemplate instead of providing the safety net of an easy answer or even an opinion from a reliable character. Elliot’s reclusive, clockwork routine effectively and viscerally creates a sense of claustrophobia and confinement despite the variety of locations we see because it’s almost entirely devoid of the insightful, familiar allies and friends from the first season to provide a clearer take on Elliot’s crisis in order to settle both his, and the viewer’s, doubts about control and the stability of the psyche.
The choice to focus heavily on Elliot’s interactions with new, unfamiliar, and therefore untrustworthy characters is a very astute one by Esmail because it deprives the viewer of an anchor point to prevent us from descending into the quagmire of uncertainty and madness that defines Elliot’s psyche. His friends, Leon and Ray, might seem like affable figures, but given they only really exist while the notoriously unreliable, hallucination-prone Elliot is around, they only enforce the lack of reassurance and clarity rather than alleviating it. The fan theory that Elliot is in a psyche ward, talking to fellow inmates, may not necessarily be true, but it certainly grasps the way in which Elliot is truly estranged from the comfort blankets that kept him sane in the first season, with his regimented routine seeming somewhat flimsy and unreliable in the face of all this lack of familiarity as the show further undermines the credibility of ‘control’. As viewers, we’re directly in Elliot’s shoes here, thrown into his situation and similarly grappling for something familiar to hold onto. Given there’s pretty much nothing in that regard, unm4sk succeeds in casting its audience into the same bottomless rabbit hole that Elliot finds himself in as layers of deception and hallucination reveal themselves to the point where there’s no reason to believe that anything being shown is actually real. At one point, Craig Robinson’s character, Ray, muses about the possibility that objective truth may not exist – and that’s a chilling, all-encompassing uncertainty that unm4sk captures so well with Elliot’s bottomless descent into madness. Though Mr Robot behaves more like a conventional drama with its wider ensemble, the first-person, intimate approach to Elliot’s character really paid dividends here, which makes a conflict that could be too inward-looking to truly enjoy compelling and layered in its own right.
The acting and filmmaking on display within Elliot’s psychological battle are also truly exceptional, really adding to the foundations of the script. Sam Esmail took control of direction for all 12 episodes this season, intended to give the season a clear and uniform vision that couldn’t be compromised by other directors, and that intended clarity was really on display here with direction that powerfully complemented and enriched the dialogue and acting. As ever, the framing of scenes was vital here, with Mr Robot cast as a looming, pervasive demon at the back of Elliot’s mind, lurking in the shadows or staring over Elliot’s shoulder at the back of shots, chipping away at his psyche with appeals to his violent impulses, which viscerally showed the way in which Mr Robot seemed like an impervious foe for almost the entire instalment, deflecting Elliot’s attempts to stymie his influence at every turn. It’s hard to ignore the two lead performances here, which are both just as terrific as before as both Malek and Slater found themselves with considerable new emotional places to take their characters.
Rami Malek is still the real star of the show, delivering a brilliantly thought-out performance that’s always accomplishing several feats at once, whether it’s mixing languid sarcasm with edgy volatility or assured confidence in the face of danger with clear terror. His hysterical laughing fit at the end of episode 2 was a startling reminder of just how versatile an actor Malek is, taking each new challenge and bringing something distinctive and surprising no other performer can. The Emmy nomination he received last week was richly deserved, as Malek is simply one of the best performers to be found on the small screen today. Christian Slater, unfortunately neglected by those same Emmy nominations, was also fantastic here with a performance that stepped into outright villain territory for the first time. Freed from the requirement to uphold the illusion of being a different character, Slater throws himself into the role of vindictive tormenter with enthusiasm, with his performance oozing the type of smug, cockroach-like cockiness reflective of Mr Robot’s new place as the pest that simply cannot be swatted away. While Slater may be a touch overshadowed by his co-star, it’s a performance that’s still fascinating and full-blooded, doing justice to a total enigma of a character whose personality is ever-changing. On the whole, Elliot’s storyline was truly gripping here, with the shifting sands of power over his mind serving as a story that I only hope will deepen and twist as the season goes on, building upon these excellent foundations.
If there’s a point of contention within unm4sk, it’s that the two episodes can’t quite live up to Elliot’s storyline when the time comes to service an ensemble that’s grown another notch this year. Nonetheless, there’s still considerable value in each subplot here, and, as mentioned above, Esmail ensures that the themes found within the central Elliot plot are reflected and expanded upon throughout the episodes, and the entrance into a wider and more vibrant world becomes somewhat refreshing after spending considerable time in the claustrophobic world Elliot inhabits. Perhaps the main way in which unm4sk builds upon Elliot’s story is the presentation of a world that’s one step away from spinning completely out of control – there’s a pervasive, continuing sense that even after the hack of last season, something is deeply broken with the world and the solutions that the central characters are finding are more harmful than effective, enabling their isolation and uncertainty.
Angela’s plot particularly conforms to this idea. Angela was a somewhat confounding character last season, because her requirement to be the beacon of normalcy and morals meant that she came across as less interesting than the more volatile characters elsewhere, but there’s a definite sense that Angela is set to fill a far more complex role this season. Much like Elliot’s, her story within E Corp is deliberately cast within an isolated bubble, and it’s this isolation that causes her to make the series of very misinformed decisions that appear to be pushing her towards a particularly grim and uncertain end-point. There’s far more complexity to her storyline than the simple ‘corporate brainwashing’ that it appears to be – unm4sk taps into the empathy viewers already feel for Angela, as her point of view as someone who’s finally finding something that looks like clarity and value is completely understandable and logical, but then cruelly twists it by illustrating the insidious impact that it’s having on her life. The scene of Angela viewing and repeating the ‘positive affirmations’ video is downright chilling because it powerfully shows how her quest to be valued has achieved precisely the opposite effect as she’s been cast into the middle of the ruthless corporate world she sought to bring down from the inside; essentially, she’s wandered into a prison from which I’m doubting there’ll be an easy escape. I have no idea how this storyline will unfold, but it’s certainly looking to be a surprisingly crucial part of the season given how Angela’s story last year often felt like background drama in the face of more exciting things.
Given how season one was framed around a hacking storyline that reached its conclusion by the end, it was always intriguing to see just how Mr Robot would keep the battle between fsociety and E Corp (who, tragically, aren’t referred to as ‘Evil Corp’ once here) going this time around. Unm4sk doesn’t fully answer that question, but it does certainly set the table for the crises the two organisations will be facing as they stare at the damage created by the big hack and seek to retaliate. In the case of fsociety, that’s a nagging fear that their supposed victory over the evil conglomerate wasn’t as beneficial as it first seemed, and a creeping realisation coming on that the fight that they thought they’d won isn’t close to being over. That’s a fascinating, if inevitable way to expand upon the insular theories and big speeches of season one’s straightforward fight against capitalism, because it challenges the crusading, absolutist idealism of fsociety and exposes its flaws by placing it up against the cold, hard contradictions of reality. Some critics found themselves annoyed by the righteous tone of some of season one’s spiels against capitalism, so unm4sk’s striving towards a balanced critique of fsociety’s revolutionary ideals may make the idealism that’s crucial to Mr Robot a bit more palatable to a wider audience. For those of us who didn’t mind the speeches last year, then it’s simply a smart way to add complexity to what was understandably simple last year as it existed in purely theoretical, optimistic terms by throwing it smack bang into the real world for all of its shortcomings and strengths to be revealed.
As for E Corp, unm4sk portrays the conglomerate as surprisingly rattled and shaken by the hack. Season two appears to be taking far more of a behind-the-scenes look at E Corp and the individuals that enforce the ruthless capitalism the heroes of the show battle against, which allows Mr Robot to delve into the ideologies that underpin everything the organisation does. This means there’s a lot more substance behind the talk of E Corp’s exploitation and conning of the people – for instance, the monologue given by CEO Price boils down the faceless evil we’ve seen before to a very simple equation of manipulating the confidence of the people to corporations’ favour. Likewise, the organisation’s losses are far more keenly felt this time around. Unm4sk’s choice to trace the journey of fsociety’s ‘payload’ all the way to the execution of the demands with the burning money illustrates the damage done more effectively because there’s a greater understanding of just how fragile the company’s illusion is. Just like Elliot and Angela, E Corp’s quest to keep people invested in money and objects is a perilous one that could collapse in on itself at any moment, so the moments where their con teeters closer to the precipice are all the more powerful for it – they’re not just a faceless company whose actions are interpreted by outsiders this time, rather a group of distinctive individuals all with their own agendas and desires at play. The burning money moment is a terrific illustration of this, particularly because of how striking the imagery of the masked, humiliated CTO staring at the fruits of his labour turning to meaningless ash is. While E Corp need to stay as a slippery, expansive enemy for the very premise of the show to work, the added vulnerability that unm4sk gives them means that they become a far more well-rounded and compelling foe, made all the stronger because of their newly portrayed flaws.
And then there’s Tyrell, the biggest missing piece of them all. His disappearance ebbs and flows here as a mystery that unm4sk is particularly focused on, but when the episode puts its mind to it, the Tyrell mystery is one of the best examples of unm4sk’s focus upon partial and hazy storytelling with some bits of key information or context removed to add to the uncertainty that’s deeply felt throughout. It’s the continuing implication that Mr Robot holds the secret to Tyrell’s disappearance fascinating, because that raises the question as to why Elliot seems to have repressed or simply lost this crucial fact to his somewhat less friendly alter ego. The obvious idea would be to say that Mr Robot-as-Elliot killed Tyrell and the memory has been repressed as Elliot was not in control at the time, but unm4sk deftly plays with that idea, keeping the pervading idea of crucial information lurking just on the edge of Elliot’s psyche, tantalisingly close to clarity yet still far enough for the uncertainty to continue. Unm4sk teases that possibility as the dominant idea right up until the end, however…
… until a particular phone call upends every theory once again. It’s definitely Tyrell at the other end of the line, but is that really the real Tyrell? Can a voice at the end of a phone being heard by Elliot of all people after a strange skip in time be trusted as the truth? Could Elliot, therefore, be hearing voices from beyond the grave? In that case, who sent the mysterious phone to Joanna, and why would they be calling? Mr Robot has always been a show to pose questions upon questions and make the audience wait a long time for answers, a central part of its appeal, and that’s not changing this year. Just what happened to Tyrell, and what could happen next?
Unm4sk is a very strong opener for season two, laying out a riveting storyline for Elliot’ that’s as thought-provoking and unconventionally told as the best of last year. Elsewhere, the episode is a little more formulaic, but it’s still thematically rich and compelling TV that, most excitingly of all, appears to be very much in second gear still – and if this is just table-setting mode for season two, what comes next could be something else.