Mr Robot: 203 “k3rnel-pan1c” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
After last week’s two-part season premiere went about the obligatory table-setting for the episodes to come in invigoratingly confident style, it remained to be seen just how Mr Robot was going to follow that relatively slow-burning opener up. Would it accelerate the season’s pace and really delve deeply into the major conflicts of the season, or would it continue the methodical, teasing storytelling of last week?
This week’s episode, k3rnel-pan1c, leaned more towards continuing the slow burn of the premiere, though the smattering of significant pay-offs and major plot twists ensured that this was another compelling and volatile chapter. Just like last week, the episode really soared in the sections pertaining to Elliot’s personal battle, once again exhibiting the most confident and innovative filmmaking the show has to offer accompanied by the ever-terrific performance of Rami Malek, which just keeps unfurling new nuances and emotional complexities. The chief success of k3rnel-pan1c is the way in which it takes Elliot’s futile battle from last week and accelerates it to its extreme end-point, confirming Elliot’s worst fears and entirely demolishing the credibility of his assertions that he can wrest control from Mr Robot. It’s a heightened, showier take on last week’s themes, but Elliot’s story does bring about a very significant advancement in his arc rather than just rehashing the same point and running in place, with a real sense by the end that he’s learned a valuable lesson and made a new ally who could offer up genuinely viable solutions to his quandary.
Mr Robot continues to be an ultra-serialised show in which episodes are mere chapters in a far larger, multi-season story, but there’s something individually satisfying about the story k3rnel-pan1c tells with Elliot, creating a miniature tragedy out of Elliot’s hopelessly futile attempts to up the stakes by taking enough Adderall to purge Mr Robot from his mind. Everything is heightened here compared to last week, which only makes the deeply sad core point all the more clear – that the escalating stakes and violence of Elliot and Mr Robot’s moves against each other are masking one man’s self-destruction from within and without. It’s a battle that masquerades as a necessary war, but k3rnel-pan1c’s visceral display of the lengths the two halves of the same man will go to in order to gain supremacy illustrates that there couldn’t possibly be a viable winner in this fight. As the weapons become deadlier and the stakes escalate, Elliot and Mr Robot just slide further towards a total crash, made apparent by their utterly blinkered hostility and pathological need to feel superior – the dramatic irony, of course, being that this superiority is utterly devoid of any real meaning.
That’s a point that is communicated with brilliant panache in the episode’s centrepiece, the montage in which Elliot’s initial artificial high of ‘victory’ after taking Adderall gives way to a total crash in which his mind battles against his free will, pushing Elliot inexorably back towards the status quo of fear and panic as he’s haunted by the eternal spectre of Mr Robot. In a whiplash-inducing instant, Elliot’s way out of his crisis merely becomes another loop back towards his entrance, hammering home the fact that Mr Robot is the inevitable outcome of any action Elliot seems to take; a cockroach whose existence purely as a mental projection allows him to survive any physical challenge thrown at him while he transforms Elliot’s susceptibility to pain and basic human needs like sleep into his own personal weapons. The montage is perhaps a bit too showy in a meditative episode that veils its thematic points in layers of artifice and deception, but it’s almost a respite from the uniformity elsewhere, with Sam Esmail’s direction managing to convey the utter insanity and nonsensical nature of the situation in a way that has a bit of mischievous fun with the ‘kernel panic’ imagery (and, for all the superlatives you could throw at this show, ‘fun’ is one of the rarer ones).
The big conclusion of Elliot’s story is, again, one of k3rnel-pan1c’s flashier moments, with Elliot’s tirade against religion containing many of the attributes of season one’s crowd-pleasing anti-authoritarian condemnations of capitalism and exploitation, but there’s so much more than radical sentiment that makes this a powerful conclusion of Elliot’s brief escalation against Mr Robot. It’s the big moment in which Mr Robot reasserts control, but instead of ostentatiously calling attention to Elliot’s loss, k3rnel-pan1c cleverly distracts us with the punchy words of Elliot’s speech to the point where it’s so easy to fail to notice that Mr Robot is delivering the words, and not Elliot. It’s a return that’s insidious and unexpected, true to Mr Robot’s boast that he is the ‘scream’ that lurks at the back of Elliot’s mind, connoting the paranoia-inducing thought that Mr Robot could really have been ‘back’ for much longer than we thought, biding his time to pounce when he could make the biggest impact. Elliot’s reference to Mr Robot becoming ‘his God’ makes this distraction more watertight, with k3rnel-pan1c skilfully lulling the audience into perceiving the speech as a tirade against his own personal God, with the naked meaning only revealing itself after every word has hit home and done its damage. As ever, Rami Malek is an intrinsic part of this scene’s success, powering through the speech with committed, almost dogmatic passion that expertly channels Christian Slater’s sinister, slightly manic performance, before nailing the stomach drop moment where Elliot is hit full force with the impact of actions that he had no control over. Malek continues to be the heart and soul of Mr Robot, making moments that could be chilly and emotionally distant on the page into vibrant displays of raw emotion, ensuring that Mr Robot continues to work as a piece of powerful drama rather than just an interesting bundle of themes where it matters most.
However, that powerful sense of emotion to complement the themes explored isn’t always present within k3rnel-pan1c. Angela’s story does suffer from this problem to a certain extent. It’s as thematically fascinating as any other story in the show, acting as a microcosm of the ‘corporate brainwashing’ that the heroes of this show rail against in a way that’s far more personal than last year’s broad political statements. Despite the great ideas, however, it’s somewhat less successful in practice, presented in long-winded and self-indulgent fashion that takes eons to get to the actual point of the story, which reveals itself only to be set up for a more substantial moral dilemma next week. Reflecting the entirely corporate setting, K3rnel-pan1c spends a lot of time obscuring the core truths of Angela’s story within layers of artifice and meaningful implications, but this just serves to isolate her arc from any kind of tangible, relatable emotion, which means the story becomes hard to emotionally invest in. It’s an incredibly tough tightrope to walk between intentional chilliness and the kind of cold, unemotional storytelling we see in k3rnel-pan1c, and it may take some time for Mr Robot to really find that balance. There’s a lot of potential here, however, so it’s not really a blight upon the central ideas of the story – merely a bit of a blip in terms of execution.
K3rnel-pan1c is more successful in expanding the newer faces of the cast that were introduced last week, with Dom the FBI agent and Elliot’s cautious new ally Ray receiving far more substantial and informative stories. The burgeoning FBI investigation arc became a great deal more interesting this episode due to the way k3rnel-pan1c went in surprising and offbeat directions with the central character of Dom, who seemed like a relatively standard moral upholder of the law in her brief introduction. The couple of scenes with Dom are brief, but the scenes are densely packed with insights into who Dom is at her core, from briefly glimpsed screenshots of websites offering help with social anxiety to Sam Esmail’s very deliberate framing which places Dom as a small light in the oppressive, claustrophobic darkness of her apartment. It’s naturalistically done, with a sense that we’re merely dipping into a vibrant life that exists far beyond the events of the series rather than exploring a situation artificially constructed to tell us as much as possible about her character in a short space of time. The cumulative effect of all this is to place Dom as a sympathetic, likeable and quite clearly broken counterpart to Elliot, hemmed in by the limits that her mind places upon her life. The efforts that k3rnel-pan1c makes to establish sympathy for Dom pay off in spades, because her final discovery of the fsociety arcade, a moment that should be filled with dread and fear of repercussions to come becomes a deeply conflicted end-point, with that dread balanced out by the clear sense that this sympathetic character has won out with her own independent investigation. The best conflicts in fiction make both sides are sympathetic in order to complicate every victory and defeat by dividing audience loyalties, and, encouragingly, k3rnel-pan1c appears to be doing that with Dom, a simply moral character who, nonetheless, poses a significant threat to Elliot, Darlene and the entire movement at the centre of the show.
While Mr Robot has found itself another intriguing good guy with Dom, k3rnel-pan1c merely doubles down on the ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding Craig Robinson’s enigmatic Ray. He’s still a bit of a cipher here, partially because k3rnel-pan1c provides no context for his independent scenes to provide a clear indication of just where his moral compass is set, but Ray is fast becoming a valuable and compelling addition to the ever-growing roster of mysteries this show has to offer. Craig Robinson’s performance really steps up here with the nonchalant amiability of his friendly act becoming far more interesting when it’s placed into situations with a clear undercurrent of violence and danger, highlighting how Ray appears to be a man of contradictions where no clear point about his personality can actually be discerned.
And then there’s the growing mystery surrounding the violence surrounding fsociety that consumed Gideon last week and now Romero this time, who’s fleshed out far beyond his surplus-to-requirements role in season one by the strong opening scene that paints him, just like Elliot, as a man whose escape route from his previous route turned out to be another way back in. It’s relatively background stuff amidst the pyrotechnics of Elliot’s story, but the mystery intrigues because the thick fog of paranoia that surrounds every aspect of this show ensures that there’s a near-limitless list of genuinely viable suspects. It’s hard to even rule out Elliot, who unwittingly hired men as Mr Robot to get the Adderall out of his system (if that scene was real, anyway) this time, so this is a refreshingly open whodunit that could quite easily go in a dozen directions in the coming weeks.
K3rnel-pan1c is a thrilling continuation for Mr Robot, upping the stakes where it really matters with a terrifically compelling story for Elliot while it continues to assemble new pieces on the table with brisk confidence such as the growing FBI investigation and the fsociety mystery. The stumble here is Angela’s story which is bloated and flabby with quite a few inessential minutes of obfuscating the actual point, but there appears to be a more involving story on the horizon for the character, if her ending this week is any indication.