“But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!”—Robert Burns, To A Mouse
The old joke—if you want to make god laugh, make a plan—is more than just a bit of whimsy. The above poem, with its famous “best laid plans of mice and men” line, has resonated through the centuries (and been made even more famous by John Steinbeck) because it seems to house an entire ideology behind its simple phrasing. It’s a system of thought that offers comfort to the poor and unfortunate, because it removes it from the rich and lucky. Like early Christianity’s appeal based on the guarantee of the least among us being best equipped to enter the heaven of the afterlife, “best laid plans” insists there is no safety in success. Wealth and power cannot insure victory, or even stability. There is always the unpredictability of reality, there to remind us we can’t engineer a life any more than we can dictate a future. Those on the bottom have just as much a chance of rolling double sixes as the men on top. It’s rarely true, but it’s an awfully attractive thought. And when you watch it come true…well, there are few things more satisfying.
I could never have imagined, back in the season-one episode “wh1ter0se.m4v”, that this show would come down to a confrontation between Phillip Price and Whiterose, while Elliot and Darlene worked their magic in the background. True, season two established these titans of industry were the major players in the story, the ones pulling the strings while the world danced to their tunes, and the series explicitly laid out the tensions and power struggles between them, while slowly revealing all the ways Whiterose had the upper hand. But it really wasn’t until the end of last season, when Elliot has walked back the 5/9 hack and tried to undo the damage he’s caused, that Mr. Robot made clear the stakes with which it was dealing: There’s no easy, restart-the-system answer to inequality and injustice. Progress will be slow, and frustrating, and—with luck—democratic. But vengeance? Punishment for the 1% of the 1% who think this world is their sandbox, with people’s lives little more than a renewable resource for their power plays? That can be addressed. They can be fought. And Elliot Alderson, as damaged and depressed as he is, can exact a measure of retribution for the shambles that his, and so many others’, existences have become.
Plot-wise, “Conflict” is bracingly straightforward, certainly among the simpler installments the show has ever done. The fateful meeting of the Deus group finally happens, and Whiterose, unsurprisingly, has intuited Price’s betrayal and collusion with Elliot and Darlene. She moves the meeting to a different location, leaving Darlene scrambling to find a new way to access everyone’s phones and Mr. Robot (taking over for an emotionally devastated Elliot) scheming to figure out a last-second means of getting to Whiterose during his and Price’s tête-à-tête. But our heroes, as they so often do, figure out a workaround: Darlene makes a surprise Fsociety video doxxing the entirety of the Deus group, forcing them into the open where she can hack their phones and acquire the accounts at Cyprus National, bankrupting all of these powerful men. And Elliot hacks the cell phone tower Whiterose has been using, transferring all the numbers on it to Darlene so she can run them and locate their accounts, too. In fury, Whiterose shoots Price and kills him, before her Dark Army bodyguards rush him to safety. But the episode ends on an ominously clear note: Whiterose, putting on makeup in her residence, while we hear the sounds of screaming and gunfire in the background. The world has finally caught up to her—and she, for once, lacks the resources to hold it at bay.
This is all great fun to watch, in large part because we’ve spent so long watching the show set up these dominoes, and now it’s knocking them down. But it also manages to generate tension right up to the very end, as Whiterose makes a last-ditch attempt to bring Elliot around to her way of thinking by offering some supposedly valuable information. “It’s about your friend, Angela,” Zhang purrs, thinking this is all still a negotiation. Just the thought of getting his childhood friend returned to him is enough to pull Elliot back to the surface of his body, displacing Robot and listening as Whiterose runs through all the reasons our hacker should set aside his vendetta and accompany his enemy to…greet his murdered friend? “You can reset everything and live in the world you deserve,” Whiterose assures him—a tempting offer of help, as even Price admits later on. But Elliot let us know last week how he felt about resets, and despite the promise of a tearful reunion, we’re soon hearing the kind of delicious retorts that make revenge stories like this one so satisfying. “I don’t need help right now,” Elliot quietly states. “You do.” Cue the hack.
But the question remains: Is this a Pyrrhic victory? Price asked Mr. Robot to destroy Whiterose’s machine when this was all over, saying it’s what Angela wanted. And even though she said nothing of the sort, it’s a fair enough assumption, given Angela’s final minutes wanting to get revenge on Whiterose for her duplicity. But there’s a “Pulp Fiction suitcase” quality to the machine right now. It could be exactly the fanciful science fiction that Price has insisted it was all along, true; or it could turn out that Whiterose has cracked the code of time, just as she implied from the very start. Elliot doesn’t want a do-over, so it’s not as though there was something Whiterose could hang over his head. But it’s equally true that any validation of the Dark Army leader’s project would cast an ironic pall over all of this—and given we still have three episodes to go, it wouldn’t be a shocker.
Especially given that deeply revealing opener, where Robot meets up with what still looks for all the world to be Elliot’s mother and Elliot as a kid, and admits that he knew about everything that’s been happening. It’s unclear when this meeting is taking place—it’s daytime, so it could be almost anytime over the course of this past season, at least since episode two—but it makes clear that Robot is still keeping things from Elliot, and that he still believes he has the hacker’s best interests at heart. But strangest of all, it suggests that maybe the Elliot we know isn’t the Elliot they’re worried about. The mysterious third persona is discussed in a way that strongly implies it’s a beloved member of their family. “We may lose him forever,” the mother admonishes Robot. “He hasn’t woken up in—“ And Robot interjects, saying “he” woke up two months ago to interact with Darlene, precisely the timeline of the unknown third identity. Given their concern and familial protectiveness over this other entity, it sounds…well, it sounds like Elliot.
But Price gets his way, oddly. “I’d rather see you lose than win myself,” he reminds Whiterose, right before she shoots him dead. It’s the culmination of his anger—anger that was previously just part of the loathsome back and forth of their international financial gambits, until the Dark Army killed Angela. Now, she’ll live on, not in the alternate reality that Price believes to be Whiterose’s fantasy, but in the hearts of those who cared about her, Price included. Elliot and Darlene are the architects of this insurrection, but in some strange way, Price feels like the victor. The Aldersons are perhaps too emotionally fractured to be able to celebrate beyond the satisfaction of a goal achieved, Elliot in particular. So: Phillip Price is dead, the Dark Army is in shambles, its leader hunted down and possibly executed. With a few episodes left, the question is obvious: How does this story end? And do we, the unseen passenger, still have a role to play?
- If I didn’t see this coming back at the beginning of the series, I definitely didn’t see Price becoming the delicious voice of revenge, tossing out snarky asides in the face of his impending death because he has confidence Elliot will truly hurt Whiterose. “All this,” he reminds Whiterose, “over a little pipsqueak in a hoodie.”
- Similarly, his response to Whiterose learning Wellick has disappeared was A-plus mockery, explaining that Wellick “mentioned wanting to tour the great American southwest.”
- Price, on what Whiterose’s two best employees quitting says: “Bad management.”
- Another excellent party tracking shot from Sam Esmail, as his camera snakes through the gathering of the Deus group, finally ending outside, where Darlene is struggling to think of a way to gain access.
- If I have a petty criticism, it’s that reestablishing Robot as some all-knowing agent of omniscience takes away a lot of the strong emotional resonance by implying it was often an act, performed to convince Elliot they were on the same team, while still doing the same prevaricating and pretending he’s done since the start. It may be more conspiracy-minded, story-wise, but it makes for a less complex character.