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All the scales drop as Mr. Robot delivers one of its finest episodes ever

Photo: USA Network
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“The past virtually contains the whole.”—Henri Bergson, Matter And Memory

Jesus, Sam Esmail, save some for the series finale.

There’s a telling moment early on in “Proxy Authentication Required,” when Fernando Vera explains to Elliot why he’s taken so long to confront him. After all, the meth-addicted con has been around for nearly two months—why wait until now to come see him? “This shit is bigger than Frost/Nixon,” Vera says with a totally earnest smirk. “I had to be ready.” The stage play metaphor is apt, for make no mistake, this is a play in five acts, a formalistic execution of the theater depicting four (technically five, but whatever) people on a stage, delivering dialogue and arranged in ways completely antithetical to everything that has come before on Mr. Robot. It’s strange, it’s often absurd, it telegraphs its big reveal about a mile in advance, and it doesn’t care about being funny and fearsome at the same time. Those could sound like criticisms, but they’re not; this is one of the finest episodes of television ever delivered by the series, and one of the most potent and profound statements of purpose Esmail could ever deliver. It’s big, and brassy, and willing to risk looking ridiculous in service of genuine emotion. There’s nothing else I could ask for. Forget the revolution, forget revenge—this is a fantastic installment of the show, and that’s my Northern star for what matters on Mr. Robot.

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“It’s time you woke up.” That’s Vera explaining what the shaman said to him that pressed him back towards New York City, leaving behind his mini-dictatorship of sorts in the Dominican Republic, all so he could reconnect with the person who got him kicked out of the country in the first place. He feels it’s a kind of driven inevitability, the return to Elliot, something he can’t alter, any more than he could change his past. And that’s the same tenor guiding “Proxy Authentication Required”—by roughly halfway through the episode, the viewer can almost intuit where this is all leading. The realization that Elliot’s father had been sexually abusing him wasn’t something that had gotten a lot of hints prior to this, but from the moment Vera demands a therapy session between Krysta and Elliot, everything seems to lead inexorably toward that reveal, as though we were slowing down to watch a car crash in slow motion: We know exactly what’s coming, but it doesn’t matter, because everything has to do with how we get there, how we see it, and how we depart.

In all these key ways, the episode proves smart, because our seeing what’s coming before it arrives isn’t the point. Well, actually, it is, but in the opposite manner we usually think: It’s important that everyone realizes this before Elliot does. He is the last one to admit what happened, because he’s the last one to be able to process the events that shaped him. We’re sitting there like Vera (the camerawork essentially puts us in the mirrored perspective of his shoes visually, ping-ponging back and forth between Krysta and Elliot as though we were in the room watching it unfold, urging him on), seeing our hacker slowly confront the horror that has defined his life, the pain that birthed Mr. Robot, and the trauma he could never address, and we see it all play out before he even admits to it. It may be mere scenes in the timeline of the show, but it feels profound, a tragedy birthed directly into an emotional void we knew was there, but hadn’t been able to fill before now. This is the series again returning to its most firmly held ideas: Other people dictate who we are, and our relationships to those outside of ourselves are the stuff that makes up our personas, our spirits, our innermost desires and drives. Twists don’t matter—they’re only ever characters catching up to what was set in motion for them long ago, just like everyone watching.

Photo: USA Network
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So much of what makes this great is what makes it unlike every other episode of the series. I can only guess that Sam Esmail has been dying to do an installment that walks back every aesthetic dictum that has guided the series from its inception. The stilted, formalistic nature of the episode announces itself from the get-go, with the credits placed front and center in the middle of the screen as the background shot holds on Elliot trapped inside the car, nothing being revealed. Krysta’s apartment is even set up like a stage play: The camera holds to one side of the proceedings throughout the story, never wavering or jumping perspectives. And the rooms themselves are exaggeratedly large, laid out in stiff, theater-like fashion, everything geared towards the fourth wall that is never broached, not even by Mr. Robot this time. It cuts against the grain of the entire structure and look of Mr. Robot, and it works marvelously.

This is true even when the music seems to swallow up the tension with a bombastic eruption of strings or brass instruments. Here’s a show that has never shied away from deflating the gravity of literally world-altering situations with a wry joke, but in this case, the music plays a self-serious partner to the dour proceedings. The humor is left to Christian Slater’s frustrated alter-ego, Mr. Robot casting side-eye at every one of Vera’s proclamations. From his exasperated looks at the high gangster’s exhortations of greatness to his “Listen up, fuckface” retorts to every portentous announcement uttered by his captor, it’s one of the best chances Slater has gotten to shine yet this season. His assessment of great men is perfect (“Power is just an asshole stuffed with money”), and the way Esmail’s camera always gives Slater’s face a slight upward and canted angle, as though sharing in some private joke, makes it all work. The soundtrack seems to very intentionally fall for Vera’s attitude, but Robot sure as hell doesn’t.

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Photo: USA Network

Elliot, though, is another story. He’s both victim and threat, as Vera points out: Smart enough to know the danger of his situation, but clever enough to reason a way out of each moment—even those he wished he hadn’t. He makes a failed play to shoot his enemies (Vera is right, he should’ve known that gun was emptied of bullets), but after that, it’s all about keeping his therapist alive. “He just wants a show—let’s give him a show,” Elliot says, and the results are certainly show-worthy, albeit more than he wanted. Rami Malek has dialed back every aspect of his character this season, the better to emphasize how Elliot’s choices have pushed him into numbness, even during what we though was the profound connection he shared with Olivia. (Watch the first bathroom scene again: he’s present, but not giving himself over to the encounter.) So even though we see the explosion coming, it still packs a wallop. He didn’t want to know; nobody wants to know the thing that will shatter their entire history. But the stagey nature of it makes it all work; here we are, on a stage, watching someone else on a stage realize the staged nature of their psychological trauma—a way to create an external perspective. Here’s the question that should linger on, well past the end of this episode: When were we created?

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I made a cutting remark in last week’s review, saying I didn’t see how Fernando Vera could be useful any more, that his storyline was nothing but a distraction from this series’ real narrative. I am so happy this episode laughed at me, stole my lunch money, and shoved me in a locker. Vera pushed Elliot into the final version of himself, the one who understood his past, his present, and—now, at long last—his future. He wasn’t a distraction: He was the key to unlocking Elliot’s pain, processing it, and setting it out for Elliot to confront. And then he died, at Krysta’s hand. It was messy. It was bombastic. It was absurd, and probably hard to swallow for anyone not willing to grant a degree of heightened realism to the encounter.

It was just about perfect.

Stray observations

  • God, Rami Malek’s performance here. Anyone who wasn’t convinced of his Oscar worthiness by Bohemian Rhapsody should just watch this.
  • I love how profoundly moving Vera’s last words to Elliot are, here. “You don’t gotta be scared no more.” After an episode of threats and brutality and scorn, hearing his genuinely empathetic attempts to help Elliot process this grief were fantastic, and raw, and real, adding layers of nuance to the character’s final moments.
  • That being said: At long last, #JusticeForShayla.
  • The end of Act One might’ve been my favorite, with Vera saying Elliot couldn’t be that smart, because the gangster got everything he wanted last time they met. Elliot: “You didn’t get me.”
  • Mr. Robot’s insistence that this is a job interview for Vera, not him, were similarly great, aided by Esmail’s camera continually reinforcing the detached distance Robot felt to these imbeciles, right until it became serious and Elliot had to jump back in.
  • Shit and puke: Gross but valid metaphors.
  • No updates this episode on the mysterious third entity in Elliot, but honestly, I think we got all we could handle for one day.
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About the author

Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.