“We necessarily express ourselves by means of words and we usually think in terms of space. That is to say, language requires us to establish between our ideas the same sharp and precise distinctions, the same discontinuity, as between material objects…But it may be asked whether the insurmountable difficulties presented by certain philosophical problems do not arise from our placing side by side in space phenomena which do not occupy space, and whether, by merely getting rid of the clumsy symbols round which we are fighting, we might not bring the fight to an end.”
-Henri Bergson, Time And Free Will
“Mr Robot has become my God.” So speaketh Elliot, the prophet of his alter ego. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. As was discussed after last week’s premiere, even Mr. Robot meant for it to be the other way around: he the prophet, Elliot the god. Instead, the troubled young hacker has structured his life utterly around this persona—or, more accurately, around the attempt to do away with it. He tried to adhere to the strictest regimen, the most ascetic of lifestyles. And in return, all that happened was Mr. Robot showed him the extent to which he could never attain his goal. The phone call with Tyrell Wellick was Elliot’s “St. Paul” moment, a bolt of enlightenment on the road to Damascus. But rather than turning him toward God, it pushed him into a kind of negative worship, giving over his life to the obliteration of that which defined him.
And that was ultimately the target of his church group rant. It was the equivalent of his tirades against capitalism in season one, only now directed toward organized religion. And, much like those earlier soapbox sermons, it sounded both true and facile, a valid point and a desperate attempt to evade confronting his real problem. “So fuck God,” he concludes, figuring he already has an imaginary friend, so he would never be so crazy as to give himself over to their dogmatic and bloodthirsty version of one.
But Elliot’s wrong, of course: He’s exactly crazy enough to devote himself fully to an imaginary being. He’s already done it. We all have—we’ve chosen different ideologies (none more blinding than those who think they are somehow outside of ideology, the Nietzschean Übermensches and the self-styled one true libertarians), but each of us requires a point of capitulation, relinquishing the self in the face of something that can’t be reasoned away. Be it God, love, anger, addiction, or some belief in a true self, deep within us, we need it just to get through the day. Elliot needs it, too; it’s why his days dissolved into a drug-fueled fantasy until he admitted it.
The acknowledgement of helplessness in the face of the yawning void of meaning that constitutes reality is a key element of “k3rnel-pan1c.ksd,” What’s fascinating is that it mirrors Elliot’s journey from season one, only in reverse form. It flips Marx’s dictum about history repeating itself (first as tragedy, then as farce) by taking what made for a lighthearted, almost comical evasion of his life in episode three last year—when Elliot broke from his misanthropy altogether, and even started drinking Starbucks—and did it again, only darker, and further along the road of his unstable mind. Rather than smiling and becoming social as a way of breaking from his Fsociety self, here he downs Adderall like candy, in order to purge that part of himself. But as Ray argues at the end of this episode, that’s not going to work. Some personalities you just can’t do without, whether it’s Ray, hooked up to his dialysis machine and talking to his dead wife, or Elliot, staring into the visage of Mr. Robot as soon as Ray gets up to grab a chess board.
Which leads us down another rabbit hole, in the form of Ray. Like Tyrell Wellick, here’s another person who seems to exist as a funhouse mirror version of Elliot, reflecting parts of Elliot back at himself in an hour of need. The question of whether Ray is real or not seems less important than his function as a linchpin in getting Elliot back to functionality. We see Ray play the role of good cop, soothing the brutalized body and mind of the man apparently no longer capable of preventing a mysterious site from crashing, and losing lots of bitcoin cash in the process. We also seem him sitting in a van, chastising the guy who played bad cop.
But while we accept these stories as real, we can’t be sure what we know apart from Elliot. Even Mr. Robot can’t quite believe Elliot thinks we know anything. “Why the fuck are you asking them?”, he demands, pushing our character—the unseen, unknown viewer—further into play in this drama. We see things our protagonist doesn’t, but we can’t share them with him. But Elliot comes to see the necessity of both his silent friend (us) and intangible mental passenger (Mr. Robot): None of us have a handle on life, and the best we can do is stumble toward hopeful progress, accepting the role of fate (or voice in our head) as a fact, not a potential. It’s better than being shot in the head.
Besides, some twists of fate are much colder. Angela, it turns out, has a bigger role to play in Phillip Price’s machinations than she could have imagined. Whether he’s simply mentoring her, because he sees something in this fierce but insecure young woman that he finds valuable, or he just finds her a useful pawn in his power plays, Price’s actions tonight again push Angela into a brutal choice. Either she steels her resolve and destroys the lives of two perfectly friendly gentlemen with families and dependents, or she refuses to shut down her empathy, and lets two men responsible for covering up the leak in her hometown go free.
Angela is learning the cost of corporate success, and—more unsettlingly—seeing just how easy it is to become the men she hates. “The minute you remove emotion from this, you’ll do just fine,” Price assures her, and that’s doubtless true. Severing the link between your feelings is a necessary step when it comes to actively hurting people in this world. Even justice has a price—Saul Weinberg and Jim Chutney (not sure I have that second one right, but that’s what it sounded like) richly deserve a prison sentence—but knowing she’d be the one to cause immense pain to their innocent families isn’t something Angela can just tune out. Not yet, anyway.
The attempt to remove emotion from actions, and the cost to your soul, is all over this episode. In another of the doublings of theme and narrative this show loves to deploy, Darlene is doing her best to shut down her own feelings in the face of potential catastrophe. Romero was murdered, and Elliot’s sister can’t quite let herself feel it. Mobley and Trenton (mostly Mobley, let’s be honest) are freaked out, and with good reason: That makes two deaths associated with this, one of the most significant socioeconomic events of the century, and no one can say for sure they aren’t connected. Mobley knows Elliot is unstable, even if Darlene refuses to admit it, but she turns on them, admonishing them with Price’s advice in mirrored form: “Stop spazzing. And be cool.” She wants them to stop feeling, in other words. Both sides of this conflagration see that as a useful tactic. And it may be; but it’s also a useful way of losing something essential in yourself. Maybe a little time in Arizona isn’t worse than death, after all.
None of this even begins to touch on Mr. Robot’s biggest X factor this season, FBI agent Dominique DiPierro. All we know about her so far is that she’s reasonably good at her job, annoyed at the failings of her colleagues (like the guys who failed to check for modified ports in the booby-trapped drive at Romero’s), and has real trouble sleeping. Clearly, someone who pauses internet dirty talk-fueled masturbation in the middle of the night to ask her newfangled Siri (sorry, “Alexa,” that colossus of modern technology) when the world is going to end isn’t exactly walking down the sunny side of the street. She keeps her gun and work phone in a locked safe in her home, and is less than thrilled about her name being on that leaked FBI sheet, no matter how breezily she played it off to Mr. Needs-A-Z-Pak.
Right now, Dominique appears to be just what she seems, a federal agent who stumbled into a break in the biggest case of her lifetime. Discovering the party invitation that leads her to the Fsociety compound on Coney Island was dumb luck, the result of being good at rolling joints, a skill Romero’s mother could use. But it also served as the chaos-theory conclusion to the arc with which ”k3rnel-pan1c” began, a flashback to the first time Mobley and Romero met and walked through the arcade, giving the checkered story of its past. And all those random deaths, Romero’s down-on-his-luck need, and his skill as a “phreaker,” to quote Mobley? They all led inexorably to Dominique’s discovery. Romero might be too broke to be superstitious, but now he’s too dead to be anything.
Which brings us back to Elliot. When he’s grabbed by those anonymous men, thrown into a van, and driven to a parking garage where they force what looks an awful lot like cement down his throat, it adds another layer of uncertainty to the reality of what we’re seeing. Mr. Robot arranged for this abduction—whether real or imagined—in order to get Elliot to regurgitate those pills. And it works, right up until Elliot shows Mr. Robot what true commitment looks like. He’s so willing to try and reclaim what he wrongfully misperceives as his “authentic” self, he eats pills from a pile of vomit on the floor. “I will not be owned,” he claims, and his zeal is admirable. But it’s also misplaced: Elliot was never owned by Mr. Robot until he tried to negate him.
Descartes’ famous theory “I think, therefore I am” is woefully misunderstood by most people who use it. See, Descartes could never shake the fear that everything he imagined wasn’t actually the doing of some malevolent daemon, causing him to see and feel all that he experienced. For Elliot Alderson, the daemon isn’t Mr. Robot. It’s the lack of Mr. Robot that shapes his whole existence, until Ray finally gives him a way of understanding his imperfect role in this imperfect world. Any time we think we have a handle on things (or presume we know the way to get to clarity), that’s when the real illusion begins, the show argues. And be honest, because it’s Elliot asking: You’re not buying any of this either. Are you?
- Apologies for this going up late, but I didn’t have access to a screener this week. Question: Would you guys prefer I post a blank page immediately after the episode airs on weeks like this, so you have the comments section to debate things until I can post the completed review? Sound off in the comments below.
- Anyone else notice the shoutout to Christian Slater’s teen rebellion classic Pump Up The Volume? Dominique’s sex-chat buddy included the handle “HappyHardOnHenry,” a clear nod to Slater’s pirate radio DJ.
- Mobley’s description of Elliot to Romero in the opening flashback was solid. “You’ll like him…actually, you’ll hate him.”
- Elliot tried to throw away his journal, which, lest we forget, bears the name “REDWHEELBARROW,” in a last-ditch effort to purge everything before Ray showed up. And Mr. Robot forced Elliot to purge those Adderall by forcing concrete down his throat, concrete mixed and spooned out of…a red wheelbarrow.
- Dominique’s a fan of Million Dollar Listings and Bachelor knock-offs. We’d get along well.
- Tonight was the first reference this season to the Dark Army, the hacker league Mobley now fears is coming after them. Hopefully, a Whiterose appearance won’t be far behind.
- “Angela and I are going to have one more drink.” Phillip Price may not be tactful, but good lord, he’s a great character. It’s like watching a sentient version of capitalism.
- “Control is about as real as a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow.”
- The restaurant Price arranges for them is called Fidelio’s, which is the name of the password to access the secret party in Eyes Wide Shut.
- Similarly, there were Fsociety-inspired protesters pounding on the window. It’s still unclear just how far gone things are, though as Ray lets us know, most people are only able to withdraw 50 dollars a day.
- Any computer-savvy folks have any deeper meanings to suss out in that failure screen Elliot is subsequently shown to have copied verbatim in his journal? Inquiring minds want to know. Let’s chat on Twitter and in the comments.