“This is how we are believers today—we make fun of our beliefs, while continuing to practice them, that is, to rely on them as the underlying structure of our daily practices...when we think we are making fun of the ruling ideology, we are merely strengthening its hold over us.”—Slavoj Žižek, Welcome To The Desert Of The Real
Who is to blame for the evils of the world? If you’re like most of us on an average day, it’s easy to point the finger at broad but nebulous targets like “corporations,” or “the government,” or even “capitalism” itself (or maybe “The Man,” if you’re feeling particularly retro with your rhetoric). Think back to Elliot’s impassioned monologues from the very first episodes of Mr. Robot; these were the references with which he peppered his jeremiads, finally embodied in the single target of E Corp. But while structures have arisen that rig the system firmly in favor of the rich, simply blowing apart that structure won’t necessarily help those on the bottom. And neither will scorn; ironic detachment from the cruelties of our system is structurally no different than full participation. Flipping the middle finger to institutions is about as effective as a breath against the wind. As Elliot—and Mr. Robot—learned in the aftermath of 5/9, the one percent will always find a way to profit from disaster, helping themselves to the spoils of catastrophe and feeding off the misery of the many. So after walking back arguably the single biggest insurrectionary act the world had ever seen, Elliot now has a more direct villain to blame, and a more pragmatic goal: Taking down Whiterose, the Dark Army, and any rich bastards that may have thrown in their lot with his nemesis.
After two years, Mr. Robot is back, and just as rich and engaging as ever. Actually, it’s more so; last season recovered some of the rich emotional drama that got occasionally neglected during the complex narrative expansions in season two, returning the series to its position as a brash and compelling consideration of the value of human connection and how to understand the fucked-up world we’re currently living in. Push past the red herring that supposedly anchors the story—that this is a world in which there are always shadowy men in back rooms pulling the levers of history in a purposeful way—and what’s left is an existential meditation on the need for friendship and love, gussied up with some damn fun techno-mystery adventure. Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson has reversed the 5/9 attack that destroyed the world’s financial systems and crippled economies on a global scale, and as society recovers, he’s turning his attention to those who caused him, his friends, and his family so much pain.
“Unauthorized” isn’t just the first episode in the show’s history to not have its title formatted in the form of a computer file or program; it’s also a thrilling return to the espionage-thriller excitement that drove much of the first season. The episode’s extended opening sequence, in which Elliot hacks and blackmails the lawyer responsible for hiding the Dark Army’s money (in the phony offshore financial front of Cyprus National Bank), hearkens back to the first scene we ever saw of the series. Once more, Elliot is hacking a sexual predator—but unlike the smaller stakes of just calling the cops on a guy hosting child pornography on his servers, for no reason other than the satisfaction of seeing justice done, there’s an added layer of pressure here. It’s a ticking-clock exhilaration that stems from the Dark Army operatives tailing Elliot’s mark, lawyer Freddy Lomax (Jake Busey doing a spot-on coked-out asshole), whose capture by the enemy could spell the end of all of Elliot’s plans for retribution.
Combine that with the way director Sam Esmail plays with presence by having Robot seem to be in Grand Central, only for it to be revealed he was “watching” via the closed-circuit camera feeds from Elliot’s computer, and you’ve got a perfect blend of two of the series’ best tricks: The long-con visual fake-out and the race-against-time thriller sequence. Plus, it’s worth noting the most important element of this scenario: It reaffirms what happened in the season-three finale, in that Elliot and Mr. Robot are finally working together again. After last season saw them wrangling back and forth for control, here they’ve accepted and agreed to the process of trying to act in concert, no longer wresting the body (and consciousness) away from one another. It’s a welcome transition, and adds to the fleet pacing of the show.
But let’s address the meat of what happens in this episode. Elliot is working out of the abandoned AllSafe office, putting together his (and Robot’s) plans to take down their nemeses, by hacking and stealing the money that funds the Dark Army and all of Whiterose’s machinations. After being fed a name by Lomax before he offed himself, Elliot heads to the apartment of “John Garcin” only to realize, too late, that it’s a honeypot. But after he’s drugged and left for dead, only to be brought back to life (that’s a hell of a way to demonstrate to someone that you’re in charge), the person who appears at his side is...Phillip Price. He started off this episode wearing a wire, seemingly under the thumb of Whiterose, but seeing his daughter murdered broke something in the E Corp CEO. The odds are equally good that he’s there to enlist Elliot in some payback as they are that he’s once more doing Whiterose’s bidding.
Poor Angela, but at least her misery seems to be at an end. (She could still be alive, obviously—we didn’t see the body, just the gun firing, and Elliot’s “picture” might be doctored—but let’s assume for now she’s gone.) The remaining survivors of last season’s barn showdown are all dealing badly with the consequences, to put it mildly. Darlene has turned to drugs, living in Angela’s apartment and ingesting whatever substances she can get her hands on. It’s not just that Dom’s words from several months earlier rattled her (“You’re a terrible person...you’ve taken everything from me”), but that Darlene is shouldering the blame for all they’ve lost, especially Angela. So much so, she’s seeing visions of her old friend, still dressed in the ratty bathrobe they last saw her in. Elliot tries to pull her into his orbit, but yelling “She’s fucking dead, and it’s not our fault!” probably isn’t the best way to get through to his sister.
Dom may still be employed, but that’s about the only stable thing she’s holding down. Having moved back into her mother’s house, she’s a frazzled mess—drinking too much, and so paranoid, she’s just this side of a tinfoil hat. Unfortunately, to quote Kurt Cobain, just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you: Following an awkward dinner in which a friendly but reserved taxidermist named Janis is brought home in a clumsy attempt by Dom’s mother to set the two up on a date, things quickly get dark. Janis ends her talk with Dom by suggesting the agent be on time and presentable to a meeting the next morning at the FBI about the fallout from Santiago, Dom’s former boss (and deceased Dark Army mole). Otherwise, she says with a nod to Dom’s house—and her mother inside—“I’m gonna have to be forced to do something really bad.” That copy of Sartre’s No Exit Elliot pulls out of the bookshelf at John Garcin’s apartment should probably be stocked in Dom’s room, too.
But Elliot is responding badly in his own way, as well, and it’s the most significant shift in the series since season two brought us directly into Elliot’s apartment to have a look around: Elliot isn’t talking to us. We, his silent friend, have been shut out, the same way he’s shutting out his sister and Robot and any form of emotional help. So his alter ego, Mr. Robot, turns to us, breaking that wall and pulling us ever more ineluctably into the reality of the show. “Right now, Elliot needs you more than he lets on,” Robot says, as the viewer finds themselves for the first time in communication with someone else. “We’re gonna need a friend. That’s still what you are, right?” It’s not quite a “hello” to bookend the “Goodbye, friend” Elliot receives right before his near-fatal overdose, but it’s an invitation nonetheless. There’s not much time until Whiterose’s project completes its journey to the Congo, at which point Elliot’s life is forfeit. Last season made an argument for the observer effect—that simply by watching and understanding, we can exert change, be it on the scale of global revolutionary shifts or simple individual growth. That’s what Robot is exhorting us to do. Let’s hope, for Elliot’s sake, that Mr. Robot—and Mr. Robot—is right.
- Taking a couple years off has reinvigorated Esmail’s direction and given him some new tools in his arsenal, perhaps carried over from Homecoming. This is immediately apparent in the slow zoom out from Lomax’s office to show Robot standing on the street outside, a camera move with no precedent in the history of this series. It was straight from the ’70s conspiracy thriller playbook, and it was great.
- That blackmail sequence really did nicely parallel the pilot’s first scene, right down to the callback to Elliot’s line, “I don’t give a shit about money.”
- Mr. Robot noteworthy music cue of the week: Elliot being dragged from the honeypot apartment, kicking and screaming, to the pleasant strains of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
- The opening scene of Angela arguing with Price—her father—was an effective twist of the knife, and helpful emotional preparation for what turned out to be an awfully bleak episode, in terms of optimism for our protagonists.
- “Lomax And Looney Law” is a pretty hilarious name for a firm. And it brings to mind two other Lomaxes: Bernie Lomax, the dead guy from Weekend At Bernie’s, and Kevin Lomax, Keanu Reeves’ lawyer seemingly destined to lose his soul, in The Devil’s Advocate. Which, combined, are a pretty perfect reference for doomed Freddy.
- Can someone tell me what the guy sitting in the lobby of the “John Garcin” apartment building owned by E Corp was saying in his phone discussion? Mr. Robot’s lack of subtitles again frustrates.
- Tyrell Wellick is considered a hero by the population at large, but doesn’t seem to be able to keep up a happy front. Last we saw him, he was committed to blowing up the world of his employer and the Dark Army.
- For those curious, that was creator and showrunner Sam Esmail playing the guy who injects Elliot with drugs.
- Welcome, friend. It’s the final season of Mr. Robot, and the final round of reviews for it on The A.V. Club, and I couldn’t be more excited to go on this journey with all of you one more time. I’ll do my best to steer us through the rabbit hole, or wormhole, or whichever metaphor seems most apt, but let’s be honest: This is a dense show, chock-full of allusions, symbolism, and pop-culture references. Nobody can catch them all. So, to quote Elliot, inviting us into his home to comb over all that we see: “Can you help? Can you look? Do you see anything?” Let’s see what we can find together.