Well, that was unexpected. After some painful soul-searching, and realizing he actually wants to be a part of Fsociety, Elliot does some homework. He figures out a way to take out the data backups at Steel Mountain without blowing up the pipeline and likely killing innocent people. So off he goes, to find Mr. Robot, who’s hanging out on the Coney Island boardwalk. The price of readmission to Fsociety is simple: Mr. Robot wants to hear what happened to Elliot’s father. He, and we, hear Elliot’s side of the story for the first time, and it’s powerfully sad, the kind of thing to which no child should be subjected. Putting his hand on Elliot’s shoulder (and Elliot, perhaps sensing this is a moment that must be endured to get back into Mr. Robot’s good graces, lets him, for a change), Robot tells him he knows that kind of pain all too well. Then comes the question: “You ever think you deserved it?”
And with that, Mr. Robot shoves Elliot off the boardwalk.
It’s a shocking moment, not least of which because last week we were led to believe that Elliot is a key component in Mr. Robot’s whole plan to bring down Evil Corp. But more than that, it’s the kind of hard gearshift you rarely see after an emotionally vulnerable confession of the kind Elliot shared. We’re not used to protagonists getting immediately punished for opening their hearts—at least, not in quite such a brutally physical manner. We expect our heroes to get hurt, but this felt like a true “fuck you” of a gesture. “You didn’t commit to the sacred pact you had formed,” Mr. Robot says, after Elliot’s fall. If there’s a lesson beyond vindictiveness here, it’s awfully hard to see at the moment.
But “ones-and-zer0es.mpeg” is full of such impulsive acts. The need to make a choice of one kind or another suffuses this episode, much as Elliot feels the need to make decisions which are pressing hard on his conscience, in every aspect of his life. Mr. Robot reduces it to the fundamentally reductive nature of behavior: Either we act, and are a “one,” in his parlance, or we do not, thus proving ourselves a “zero.” We’re meant to feel the weight of that final need to make decisions, as Wellick, Mr. Robot, and the situation with Shayla all demand a basic choice from Elliot: Does he do something, or does he remain in place, letting events happen around him? In each case, Elliot doesn’t want to rock the boat, until he’s forced onto one path or another.
The problem with reducing everything to ones and zeroes, to acting or not, is that it’s often a hollow choice. Krista’s therapy session triggers this frustration in Elliot, and it’s a valid one. Sure, you could argue that there’s a fundamental choice in every situation, but it’s usually a false binary. Coke or Pepsi, Merrill Lynch or Goldman Sachs…these aren’t choices. They’re the illusion of choice. It’s how capitalism operates: Slap seven different stickers on seven different bananas at the supermarket, and voila, the illusion of choice. They don’t taste any different. We’re just encouraged to consume, and it doesn’t matter what choice we make, because it’s always the same choice—namely, to continue consuming. It’s in the throes of this frustration that Elliot once more turns to Fsociety. Even though it’s clear not everything in life is a false choice.
The decision to take out Fernando Vera, for example, isn’t a false binary. Elliot could either remain silent, allowing the execrable drug dealer to continue supplying his drug habit, or he could act, taking out Shayla’s rapist and putting him behind bars. As Elliot acknowledges, that’s not a tough call. Vera is despicable, someone who can’t be allowed to walk free, even as their meeting in Shayla’s apartment provides our protagonist with some insight into the scorched-earth mind of this monster. Hating yourself, Vera tells Elliot, is the true source of power. (One can hear shades of Tyrell Wellick’s “Power belongs to those who take it” speech, here.) But worst of all, Vera assigns blame. If it wasn’t for Elliot’s need for drugs only Vera can provide, Shayla would never have gotten tangled up with him in the first place. “I should be thanking you,” Vera says. “You brought her to me.” Ouch.
And Elliot’s promise to Shayla doubles as the contemporary echo of his promise to his father, a vow he’s ultimately forced to break. In both cases, he’s doing it for the best of reasons: To help save someone he cares about. And while Elliot’s father may have unfairly punished him for that action, it was worth the risk, just as it is with Shayla. She might be furious if and when she finds out Elliot’s the one responsible for Vera’s imprisonment, but she needed to be helped. So why do Mr. Robot’s words ring in our head as this episode ends? Why does he suggest that promises aren’t worth breaking, no matter what?
At least a few people don’t seem to be causing serious moral or ethical questions for Elliot. Darlene, for example, seems to primarily exist to be a major irritant in his life. He comes home to find she’s broken in and is using his shower. She then proceeds to borrow his clothes, yank him in and out of subways, and talk his ear off about issues with her boyfriend—issues that, frankly, make her sound like kind of a jerk. If this is going to be Darlene’s m.o. going forward, then let’s hope the show uses her sparingly, because the person we experience in this episode is a bossy, entitled brat, treating Elliot like a friend she can just walk all over. At least he manages to refuse her request to crash at his place for awhile.
But Darlene at least has access to Elliot this week. Angela can’t even get him to return her phone calls. When she tries to approach him, he’s distracted, so much so that he actually agrees to Ollie’s goofy dinner date plans, just to get them off his back so he can evade his (supposed) tail. (Okay, a Groupon for four to Morton’s does sound good, but still.) Of course, Angela doesn’t realize she’s about to have much bigger problems than her old friend not returning her calls. That CD Ollie accepted turns out to contain a virus that hacks his computer, giving the ostensible hip-hop musician access to the laptop’s camera, and a full-body view of Angela stepping in to the shower. It’s unclear what he wants yet, but good things rarely start with that type of invasion of privacy.
This episode not only ends with a superb scene, it begins with one, too. Tyrell Wellick’s boardroom job offer was a dynamite scene, beautifully shot, as Kubrick-like rorschach blot compositions alternated with longer shots that pushed characters to the edges of the frame, sidelining them and indicating the gap between what they want and what they have. When Elliot refuses Wellick’s offer, the interim CTO walk away, and suddenly he’s minimized in the frame, as support beams hide most of his body from the camera. He may be consumed by this company, but that’s also why he can’t get what he wants—Elliot wants no part of this machine. He may be getting ready to detox from his drug habit, but some part of Elliot Alderson is drawn to Fsociety as a means of getting to Evil Corp. That’s why there’s only one possible answer when Gideon plays him the Fsociety video. It’s not a choice between a one or a zero, it’s an unending loop: “Play it again.”
- Krista and Elliot sum up his predicament nicely. “What’s not good right now?” “Everything.”
- Elliot’s simple “fuck you” to Mr. Robot, when the latter suggests that Elliot’s being weak, just like his father, felt very earned. It’s going to be tough to justify that shove off the boardwalk, in light of Mr. Robot’s dickish accusations.
- The Fsociety video is fascinating. It plays like just enough of a generic “fight the power” manifesto to seem totally plausible, even as we know the claims about Colby being the group’s leader, and the demands thereof, are bogus.
- Wellick continues to make an excellent evil foil to Elliot. The way he giggles at calling his situation “serendipitous” is both eerie and ridiculous.
- This week’s movie shout-out: “Never seen JFK? Oliver Stone movie?”
- Elliot’s still talking to us. “Trust me, I need you now more than ever.”