(Photo credit: Michael Parmalee/USA)
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Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain…that it is juicy…and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.

-The Matrix

Lies have a critical role to play in our lives. They aren’t just convenient ways to avoid the truth. They’re an essential part of our being, the means by which we make sense of the world and ourselves. This has been one of the key themes of Mr. Robot, especially this season, where we’ve followed Elliot’s struggle to overcome his internal companion through a variety of tactics. His rant in “k3rnel-pan1c.ksd” about the ridiculousness of believing in imaginary gods and fantasies was just a verbal variant on the actions he’s been performing—the attempts via drugs, daily routines, and even games of chess to evacuate Mr. Robot from his being. All these maneuvers came to naught. Elliot Alderson refused to acknowledge the value of the hyperreal or the fictional, believing instead in the supposed authenticity of lived experience, as though it weren‘t mediated just as heavily as any TV show or campfire tale.

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It took the violence of the real world breaking his body to finally show him the importance of the lie. Of course what’s fake isn’t reality, Mr. Robot insists; that’s the value of fiction. It allows you to get in touch with yourself, even as the real world is assaulting you. “Sometimes lies can be useful, Elliot. Sometimes they can protect you.” And so Elliot comes to see the value, even necessity, of illusion. Just as a series of illusions have given Elliot’s life shape and meaning, so, too, does the phony sitcom framework in which Mr. Robot ensnares Elliot allow him a means of evading the pain of his physical punishment, even if it takes a second abduction for our beaten-down protagonist to see the light. A mask isn’t just something you wear to hide yourself from others. A mask keeps you safe from yourself, too.

This episode of Mr. Robot broke from the pattern of mirroring found in previous installments to deliver something more like a split within the world. Almost half of the episode played out in Elliot’s head (or showed the repercussions of the assault from Ray’s goons), leaving reality behind to delve into fiction, while the other section saw Angela pulling the fantastical into the real world, as her infiltration of the FBI played out like a high-wire thriller, swinging spy music and all. And as for that world in Elliot’s head—this series does not screw around with its illusory sequences. It’s a full-on cheeseball sitcom, as much an exploration of the form as Too Many Cooks (right down to sharing that satire’s Full House-aping font).

While there are clues and reminders of Elliot’s troubled childhood liberally sprinkled throughout the show, the strongest elements are those that tackle the gradual realization Mr. Robot isn’t trying to unseat him. He’s trying to protect him, because protecting Elliot means protecting Mr. Robot, as Elliot too often forgets. The violent beating is still happening—we see it first in Darlene’s Gameboy, then again in the passenger side mirror—but by accepting the illusion long enough to get to the hospital, Elliot can mentally avoid the worst of it. Seeing it in that reflection is exactly where Mr. Robot wants Elliot to place this attack: In his rear view, a past that can’t be changed but can at least be put where it belongs, out of his mind. And thank God for that: When he comes to, and we see the full extent of his injuries, it’s a painful moment, even just as a viewer looking at the blood, and bruises, and hearing that awful wheeze.

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It’s almost a relief when the show turns to the nerve-jangling tension of Angela’s mission. (Though not before we’re forced to watch Cisco endure the Dark Army sliding a needle under his fingernail and breaking it off, an image that won’t be leaving my nightmares anytime soon.) The momentum lost by having Elliot sidelined in a hospital bed is transferred to a daring daytime incursion into the FBI’s temporary base of operations. While there’s some humor to be found in watching Mobley and Trenton exasperatedly wonder why they’re bothering to try and teach Angela how to hack in a day, it pays off once Angela proves to be an adept study. Her hesitation last week has evaporated: Never let it be said that Angela doesn’t give it her all once she makes a decision. Phillip Price knows all too well her temerity.

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Even when she’s struck dumb by unexpected threats like an idiotic FBI douche threatening her in exchange for a date, or the final moments of getting the wi-fi back online being cut short by Dom’s appearance at her cubicle, Angela rallies. She manipulates the hapless bro into a lunchtime rendezvous, again proving her fast-on-her-feet chutzpah, although it takes a few seconds for her to pull it together. More worrying is that interruption by Dom, who is happy to let Angela finish up her business…as long as Ms. Moss can manage to shake the fear that’s gripping her. Still, each beat of this sequence played out beautifully, like a Mission: Impossible rejiggered for the age of paranoia. Tense and worrying, this was the Darlene and Angela excitement hour, a distaff version of the Steel Mountain infiltration last season.

By the time they abduct Elliot for the second time, throwing him into an empty room in what looks like some sort of warehouse, the realization has set in: Sometimes, the pain of this world is best dealt with by shutting it down, and retreating into your mind. Given how much this season has bounced between Elliot’s all-or-nothing states of mind—an episode will end in a seeming detente between himself and Mr. Robot, only to have Elliot back to resistance and refusal by the start of the next one—it’s possible this reconciliation won’t last, but hopefully it does. Not just because it would be weird narratively to walk back this genuine father-son embrace, and undo the emotional repair it’s provided to Elliot’s frazzled psyche, but because it’s time for the series to get serious about Elliot accepting Mr. Robot’s presence in his life, and not as some wheedling schemer, intent only on harming his host self.

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Which is what makes the final flashback of “m4ster-s1ave.aes” a puzzling choice on which to end. Sure, it’s interesting to learn that Elliot was the one who came up with the name “Mr. Robot,” and it’s nice seeing the exchange that came to play such a fundamental role in Elliot’s guilt over his father, with the reveal of his cancer and extraction of a promise from Elliot not to tell his mother. But it didn’t reveal anything emotionally to us we didn’t already know. Yes, the company fired Robot, blaming his absences from the days he visited the doctor. And yes, we again see that Robot’s commitment to his son was always there, assuring him, “I’m never gonna leave you, Promise.” But this sequence was more nostalgic than revelatory, filling in the strokes of what we already know rather than pushing them forward, or unlocking new character beats. It may play a more important role in the coming weeks than is apparent now. But at the moment, Mr. Robot—and its bloodied, beaten hero—is taking a moment to reflect on what’s come before, prior to plunging us back down the rabbit hole.

Stray Observations:

  • Welcome, everyone, to USA’s “Word Up Wednesday.”
  • Poor Gideon, back on the show only to be run over by ALF. What an ignominious (second) death.
  • Speaking of brief ignoble drop-ins, Tyrell Wellick makes his first physical appearance of the season (outside of the future fantasy sequence, as a watchful commenter reminded me), and it’s just to run into the back of a green-screen set and then get beaten to death with a tire iron by Mr. Robot. That doesn’t augur well for his chances in the real world.
  • Even with the father-son reconciliation, there’s one major source of tension left unaddressed between them: Angela. If Robot’s words are any indication, he’s abandoned her to the embrace of Evil Corp, while Elliot remains committed to his friend.
  • Despite his confidence and self-control, Price still can’t get that bailout approved, and protestors are swarming the building. Will his sense of overwhelming self-assurance start to crumble, as did Wellick’s last season?
  • Just when you thought Ray’s speech about masters and slaves was awfully explicit for a metaphor, they literally imprison Elliot.
  • Weirdly, I was sad that Dom’s favorite bodega is going out of business. R.I.P., best turkey sandwich in the tri-state area.

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