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Mr. Robot rings in Christmas Day with one very sweet story—and one very sad one

Photo: Elizabeth Fisher (USA Network)
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Christmas is the day that holds all time together.—Alexander Smith

Merry Christmas, Mr. Robot viewers. You’ve been given the gift of a Just-So Story, one that earnestly partakes in the tradition of Christmas tales wherein the holiday brings out something human and caring in people, and allows them to locate their better angels. Should old acquaintance be forgot, and all that. Like last season’s dark night of the soul episode, it uses a fleeting moment of human connection to reset Elliot’s wires, helping to locate the humanity within himself in order to remember the only reason for continuing the fight, resisting the powerful, doing any of this, really: Our relationships with each other. And if that feels a little too saccharine sweet for you, well, then you could always turn off the episode a dozen minutes in, with the conclusion of Whiterose’s brutally tragic origin story. That’s depressing enough to balance out a dozen feel-good fables.

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“Forbidden” struggles to find the proper tone for its self-contained narrative, but that might be because the whole thing feels a bit rushed. After the gut punch opening story—which not only exposes the emotional wound that has presumably driven Whiterose all these years and fueled her passion for her project, but does so by showing how her Icarus-like ambition was at least partly to blame—the shift to Elliot and Robot’s mission initially seems as though it’s going to continue the adrenaline-laced rush to complete their objective before time runs out. The transition to a sweetly open-hearted story about two lonely souls finding each other, however briefly, on Christmas Eve doesn’t quite land. It’s awfully pat for a show that normally refuses such simplistic devices, and while simplicity can be a hallmark of honest emotional beats, here it’s not given enough time to register as plausible. If it weren’t for the music swelling and the warm yellow-red colors signaling a profound shift away from the series’ usually knotty ambiguity, you’d be forgiven for wondering if Elliot was still conning his mark to get what he needs.

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But before all that, we get a genuinely sad look back at the trauma that has shaped Whiterose for nearly 40 years. First seen clowning on some clueless IBM executives (“I look forward to stealing all your intellectual property,” Zhang announces in Chinese, right to their faces), the future Whiterose and her paramour have big plans to move to America after Zhang is appointed U.S. ambassador, in hopes of finally being somewhere they can “be our true selves,” as his lover says. Seeing Boy George on MTV seems to push Whiterose to do something so had long be afraid to do: Reveal her true self to her partner. But he responds perfectly, telling her she’s beautiful.

Unfortunately, it then jumps ahead to that same partner’s wedding reception, having been forced by his father to marry a woman. And all of Whiterose’s promises aren’t enough for him, as staring down a future in a country where he can’t be with the person he loves is intolerable, no matter what small comforts Zhang can provide. “This world will never be good enough,” he says, cutting his own throat and bleeding out in front of the one person he had hoped to spend his life with. It’s enough to make anyone dedicate their lives to trying to create an alternative world—one better than this dark place.

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Having given some crucial backstory that perfectly sets up Whiterose’s impulsive push to force Price and Elliot’s timetable forward in hopes of screwing it up, we then pull back into Mr. Robot’s thought process. His worry that Elliot is isolating himself gets two painful reinforcements: First from Krysta, who hurts Elliot by rejecting his plaintive entreaty to thank her for her help, and again from Darlene, whose casual dismissal of his concerns leads her brother to try and hurt her in hopes of sparing any messy emotional drama from whatever fallout comes from his plan. “I never should’ve opened the door when you came back into town,” he says, and it’s exactly the right line to inflict maximum damage. You can see the pain lock into her eyes, as Darlene hears the one person she’s believed will always care for her callously confirm her worst insecurities and fears about herself—that she’s not worth the time.

Photo: Scott McDermott (USA Network)
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Breaking into the home of Olivia Cortez, the way in to the Deus Group (since they try to keep a low profile, she’s their only U.S. account manager at Cyprus National Bank), Elliot initially plans to simply use her the way he has so many others—the way he did Lomax. But after Robot frames this state of affairs in a manner that telegraphs awfully hard what’s about to happen (“If you block everyone, then what’s the point of being here? Doing this?”), it shifts into a gentle depiction of two damaged people unexpectedly opening up to each other. Elliot’s first plan—blackmail her with the Oxycontin he finds in the bathroom—turns out to be based on a false assumption: Olivia keeps a razor in the empty bottle, to remind herself she’d rather be dead than back where she was in the throes of addiction. And so after a tryst borne initially out of desperation that his link to Deus was getting away, Elliot and Olivia bond on the bathroom floor, the dawn of Christmas heralding the promise that these two might actually find some happiness in each other. Then again, Elliot did hand over the RSA code with her credentials, so we’ll see if it lasts.

But what lends an air of menace and unease to the otherwise feel-good narrative is how it gets broken up with an interlude starring the shark circling the waters around Elliot, Fernando Vera. Kayla’s killer is busy symbolically representing the perversion of all that’s good about the holiday season, literally stuffing drugs into Christmas birds and handing them off to child mules. We learn what he wants, though—for Elliot to be his partner in crime, not his prisoner—and decides the way to do that is through Krysta, whom he pegs as a weak spot in Eliot’s armor, just as Kayla was. Any suspicions he had softened are quickly dispelled when he murders his loyal aide DJ for not correctly intuiting the situation with Elliot and Krysta. He’s a bastard, and his mustache-twirling ways are still very much in force.

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This episode is only partially successful at finding that Christmas spirit; alternating between darkness and light, it ends up somewhere between the two, not uplifting enough to earn its sweet story for Elliot, nor downcast enough to take away the impression that it’s mainly a holiday fable. By the time Wellick opens his big mouth and potentially ruins all of Elliot’s hard work, it’s a case of throwing a firecracker against a wall—things may go to shit next week, but “Forbidden” already stands.

Stray observations

  • Even for Wellick, that was dumb. Elliot is literally trying to physically silence you, and all you can do is pipe up about how the top-secret and potentially deadly espionage you’re engaged in is good to go? Come on, now.
  • Mr. Robot noteworthy music cue of the week: As Elliot sidles up to Olivia in the bar, only for Robot to dive in with a drink offer, Matthew Sweet’s “Sick Of Myself” is playing on the stereo.
  • Shades of season one again, with the shot of the Gilberto Hernández Ortega painting on the wall, the one it took us a little while to source the first time around.
  • Some very funny Elliot moments during that date. “I’m addicted to morphine” and saying he’s nine months clean, though “not if you count the heroin I did two days ago, but I didn’t really want it.”
  • Kudos to actor Dominik Garcia-Lorido for bringing some easy humanism to Olivia.
  • Speaking of which, Elliot running out and kissing her was easily the most unexpected surprise of the episode. One of the least Elliot-like moves we’ve seen.
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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.