“The opposition of the real and the ideal is an irreconcilable one, and the one can never become the other: If the ideal became the real, it would no longer be the ideal; and, if the real became the ideal, the ideal alone would be, but not at all the real. The opposition of the two is not to be vanquished otherwise than if some one annihilates both. Only in this “some one,” the third party, does the opposition find its end; otherwise idea and reality will ever fail to coincide.
-Max Stirner, The Ego And His Own
Elliot Alderson is in retreat, but he’s running away from himself. That’s the bitter irony contained in his hermetic, digital-free existence: Not only does he think that his material self could return to some authentic state, if he could only cast off Mr. Robot for good, but even his alter-ego believes another version of the same. Mr. Robot is the flip side of Elliot, convinced that if only Elliot could break this loop, and return to the outside world, to the revolution, he would finally become himself. Both identities are convinced they’re the path to authenticity, to the real. Both are wrong. The infinite loop of numbing repetition and stability, versus the infinite loop of insanity: They’re two ways of seeing the same thing, but both miss something vital. Both miss life.
“Unm4sk” parts one and two waste no time diving into a new chapter of Mr. Robot, and the show continues to place us in states of momentary confusion. Remembering who we know, how we know them, and what role they play in all this is a slippery task at best with this series. Not just because different characters are always trying to mold themselves into new personalities and identities, or because the mysteries of the show ensure that nearly everyone onscreen is privy to some secret or other. It’s that Mr. Robot wants to plunge us into the same state of crisis as its protagonist. As I discussed toward the end of last year, the show is intent on utilizing our expectations and narrative assumptions only to upend them, to reveal that we depend on the comforting standards of A-to-B storytelling in our entertainment no less than we do in life. There’s no easy answers, but there’s also no hard ones. Answers, the message seems to be, are in short supply for most of our life.
Elliot’s effort to wrest control of his life back into what he thinks are his own hands is backfiring. The more he convinces himself that if only he can stick to the routine and live under the strictest standards imaginable, the more Mr. Robot pushes him out of that loop. “How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask?”, he asks—a question that Elliot has slowly turned over in his mind, until he’s convinced himself that there’s still a different person beneath it, that he has some core self apart from Mr. Robot, as though that incorporeal passenger in his mind hasn’t irrevocably changed that self forever.
The episode was dedicated to depicting how what comes after a major transformation is never what you expected it to be. Elliot’s new life hasn’t freed him from Mr. Robot; if anything, it’s increased the intensity of his visits. We watch as Robot shoots Elliot in the head, and even though it wasn’t real to anyone else, it felt real to Elliot. It continues to drip blood as he returns to writing in his journal. And even when it disappears, it returns the instant Elliot is again confronted, during Gideon’s visit, with the fact that Mr. Robot’s actions are his actions. Mr. Robot interrupts Gideon wondering who’s hacking and hounding him with a simple point—”It was me, and that means it was you”—and the blood returns. Painful truths really can feel like a bullet to the head.
But that goes for everyone. Darlene thought things would be better after the Evil Corp hack, and instead, as she darkly muses, they seem even worse. Her rallying cries may get the Fsociety followers excited, but they also make her sound eerily like George W. Bush, as Mobley notes. “Speech is bullshit, but it works,” she answers. “Riles them up.” She’s no longer so taken with the people she supposedly made free at the end of last season. Now, they’re a means to an end, and she seems to be forgetting that those same souls ostensibly used to be the end.
Similarly, Angela is disillusioned, not with Evil Corp, but with the lawyer and the righteous lawsuit she thought would make the world a better place. Instead, she’s spent a month inside the belly of the beast, working as the PR manager, and she’s come to see her fellow employees as just people, trying to do their jobs and get through the day. She’s realizing the individuals working there, like most individuals, aren’t actively evil. But her retort to the lawyer in the bar—that Evil Corp sees her value, and that Angela gave more to the lawsuit than her supposed white knight ever would—is met by a brutal suggestion that she’s become a whore. So Angela responds in kind, going home with a random guy. But things are no better in her new life, either; watching her sit on the couch in the middle of the night, sadly intoning, “I recognize myself as exceptional,” says more than any demonstration of her outlook. She’s exceptional insofar as she’s exceptionally heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, Evil Corp is trying to rally its superiors and weather the storm. For a man who ended last season supremely confident that this was all a tempest in a teapot, Phillip Price can still be rattled by events of which he’s not directly in control. Demanding another loan from the government to bail out his company, Evil Corp’s CEO may sound commanding, but his irritation bubbles over, as though he were surrounded by children trying to fill out complicated tax forms, and botching the process. This may have been an after-effect of the new hack: Watching the company’s CTO forced to publicly set fire to $5.9 million couldn’t have been an easy pill to swallow. It may be chump change, as Susan Jacobs points out, but the optics are no good. He’s trying to dictate the terms of the public’s trust, but the public just got another taste of how little his business has a handle on anything. He may not be fearful, but to pretend he’s not concerned would be to dabble in the very illusions he scorns in the weak-minded. It seems Elliot’s not the only one trying to enforce the illusion of control.
So what of Mr. Robot’s most famous disappearing act, Tyrell Wellick? He’s still missing, and Elliot now wants to find him just as badly as we do. In fact, it’s the entire crux of his standoff with Mr. Robot. Tell me where he is, Elliot demands, or we continue this infinite loop. Joanna Wellick has done her best to keep up appearances, getting some insignificant nobody to come tie her up and pleasure her violently. But she’s playing the long game, as she always has, and when that music box arrives, she knows instantly what to do. Too bad she wasn’t there when the cell phone attached to it rang; we would’ve liked to hear that call just as much as we‘d like to know what Elliot told Krista during therapy. But we haven‘t earned back Elliot’s trust yet.
Still, Elliot’s unstable mind actually beats Mr. Robot’s cleverness when it counts: He convinces Robot that he’s already so beaten down emotionally, there’s nothing more that can be done to drive him mad. That it would be Mr. Robot, in fact, who goes insane if he keeps up this psychological cat-and-mouse game. Hence, the ending transition. Craig Robinson’s Ray triggers the final showdown, as his easygoing demeanor suddenly pulls Elliot up short by telling him they spoke last night—an event Elliot can’t account for. But when Mr. Robot smirkingly appears, the tables turn, and Elliot laughs his threat right out the door. “Give me what I want, or keep shooting me,” he dares Mr. Robot.
And so Mr. Robot accedes—or at least, that’s the implication of the end of the second part. Nodding off in church, Elliot suddenly awakens, holding a bright red phone. The voice laughs, and greets Elliot using the very same line with which he ended their first exchange, way back in the premiere episode of season one: “Bonsoir, Elliot,” Tyrell Wellick purrs. Although it’s more accurate to say the voice of Tyrell offers that greeting, because there’s yet another shell game being played. We see the flashback, at the very beginning, of Elliot and Tyrell executing the hack in Fsociety’s Coney Island hideout. And as Wellick marvels at its elegance (“It’s almost as if something’s come alive”), Elliot reaches into the popcorn machine, where the gun was hidden. Is Tyrell Wellick dead? There are several levels of reality here, and not all of them firm, but for now, early signs point to yes.
But there’s one death that really matters here, and I’ve been holding off discussing it for a reason. Gideon Goddard was a good man, maybe the only truly good man on Mr. Robot, and he paid for it with his life. But the show’s moral compass doesn’t judge him; instead, it accuses the people who feel empowered to render judgment on Gideon. He’s a patsy; it’s even obvious to his killer. But that doesn’t matter as much as appearances do. (Would “illusions” be a more apt word?) “This is for our country,” the man says as he shoots Gideon, words so hollow they sound weak even coming from someone who is convinced they’re true. Here is the result of Darlene’s masses being “finally free”; they’re free to take vengeance upon the one man who didn’t deserve it.
And that’s the thorny secret that Mr. Robot never stops hiding among the gorgeous camerawork and elliptical dialogue: It knows that the promises of revolution can’t deliver, that ideals are only ideals until they become reality, at which point they shade into the messy inevitabilities of human frailty and fear. Those who criticize the show for sounding like the rantings of a college sophomore who just discovered the ills of capitalism are completely missing the point, especially if they continue with such superficial assessments after the killing of Gideon. Striving for a better world does not mean there’s a finish line, and it definitely doesn’t mean good outcomes equal positive results. The successful hack of Evil Corp was a good outcome, and a blow against corporate tyranny and unfreedom. But just look at the damn consequences, bleeding out on the floor of some shitty bar.
But here’s the more intriguing question: Did Elliot make this happen? Not the revolution and world-shattering effects, depicted on the omnipresent televisions that interrupt every free moment in this episode, mirroring the weighted-down reality of the times. We know Elliot was responsible for that. I mean, did Elliot kill Gideon? It’s not as silly a question as it may seem. Think back to that dining-room table in his mother’s house: Elliot watched as Mr. Robot sliced Gideon’s throat, then came back to reality, storming off. But remember what Mr. Robot said as he did that: “It doesn’t matter if it’s you or me.” Elliot may not have pulled the trigger, but he watched Gideon die. And then Gideon died. That’s what we saw. And as season one made clear, we’re inextricably tied to Elliot’s point of view. Yet we still know things that Elliot doesn’t, none more pressing than that mysterious meeting with Grace Gummer’s character and Gideon. Are we seeing the narrative that Elliot has planned? Or have we not earned that trust yet? Neither Elliot, nor we, can say for sure.
- Welcome back, everyone, to Mr. Robot. I’m so excited to go through this season with all of you, parsing the details, debating the clues, and generally having a hell of a good time with one of TV’s most intriguing shows. With that said, I’ll again be using this section to poke at the questions and issues that didn’t fit into the review—and yes, call out some good stuff, as well. And as those of you who watched together with me last year know, I’m always around to continue these discussions on Twitter.
- In that spirit, here’s my first note: The Bible verse that Elliot is hearing when he drifts off is Revelations 21, proclaiming the coming of a new world, and the people becoming God’s children. Think back to that line in last season’s finale: Mr. Robot picks Elliot up off the ground of the cyber cafe, saying, “I was only supposed to be your prophet; you were supposed to be my god.”
- Similarly, it was interesting to see Elliot call out the “Is a mask still a mask?” question, given how much I discussed that issue here last year—even putting it in my headline of the fourth episode. Good to know we’re not completely off the reservation with our speculations, everyone!
- I’m apprehensive about Sam Esmail directing every episode this season—that’s a huge responsibility on top of writing and running the show—but he pulled off this double episode well, utilizing a lot of his favorite tricks. The most notable? Bringing in the unexpected rock song, only to cut it from the mix abruptly, as he does here with Angela waiting for Bloomberg News to call back. Good to see she still loves Sonic Youth.
- Similarly, the Phil Collins song playing as Scott burns all that money is “Take Me Home.” It was an interesting choice—and it has an absolutely ridiculous video, if you’re curious, that definitely echoes some sentiments about money that this show likes to spurn.
- Darlene is already starting this season such a more fascinating character than last year. Her sad moment of vulnerability, overlaid with Elliot’s speech about continuing to fight, continuing to hope we’ll find our true selves, was great. I’m hoping we learn this season just what drove Darlene away from Elliot in the first place, back when they were young.
- Elliot’s journal is called “REDWHEELBARROW.”
- Some very funny beats tonight, as well. Elliot writing everything Mr. Robot says and does in the moment is delightful, as is his parting line at the end. “I’m late for my church group. Peace.”