This review contains spoilers.
Goodbye Mr. Robot’s casual viewers; hello cult status.
That got weird, fast. After a playfully misleading opening that promised a generic heist episode (complete with that classic overhead shot of the map being unrolled in the criminals’ headquarters), the fourth instalment of Mr. Robot morphed into a Lynchian experiment. You think you know what this show is by now? Think again, it said.
It takes creative guts to spend a large portion of an episode wandering around inside a junkie’s subconscious. Just when you thought Elliot was going to rouse from his dream and direct the show back to its cyber-thriller roots, he entered another symbolic imaginary chamber, started humming Frere Jacques and struck up a conversation with his pet fish. Ratings suicide though the approach would be, it’s as if Daemons was intended to sort Mr. Robot’s hard-core audience from the tourists.
It was only weeks ago, but it seems a long time since Mr. Robot set up the ‘hack of the week’ structure that aligned its first two episodes with TV’s current glut of detective shows and established Elliot’s moral compass. That premise has quickly fallen by the wayside and been replaced with something much more unpredictable. Episode three gave us a slice of American Psycho, while episode four gave us Lost Highway meets Trainspotting. What next week will bring is anybody’s guess—a rare thrill.
In terms of real-world plot this week (insofar as we can be sure any of this unreliably narrated tale can be considered real), fSociety put in motion its planned assault on Evil Corp’s data storage headquarters. The attack itself is still to happen, that particular thread having been side-tracked by a strung-out Elliot’s withdrawal pangs.
So instead of Ocean’s Eleven, we got a stroll around Elliot’s cerebellum, which was precisely as disorientating and daemon-filled as you might imagine. We saw him don the Mr Monopoly mask, get engaged to Angela, witness the erasure of his childhood home, listen to Perfume Genius, tuck in to a slice of Pop’s famous raspberry pie and inherit a symbolic key.
Elliot was also told he’d only been born a month ago, a line designed to send observant fans into obsessive theorising mode. We’ve already been directed to believe that Mr Robot is a construct of Elliot’s imagination (episode four pressed hard on that button, repeatedly showing Slater’s character sliding into the background and not interacting with other members of the group, all of whom treated Elliot as their leader); what if it goes deeper than that? Maybe none of this is real?
If Darlene and Shayla are the product of a fevered mind, that at least would explain their tediously contrived characterisation. If Mr Robot has a weakness at this point, it’s those two hot messes, the kind of women who exist only on the screen. Quirky, damaged, uninhibited and hyper-sexualised, they’re the manic pixie dream fuck of the alt world.
Not that the rest of the characters, from the largely-absent-this-week Tyrell Wellick to Angela or the rest of the hacking crew, are going to win any realism awards either. No matter. Subtle shades of humanity aren’t Mr. Robot’s style. A show this self-consciously cool and purposeful, with its meta quotes from 1995’s Hackers and lines like, “I bet you right now some writer is working on a TV show that will mess up this generation’s idea of hacker culture” has bigger fish to fry. Talking fish, evidently.
Anchoring all the weirdness is Rami Malek’s remarkable performance, which is alternately unhinged, innocent, vulnerable and dangerous, without any of the scenery-chewing that might involve in other hands. Those of us hoping Mr. Robot will run and run might come up against a problem when Hollywood notices quite how good he is in this role.
Will the extended weirdness have the effect of sloughing off viewers expecting a more generic thriller? Time will tell. I know I’m sticking around. Genuine surprises are rare enough on TV, and if Mr. Robot is mad enough to do something this bold in episode four, I know I want to be around for its next move.