Mr. Robot: Kernel Panic Review

Elliot absolutely loses his mind…you know, more than usual. And the case against fsociety takes a big step forward.

This Mr. Robot review contains spoilers

Mr. Robot Season 2 Episode 3

A few years ago, my laptop experienced a kernel panic. I’ll never forget the name of the particular disaster because 1. it turned my very expensive laptop into a brick and 2. “kernel panic” sounded phonetically like “colonel panic” and the idea of a deranged colonel wreaking havoc upon my hard drive delighted me to no end even as I sheepishly handed my laptop over to the Genius bar to fix.

They did fix it, thank God, but prior to that moment it seemed like the situation was unredeemable. A kernel panic is a fatal internal error, as Elliot helpfully tells us. Kernel panic means that shit is just fucked up almost beyond repair and it’s your fault. In my case, it was foolishly turning my computer off during a software update because it was taking too long. In Elliot’s case, it is gobbling down adderall like tick tacks and staying awake for six days to stave off the specter that’s haunting him.

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Mr. Robot has its faults (and I’ll pay lip service to them later on in the interest of fair, even-handed criticism), but one thing that it almost always nails is Elliot Alderson: the character. This is an incredibly competitive TV environment with too many good shows and too many good performances for everyone deserving of recognition receiving it. So one could have been forgiven for reacting to last week’s Emmy nominations with “Really? The weird dude from the USA Network show for Best Actor?” In “Kernel Panic,” however, Rami Malek shows just how crucial he is to the functional operation of Mr. Robot and that he more than belongs on the shortlist of current great TV actors.

Elliot’s feverish (further) descent into madness is the centerpiece of the episode and just phenomenal visual art. After ending his brief phone call with Tyrell Wellick (or was he really on the phone with Tyrell? Or is this still all in his head?) and hearing the news that Gideon was killed, Elliot resolves to reclaim his brain by any means necessary. This time with some pharmaceutical help. He buys from adderall from Joey Bada$$ (his character has a name but…come on) and triumphantly starts downing them right in Mr. Robot’s face.

Not to be outdone, however, Mr. Robot concocts a fantasy for Elliot in which he’s abducted by the FBI and has cement poured down his throat. So Elliot in his delusion must puke out all of the “cement” which in reality is just adderall and whatever diner food he had with Joey Bada$$ that morning. Still, Elliot dives back into his own bile to retrieve the adderall, banishing Mr. Robot for good…or at least as long as he continues to take adderall.

I assumed that would be the highlight and most zeitgeist-y moment from the episode. But in reality, it’s what happens once Elliot is free from Mr. Robot where the show shines the most. The montage of Elliot living his best life, albeit frantically and crazed whilst awake for days at a time is just absolutely sublime. Mr. Robot gets praised for its sense of visual flair it can almost come across as passive aggressive sometimes – like all we can focus on is how it dazzles instead of how it intrigues. Still, such consistently cool visually language deserves our praise consistently.

Elliot, in his manic pixie hacker state, is pretty sure he found God. This kind of euphoria, however, is unsustainable. And then the kernel panic hits. Mr. Robot is good at not overusing technological or hacking terms but kernel panic is a perfect fit for Elliot in his post-euphoric state. Sure, he found God but once the adderall starts working its way out of his system and he begins to get settled in for a long sleep, he realizes that that God is Mr. Robot and he’s a dick.

Mr. Robot often must walk a fairly fine line. Its characters are wildly intelligent anarchists – also known as the type of Rust Cohle-ian characters who are at the highest risk of sounding like the energy drink fueled ramblings of a high school sophomore who just read Nietzsche.  Elliot is definitely that guy during his (presumably final) church group meeting. The context, though, allows for just the right amount of self awareness. Sure, Elliot is probably right about the general meaninglessness of life but it’s hard for him to come across as smug when he’s holding a notebook filled with absolute gibberish.

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While Elliot remains Mr. Robot’s golden boy, the rest of the show can still at times be a mixed bag. Part of this I’m happy to attribute to length. Just because USA gives you a full hour whenever you want doesn’t mean you have to take it. The reintroduction of Leslie is sloppy and the intimation that fsociety members may soon begin to get picked off isn’t particularly intriguing.

Still, there are a couple of bright spots in unexpected places. Angela remains a mystery but, when combined with new knowledge that “Kernel Panic” presents about FBI agent Dominique DiPierro, the show might actually be on to something interesting. Last week, we saw how Angela must listen to self-affirmation tapes before heading into work each day. Now, we get to see some of Agent DiPierro’s daily routine and it seems quite familiar.

Mostly she just lays around in existential dread until the early hours of the morning, opens up her Anxiety Management app on her phone and dirty talks online with strangers because she presumably cannot talk to people face to face. It’s counter-intuitive to introduce a new character as having similar traits to an existing character, or at least a similar level of anxiety but it actually works out crazy well here. 

Sociologically, I’m sure it says something about how even the most attractive, capable and intelligent women are conditioned to doubt themselves. Dominique is so capable in fact that she uses her keen detective skills to discover the previously undiscoverable fsociety hide out on Coney Island. Narratively, it’s just damn cool. And Mr. Robot is nothing if not cool.

Plus, it’s not like the show can’t produce new characters with fascinating back stories out of thin air when it wants to. Take Ray. He’s a guy presumably involved with bitcoin organized crime but who also talks to his dead wife over the sound of his dialysis machine every morning at breakfast. Which network’s slogan used to be “characters welcome”? Mr. Robot should be on that channel for sure.


4 out of 5