This review contains spoilers.
Well, that was weird. Ahmed is going out of business! I know everyone has a cash limit and bitcoin is crashing but still: he has the best turkey sandwiches in the city.
That opening sequence… Between Elliot’s beatdown and Dominique’s shootout in Beijing last week, the story I was looking forward to closure on more was definitely the shootout. It was so surprising and violent, whereas Elliot’s beating was certainly violent but not unexpected. Still, I could never have expected that the resolution of the attack on Elliot would involve 80’s USA Network graphics, grainy non-HD picture and a full-blown laughtrack.
When it was clear what Mr Robot was doing (and for me it wasn’t fully clear that Elliot was trapped in an 80s sitcom within his subconscious until the first laugh track), I had two thoughts simultaneously: 1. This is great. 2. I hope this doesn’t last the whole episode.
And the execution of the 80s sitcom is great. It’s one thing to pull off something so random and unexpected. It’s another thing entirely to pull it off so well. Right from the beginning, Master/Slave is particularly concerned with getting the details of this dream sequence (is that what we’re calling it?) right. It opens with a grainy USA Network graphic — “You’re watching USA! America’s favorite cable network” — and then rolls right into a Boy Meets World-esque clearly-driving-in front-of-a-backdrop set with Elliot, Darlene and their mum and dad.
Then after a positively Too Many Cooks-ian title sequence, the Aldersons’ family road trip keeps up for the next 15 minutes or so, with the laugh track and vintage USA logo at the bottom of the screen keeping up with them.
Within the parameters of this ‘dream sequence’ there are plenty of other aspects that fit perfectly into a sideways universe of Mr Robot. Angela is still working for Evil Corp, just at a gas station. And Tyrell Wellick is missing, though this time we’ve got a pretty good idea that he’s tied up in the trunk of Mr Robot’s car. Oh. And there’s Alf. Which has no bearing on the Mr Robot universe but is a hilarious, unexpected touch.
While the execution of this extended sequence couldn’t possible be better, the positioning of it leaves something to be desired. By that I mean: the depiction of the fantasy sequence is fascinating and entertaining. It’s just what leads Elliot to this sideways universe that is lacking.
We eventually get to see Elliot beaten up in a hospital bed. And yes, he’s beaten up really badly but not nearly as badly as I would expect would be needed to jettison the victim’s brain into an alternate 80’s sitcom universe.
Let’s look at some other famous television extended dream sequences both because they’re applicable to figuring out where Mr Robot’s places in history and also I’m just an absolute sucker for them. Note: The following contains some spoilers for The Sopranos and The Leftovers.
The Sopranos used to be the gold standard for extended dream sequences. Season six opens up with Tony being shot by his uncle and entering in to a plane of existence somewhere between life and death. He spends his time in a coma under a different name in a hotel trying to get home without his wallet or briefcase. Then The Leftovers took that Sopranos plot to the extreme by placing its protagonist in a hotel-based purgatory for an entire episode. Both are amazing, stylistically. But just as important are where they fall in terms of importance to the overall plot.
One could easily claim that Tony Soprano and Kevin Garvey’s journey into a purgatory-type existence occur in crucial high points of both their respective seasons’ and maybe even series. Elliot Alderson’s journey into the infinite is equally stylistically solid (maybe even cooler in some cases) but in terms of its relevance to the plot at hand, seems kind of secondary. He was beaten up really badly and went to a happy place. That’s about the extent of it
Of course, Master/Slave does eventually try to place the dream sequence into an important part of the Mr Robot mythos. Elliot thinks he’s in this reality because Mr Robot has won and exiled him there. But Mr Robot instead tells him that he’s here because in the real world he’s in a lot of pain and Mr Robot wants to protect him from it, having known quite a bit about pain himself. It’s touching enough and by episode’s end, Elliot embraces and hugs his dead dad. Still, it’s not quite as strong as those Sopranos and Leftovers life-and-death struggles. Granted, the rubric for grading gonzo, weird sequences on TV shows can’t be The Sopranos and The Leftovers because that’s just not fair. Elliot’s dream sequence remains an interesting triumph and perhaps the best part of the season thus far.
Elliot’s sitcom opening aside, the rest of Master/Slave is surprisingly conventional. As a matter of fact, without the opening sequence it could be branded the most diabolical of all critical terms: ‘piece-moving.’ Angela, Darlene and Dominique all get moved around a bit in the episode and pushed closer towards where the season needs them to go.
Dominique for one is shockingly okay after surviving a shootout in China. Her superior thinks she should take a month off to recover but Dominique is adamant that they need to keep working. The fact that the Dark Army goons didn’t kill everyone and seemed more interested in killing themselves before they could be captured indicates to Dominique that the attack was intended to be nothing more than a disruption. The Dark Army just wants to spook the FBI into going home.
I have no doubts that Dominique is right because she’s both smart and a lead character this season, though that does rob last week’s episode of a little intrigue. It’s a pretty weak-sauce plan from one of the biggest hacking armies in the world. And it’s foiled almost immediately thanks to the ingenuity of a plucky redhead. Perhaps more unsettling is what the Dark Army does to Cisco this week. He retrieves a wireless router to place in the FBI for the Dark Army and when he demands to know why they took so long with the device, they hold him down and inject something into his fingertip. What it is, we don’t quite know yet but it doesn’t seem to prevent him from making the drop to Darlene. As Elliot points out this week before he is spirited away from his hospital bed: we all have masters.
Angela’s hacking of the FBI is also weirdly easy. After summoning tension from an 80s sitcom homage of all things, Master/Slave has little leftover for Angela placing a modem in the top floor of the E Corp building. The best it can muster is having her need to reconnect the Wi-Fi at the last minute and very nearly being discovered by Dominique. At least those are two pieces that are now closer together.
The non-Elliot stuff in Master/Slave is among the least consequential material that season two of Mr Robot has presented us with so far. Still, I’d consider it yet another very good yet not great entry in a season full of them. I don’t have many rules of TV criticism but one of them has to be that when a gritty hacker drama includes an Alf cameo, you stand up and cheer, damn it.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Logic Bomb, here.