This review contains spoilers.
Mr Robot loves to trick us.
It’s one of the main appeals of the show. TV as a medium has historically given the viewer what he or she wants. After all, if they’re not satisfied enough to stick around around for the commercials, what’s the point? The joy of Mr Robot and many other shows like it is that it’s willing to openly, sometimes gleefully fuck with us. It deceives us; never gives us a full portrait of what’s going on.
So what happens when viewers are clever enough or simply well-numbered and well-TV-trained enough to see through the illusion? Handshake finally reveals to the audience that many of them were right all along. Elliot’s reality isn’t what it seems. He’s not living with his mother. He’s in prison.
There’s been a popular fan theory circulating the web over the past two weeks that Elliot wasn’t actually living with his mother. The most frequent interpretation was that Elliot was in a halfway home and mental health institution of some sort. The reality is a little more stark and punitive but the gist of the theory was right.
Does that mean that Mr Robot has fundamentally failed? It meant to keep a secret from us, the audience and wasn’t able to. Someone with a punishingly mathematical interpretation of art (maybe like Elliot) might say so. But I don’t think it does. Part of the appeal of any magic trick is the reveal… or ‘the prestige’, as Michael Caine might say.
On that level the events of Handshake are viscerally satisfying. Even more importantly, however, is that they are narratively satisfying. Elliot taking a prison context and translating it into a real world context for the ease of both him and his imaginary friend, the audience, is keeping with both his character and the show’s spirit. Sometimes reality sucks. That’s why some people choose to spend their time in front of a computer screen… or in an elaborate 80s sitcom universe.
Handshake is the best episode of Mr Robot this season and that’s because it has a lot to say. It has a lot to say about reality and illusion obviously, as that particular Elliot reveal was the most thrilling and stylistically unusual aspect of the episode. But it also has a lot to say about morality.
Handshake is the first episode of Mr Robot to force me to step back and take stock of the “villains” presented thus far. And upon examination, they’re more varied and fascinating that I had realised. Mr Robot exists in a morally grey universe. This does not make it unique among television shows or even reality itself. What’s interesting, however, is every character’s dogged belief that they, themselves are heroes… despite all evidence to the contrary.
Elliot is the audience’s hero by default. He’s not only our protagonist but our ears and eyes into this particular universe. He’s also a murderer as we find out in Handshake.
This was about as guessable as the prison reveal, maybe even moreso after last week offered us a glimpse of Tyrell in a trunk. I love what this season has done with Tyrell Wellick. He first appears only by mention. Then only by his voice. Then in an 80s sitcom coma dream sequence. And finally in a flashback.
The way Mr Robot has approached Tyrell Wellick this season has created the effect of him turning into an encroaching boogeyman for weeks. Then it pulls the rug out from under us and reveals that it was Elliot who was the boogeyman after all. Of course, Tyrell Wellick may not stay dead. The TV golden rule is “no body = no death.” But that would be a shame. Elliot as a murderer is dramatic territory that must be explored.
It’s no wonder that Elliot is so desperate to re-earn his hero credentials by shutting down Ray’s site. Part of him (specifically the Mr Robot part of him) must have always known that he killed Tyrell with Chekov’s Popcorn Gun. And that means he must double down on his efforts to save innocent people. Both by shutting down Ray’s site and by reembarking on his question to rid the good people of the world of Evil Corp.
Even the white supremacists who jump Elliot in prison seem to understand this as they jump Elliot and taunt him for wanting to be a “hero.” Then actual hero to Elliot, Leon shows up and gruesomely murders them. Leon then reveals to Elliot that he’s been protecting him under Whiterose’s orders. Another villain trying to be a hero… or both… or neither.
Ray has ostensibly been the ‘Big Bad’ of the first part of the season. As portrayed by Craig Robinson, he’s a perfect, fascinating character. He begins by offering to help Elliot. He’s appears kind and soft spoken but there’s an undeniable air of menace about him as well. Then we discover there’s a very good reason for that air of menace. He runs a black market Tor site and has his lackeys beat both Elliot and his previous web developer into a pulp.
That contrast would be enough alone to make Ray a worthwhile character. But the Ray of Handshake is even more interesting. He’s just a guy with a wife he loved who got into a bad situation and ended up hurting al lot of people… because the money was good. Ray is that soft-spoken teddy bear who wants to help Elliot. He’s also that same guy who decided the amount of money he was receiving was good enough to ignore clearly monstrous acts.
Elliot defeats him in one last chess game and Ray knows the FBI are coming. He knew what was going to happen the moment he let Elliot sit at that computer and he let it happen anyway. In some ways, Ray is like Elliot. They’re both now murderers after all. But in another way, Ray is the kind of person Elliot set out to help. It’s people like Ray who Elliot had in mind when he hacked the world’s economy. People who were fundamentally decent but who also were beholden to the almighty dollar.
Now that all the blinders are pulled back and we can see this season of Mr Robot for what it is we can also now see where it’s going. Elliot wants to be a hero again. Angela wants to be a hero again, now infiltrating the Risk Management department of Evil Corp. But they, like many others on Mr Robot, have to simultaneously become villains to do so.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Master/Slave, here.