This review contains spoilers.
Undo is a good episode of Mr. Robot, an excellent episode of television altogether, and ultimately one that I find troubling.
It’s a good episode because all episodes of Mr. Robot inevitably are. We talk about the style of this show to the point of critical self-parody sometimes but how can we not? This, only the second episode of the season, opens with an extended montage set to New Sensation as Elliot clocks in to his new day job at Evil Corp day after day, hallucinates his fellow subway riders wearing deadmau5-style emoji helmets, and gets no fewer than six E Corp employees arrested by the FBI.
That’s all before the opening title card.
Undo is bold and satisfyingly inscrutable like all Mr. Robot episodes have been thus far and will likely be for the foreseeable future. At the same time I can’t help but be worried by the very central concept that this episode, and the season thus far, is the “undoing” of all progress.
“You know when you fuck something up and wish you had the power to hit undo?” Elliot asks at the beginning of the episode.
“Like when you say the dumbest thing in front of your biggest crush. Or when you talk shit about your boss in an email and then hit reply all at work? Or when you crash the entire world economy and kickstart the inevitable downfall of human civilisation?”
Yes, I know all of those things (save for the downfall of human civilisation bit thought I’ve tried out puns that have come close to achieving that effect) and I would indeed like the opportunity to undo them. I’m just not entirely sure why Mr. Robot, the show, wants to.
Deep within the creation myth of Mr. Robot is the story that Sam Esmail originally envisioned the series as a movie. The more time goes on and the more episodes of this show we see, I find that increasingly insane. Certainly, the show wasn’t a 1:1 adaptation of this hypothetical movie and plenty must have changed in the process. Still, even when squinting it’s hard to imagine the path that this show has taken ever having fit into any 2-3 hour story.
Not that that’s necessarily a problem. Television is a fantastic medium for storytelling and Esmail and his relatively tiny team of creators have done an excellent job in, well… telling stories. It’s just that now, only 25-ish episodes into the series, there are clear signs of retooling and changing things on the fly. Hell, they’re not even just signs. They’re explicit. The name of the episode is “Undo” (well, technically “eps3.1_undo.gzh” but you get the idea) and so much of the episode does exactly that. It just “unmakes” stuff from previous seasons and removes them altogether in the way a network show would many seasons into its run.
One item that has now been removed entirely off the board is Joanna Wellick. R.I.P. Joanna. You were too uncanny valley-hot to make it through to the end of this. Joanna makes a big show of going on TV to spike the football over framing Scott Knowles for his wife’s murder and to declare her undying love for Tyrell.
That last bit doesn’t go over so well with her young lover, Derek. He tails Joanna and her bodyguard, Mr. Sutherland in his car and when Sutherland gets out to confront him, Derek shoots Sutherland then Joanna in the head, killing her instantly.
It’s a gruesome scene by any measure. We’re talking the whole prestige cable violence nine yards: a screaming, blood-splattered baby (the baby’s fine by the way… aside from the whole being orphaned thing), and an autopsy scene in which two FBI agents casually chat while forensic pathologies crack Joanna’s skull open.
It’s all surprising and interesting enough in its own prurient way but it’s a bit of “undoing” that seems like a writerly surrender rather than the actual conclusion to an arc. Improvisational television is okay and in many cases superior to tightly-plotted and scripted content. Mr. Robot has never presented itself as improvisational, however. This is firmly in the category of Lester Freamon “all the pieces matter” television. Why introduce Joanna at all if this was to be her end?
Elliot’s attempts to “undo” things are equally troubling. This time around I trust that there is a narrative plan in place because how could there not be but it’s still nclear why we need to slow down and regroup now. At least stylistically it plays out well. The aforementioned montage of Elliot trying to disassemble stage 2 is excellent.*
*His plan seems straight-forward enough beneath all of the technical speak. Get the physical documents rerouted elsewhere so Dark Army doesn’t want to blow the building in Manhattan up while at the same time rendering all the servers in the building inert so batteries can’t be turned into bombs or some…okay, it’s confusing. I just trust Elliot that it makes sense.
Thankfully, the areas in which Undo does unearth new narrative ground seem promising. Darlene has gone half-hearted snitch for the FBI. After Agent Dominique DiPierro plays a call between Elliot and Tyrell for Darlene she helps the FBI put a tracker of sorts on Elliot’s computer. By episode’s end, Elliot will of course have sussed this out and begun the process of reaching out to the FBI directly. This represents the most heartening moment of potential “undoing” in the episode as the idea of Elliot going full white-hat with the FBI while his alter ego remains black-hat with Dark Army is certainly intriguing.
Mr. Robot is also beginning to develop a bigger heart under all the style than I ever had anticipated. After Elliot begins the process of fixing all of his sins, he finds himself more despondent than ever. He literally weeps through an episode of Dancing With The Stars and pops Zoloft like Tic Tacs to no relief. Moments like these help us reconnect with the true beating heart of the show: Elliot Alderson’s exquisite existential misery. Elliot didn’t throw a brick through the window of the world to make a point or make anyone’s life better. He did it because he was in a lot of pain and didn’t know what else to do.
Similarly, Darlene tells Elliot in this episode that she just want along with this whole plan initially just so she could be closer to her brother. The Aldersons, everyone: dad threw son out a window, son adopted dead dad as evil imaginary friend, and sister helped destabilise the world economy so she could be closer to her brother.
Just two episodes into season three, Mr. Robot seems to be morphing into something far different from what we expected. The alter ego of Mr. Robot is stronger and clearer than ever and show no signs of abating. Ultimately, that’s more than interesting enough to continue this journey. I just don’t fully understand why it had to be so circuitous so far.