This review contains spoilers.
Mr. Robot may have a pacing problem. This is a show that always looks compelling and beautiful and at least feels like it has something to say (even when it doesn’t) but at times doesn’t know how to present itself.
Throughout season 2, many viewers were turned off by a perceived lack of progress. Finding out that the first seven episodes or so were an elaborate fantasy was certainly interesting but it came at a steep cost of pacing. Historically, that lack of progress or poor pacing hasn’t been an issue because again: this show is just so damn cool. Style and a smile will get you far with television viewers.
Still, the show seemed to want to speed things up in the first three episodes of season 3. Elliot has a clear vision and purpose, the show has made the ‘rules’ of Mr. Robot and Elliot’s body mindshare far clearer, and it even answered questions that nobody really needed the answer to like ‘what’s Tyrell been up to this whole time?’*
*One week removed from the controversial Tyrell-specific Legacy, my thoughts haven’t changed. It’s a weird, unnecessary episode plot-wise but invaluable in that we spend an hour characterising two of Mr. Robot’s most interesting and important non-Elliot characters.
Things are beginning to move faster in Mr. Robot’s post 5/9 New York wasteland. But faster doesn’t mean better paced. The newest and most clear example of this is Metadata. This is an episode that paradoxically feels like too much and too little. There are plenty of big, plot-moving moments to be found in here, to be sure. That’s where the ‘too much’ aspect comes in. Darlene appears to have committed to move beyond this life of crime and posthumously take up Cisco on his offer to move to Budapest.
Meanwhile, the Dark Army has settled on a concrete date to initiate stage 2: September 29, which is 10 days from ‘now’ in the show’s present time. This also leads to Angela, Mr. Robot, and Tyrell’s discovery that Elliot has done his best to sabotage stage 2 by routing the paper documents away from Evil Corp’s Midtown office building.
The reveal of Elliot’s misdeeds leads to a big moment for Elliot and for Tyrell. Tyrell is new at this whole ‘Elliot Alderson is two people’ thing and lashes out at the Mr. Robot version of Elliot. He wants to tattle on Elliot to the Dark Army and while Angela tries to tell him why he can’t, Mr. Robot responds violently, pinning Tyrell against a wall and calling him a “Swedish scumfuck.”
More important than Mr. Robot’s creative profanity, however, is what happens to he and Elliot’s tenuous bond. Mr. Robot dissociates right then and there in front of Angela and Tyrell. Without knowing how or why, he reverts back to the Elliot portion of his personality. Angela eventually knocks him out but everyone is rattled. Previously the divide between Mr. Robot and Elliot had been absolute. What could have possibly broken it down now?
This is undoubtedly a big moment for the mythology of the show. The interplay between Elliot and Mr. Robot is clearly central to everything that Mr. Robot is trying to communicate and play with in one way or another. It’s not something that Elliot or we can fully appreciate at the moment though as both of us have realised the significance of the two’s relationship just a couple of episodes ago. This is where some of the sins of season 2’s pacing begin to show. It was cool in the moment that Christian Slater barely appeared and that Elliot felt lost and confused. Now we’re catching up rapidly on the ‘rules’ of Elliot and Mr. Robot’s personality’s and it’s disorienting in a way the show clearly no longer wants to be.
Regardless, Elliot’s moment presents a problem and an opportunity for Tyrell. He is forced to accept that Elliot isn’t the God he always believed him to be. Then Irving, ever the competent handler points out something to help the distressed Swede. Wouldn’t that technically make Tyrell the only living God?
“You were destined for this, Tyrell,” Irving tells him. “This is your moment.”
And of course it will be. Because for how undeniably annoying Elliot’s gambit is to the Dark Army’s mission, there is no doubt that Tyrell with or without the help of Mr. Robot is going to get this done. Whiterose wants it done then and she has yet to not get something she wants.
All in all, that’s a pretty huge episode in Mr. Robot’s brief history. Darlene escapes (for now and even then it’s not entirely clear that’s what she’s doing), stage 2 gets a concrete date, and Elliot’s mental health takes another big hit.
By episode’s end, however, it doesn’t feel like it’s a big episode. It feels like… well, both too much and too little. The climactic moments are climactic to be sure, but they are also tell-y, not showy. We find out stage 2 is officially a-go from Angela reading a text she received to Mr. Robot and that seems representative of the episode’s issues. It’s like the show knows it has to get moving but its heart isn’t truly in it yet.
Instead, the show’s heart really lies in the smaller, more intimate character moments. ‘Intimate character moments’ and ‘stylistic Fight Club-style financial apocalypse show’ should by all means be at odds. Somehow, Mr. Robot deftly combines its bombastic style and carefully constructed scenes of two people talking.
Elliot and Darlene get to reconnect in a way they have not since the hack – ironic since Darlene is technically supposed to be collecting information on him to pass to the feds. So her agreeing to follow the Mr. Robot-ized version of Elliot at night is a way of her finally helping her brother understand his illness and potentially getting the FBI some reliable information.
It’s a shrewd thing to do, and a decent thing to do. It’s also tearing Darlene apart. Darlene in Metadata is a person so believably at her wit’s end. It’s her panic attack in Power Save Mode writ-large.
She tells Dominique that she may finally have some information for her but first she has to buy her a drink and just have a chat – something that hasn’t happened to Darlene in a long long time. They talk about their love lives. Dominique is a lesbian it turns out (much to the eventual delight of Reddit user “dagny-silva”) and Darlene responds with “whatever diddles your Skittle.” Ew, Darlene.
Though I suppose it’s okay to be gross when you’ve crashed the word economy and your boyfriend was murdered by a collective of violent underground hackers. For a show that rightfully has a reputation of style over substance, it’s able to provide its characters little moments like that consistently. Style over substance for this show doesn’t mean ‘sacrifice character for style.’ It’s more like ‘get wrapped up in the character and style until the flow of the plot jerkily starts and stops like a student driver.’
Still, there are glorious moments when style, character, plot, and pace intersect beautifully all within the established mood of the show. Like when Angela and Irving have a nice lunch at Red Wheelbarrow and tease some mind-binding science fiction possibilities.
“I have to ask. Did Whiterose ever show you?” Angela asks Irving.
“Yes,” he responds.
“And you believe it?”
“Take a look at technology nowadays. Think of these ribs. Who know if it’s even real meat. Tasty as they are, maybe they made them in a lab. My point is: anything is possible.”
That coupled with Angela asking Elliot in episode 1 whether he thought it was possible to go back and fi…..OHMYGODTHEY’RETALKINGABOUTTIMETRAVEL.
Is that possible? Does it make sense within the ‘realistic’ concept of the show? Will it ever get addressed again?
Who knows! But the mere fact that it’s the kind of thing that characters can bring up offhand is what makes Mr. Robot a unique, challenging, and good show. For as poorly paced as season 2 was at times, it performed beautifully in keeping up our sense of confusion and wonder in lockstep with its protagonist’s fractured mental state… just like Angela and Irving’s mysterious conversation did, even if Elliot wasn’t around to witness it.
In trying to fix the pace, Mr. Robot has lost some of that fever-dream aesthetic and mystique. Surely a grand compromise of pace, plot, and pathos is coming soon. Until then we’ll just have to enjoy the company. And the Red Wheelbarrow ribs. They do look delicious.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Legacy, here.