This review contains spoilers.
3.5 Runtime Error
There’s a moment partway through Mr. Robot’s season 3’s thrilling fifth episode that is undeniably cathartic.
A crowd of protestors is gathered around Evil Corp’s Midtown headquarters, protesting….well, everything. Protesting Evil Corp’s role in the financial crash, protesting the U.N. Security Council’s upcoming vote to annex the Congo to China (which passes), protesting because it just feels good to yell when unemployment is at 26% and the world is going to shit all around you.
Protestors have been gathered outside of the Evil Corp building pretty much every day since 5/9. This time around, however, something feels different. Something is different. A muffled gunshot is heard. Then heard again. Then a police officer is struck – by a bullet? by a protestor? It doesn’t matter. The dam of frustration has broken.
The protestors rush through the police line and race into the building. They tear apart everything they see – all the trappings of capitalism and greed.
Then something strange happens. Some protestors make their way upstairs. They’re unusually organised and have a clear destination in mind. They arrive on Angela’s floor where she just happens to be barricaded in her office and needs to escape. She gets on the phone with Irving and he tells her that these protestors are a Dark Army distraction to get her out of the building safely and to continue their enacting of stage two.
Just like that – a moment with disturbingly cathartic resonance for us out here in the real world frustrated with a similarly corrupt and broken system – is all revealed to be bullshit. It’s just another example of powerful people co-opting the weak and the meek’s righteous anger.
This episode of Mr. Robot rules. It just rules.
It takes the slick style of every episode of Mr. Robot – even the mediocre ones – and twists it into an automatic rifle of pure plot, style, and action and just fires round after round in every direction for 45 minutes.
Finally, this is the story of stage 2. Mr. Robot has flirted with stage 2 for going on about at least 8 episodes and even dates back to season 2. When the season 2 concluded and then season 3 got four episodes deep without stage 2 coming to fruition, one could have reasonably assumed that this was all just one of the most elaborate red herrings in television history.
There never was a stage 2 at all. The real stage 2 was the friends we made along the way! As it turns out, however, Mr. Robot was leading us to a stage 2. It just had to get comfortable with all the pieces it had in place.
Runtime Error brings us the Dark Army’s magnum opus through the eyes of two characters: Elliot Alderson and Angela Moss. Though it might be more accurate to say that the episode brings us there story of stage 2 through the eyes of…us. Mr. Robot is always invested in keeping the audience involved but Runtime Error takes things to an extreme. Elliot is more reliant on us as his companion than ever.
He’s scared, he’s confused, and he’s desperate. Mr. Robot elects to help him out by turning the entirety of Runtime Error into one very long, tracking shot. On a technical level, there are undoubtedly cuts in the episode. But from the perspective of the viewer’s eye, this takes place in realtime – through exactly the 45 minutes of the episode’s running time.
The effect is astonishing in the sense of immediacy, excitement, and dread it creates. Other shows and movies have utilised tracking shots or ‘oners’ to great effect. True Detective’s excellent extended scene of Rust taking down some drug dealers rightly launched the show (the first season at least) into the TV canon. Still, I can’t think of another episode of any show that uses the technique for a longer period of time or with greater success than this one.
The trick here is that we’re already part of Elliot’s conscious. Elliot arrives for a seemingly normal day at work. It doesn’t take long for things to get weird. There’s a buzzing sound present in the periphery of his (and our) hearing as though reality is glitching, itself. A guy in the elevator speaks in stoic German to Elliot for seemingly no reason. He can’t hear his phone when it rings. Most importantly: Elliot can’t remember the last 4 days.
Soon, Elliot is brought up to speed on what we already know. He’s been fired. And today is stage 2. Tyrell Wellick, Mr. Robot, and the Dark Army were able to break through Elliot’s many defenses and firewalls. A building is going to be destroyed and people are going to die. Evil Corp security is on its way and Elliot must avoid them and stop stage 2 before it can really start.
“Stay with me,” he tells us. “Help me stay focused.” And then he looks skyward towards the camera, briefly – towards us. It’s shocking and curiously affecting. This can at times be a silly, frustrating show but that split second of a frightened Elliot Alderson lifting up his eyes to meet the invisible eye of us, the viewer, the God, the conscience, is goosebump-inducing.
The first half of Runtime Error covers Elliot’s frantic chase up, down, and through the E Corp building as he tries to find a usable computer and fix this stage 2 meltdown before security can snatch him up. I once compared Mr. Robot to Fight Club as that’s the obvious comparison. The first half of this episode though is reminiscent on another classic from 1999 – The Matrix. Just as Thomas Anderson ducked amongst cubicles to avoid the agents, Elliot must dodge through human traffic at the Evil Corp building to avoid capture.
The effect, particularly through our single-take perspective is absolutely riveting. Elliot’s rush to find a computer is life and death and the various gambits he runs through to stay uncaptured are amazing. When Elliot ducks into a board room for a sales meeting and has to stall and talk through why he can’t leave just yet like a “normal” person – it’s a welcome reminder of why Rami Malek has an Emmy and you don’t.
Runtime Error runs a big risk of losing momentum when it switches over from Elliot’s adventures to Angela’s. Thankfully, Sam Esmail knows what he’s doing as a director. He swaps the action from Elliot to Angela via the riot. Elliot is finally ushered outside after he comes to the realisation that he can’t stop stage 2 – he can only try to save the people in the building. While on the streets, Darlene approaches him and admits that she’s been spying on him for the FBI. Elliot is understandably incensed and this information along with the realisation that Angela is working with Mr. Robot carries us emotionally as the camera carries us physically with the rioters back into the building.
After Angela escapes with the help of some well-timed rioters, Irving instructs her via phone that she’s going to have to get Elliot to the HSM computer with some hard drives that Dark Army has so helpfully supplied them with. Angela elects to take the journey on her own as there’s no way she’s going to be able to find Elliot. Somehow miraculously Angela makes it to the 23rd floor, does whatever she needs to do with that HSM computer and escapes to the safety of the 41st floor where the Dark Army guy always eating in a burger in a hazmat suit, gives her a bag of fast food. Stage 2 is presumably complete and people are presumably going to die.
Oh, and Elliot has made it back to the 41st floor and has some questions for her.
Ultimately, the Angela portion of Runtime Error does lag slightly behind the Elliot portions. But the sheer, frantic excellence of both halves along with how expertly the tracking shot ties them together makes for an absolutely incredible hour of television.
The episode is all style, no substance, though that’s not a bad thing in the slightest. When something is so beautifully chaotic, visually arresting, and gleefully fun as this just take the style and find the substance on your own. I’ll be going with Irving’s words to Angela after she complains to him about nearly being killed by the rioters.
“Just because we lit the fuse doesn’t mean we can control the explosion,” he says.
That’s Mr. Robot.
Angry, disaffected, and brilliant individuals can change the world. But that’s all they can do. They can’t choose if they’re changing it for the better or worse. The best thing we can hope for is chaos.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Metadata, here.