This review contains spoilers.
3.6 Kill Process
Mr Robot, what has gotten into you?
It’s not that season 3 has been bad thus far. This is still a show about a paranoid, reclusive hacker taking down the world economy with his imaginary friend/ghostdad after all. But season 3 has been, let’s say, deliberately paced.
Hell, one could argue that Mr Robot, itself, has been deliberately paced since Elliot Alderson was dressed down in a villain monologue from Mr Robot in a frenetic Times Square post-hack in the season 1 finale. Season 2 had its moments but was more a disquieting and intensely intimate view of our lead character’s deteriorating mental health.
Now, however, the show has followed up last week’s wonderful 45 minutes of chaotic action in Runtime Error with…. 45 more minutes of wonderful, chaotic action.
Kill Process doesn’t reach the same creative heights of Runtime Error. Deploying the single take format is like setting off an EMP: you only get to do it once if it’s big enough. So this week’s episode doesn’t bother with any outside-the-box visual techniques. Instead it settles for merely pulling off the thrilling and upsetting conclusion to stage 2.
If nothing else, Mr Robot guarantees that we’ll have a second calendar date to memorise. Within the show’s mythology, Elliot’s successful hack has come to be known as the 5/9 hack. Now we get the 9/29 attacks.
I’ll be honest. I really thought Elliot had pulled it off. Kill Process is so well-acted and sharply-edited that it’s not hard to get invested in Elliot’s success in stopping stage 2. Poor Elliot Alderson goes through hell to do so. Having said that, Elliot should not by any means be a sympathetic character. Nearly every episode we are reminded why. Sam Esmail’s camera has a habit of lingering over little tableaus of misery throughout the city: people lining up for food, ongoing riots, power outages, etc. All because Elliot Alderson couldn’t make friends and wanted to f society.
Kill Process features one of the most striking examples yet. After Elliot has sufficiently screamed at Angela for her role in kicking off stage 2, she pulls rank and orders Elliot out of the office. Then she heads out into the streets like a sleepwalker and ends up on the subway. She’s seated across from two elderly women discussing their living situation.
One woman is going to be moving in with her daughter and she’s embarrassed by it. Though she knows it’s the smart thing to do these days what with money having no inherent value and all. It’s another subtle reminder from Esmail as to the devastation Elliot hath wrought. It then turns decidedly unsubtle when a nervous goon in an fsociety mask robs the woman. He tries to rob Angela too but she’s somehow entered a hypnotic zone where she’s just flat-out too rattled and weird to be mugged.
“You could have died,” the woman says to Angela after the gunman has taken off.
“No, no one is gonna die,” Angela says, dreamily repeating the promise she received from Irving and on some level knowing it’s not true.
Angela is not at her best in Kill Process. In the episode’s first scene we’re treated to a flashback of young Angela at a grim social gathering where neighbours and friends have come to say goodbye to her dying mother. Elliot’s father is there, the real one, not the ghostdad one. He offers some kind words of wisdom and then adds ominously “somewhere down the road if Elliot needs some help and I can’t be there for him. Give him a little push for me.”
As we cut back to the present it seems like this should be a good justification for Angela’s behaviour. Which now increasingly includes the belief that Whiterose will somehow allow her and Elliot to see their parents again someday. That intro never quite comes close to justifying her behaviour. Elliot’s previous actions do though.
The lion’s share of Angela’s damage and the damage to virtually everything else in the world is on Elliot Alderson. The old woman moving in with her daughter, the young man desperate enough to rob a train full of people and Angela, too broken to even process her surroundings.
And still. Still. We can’t turn on Elliot. Part of it is certainly Rami Malek’s superbly empathetic portrayal and big ol’ doe eyes. Part of it is that the show has made us complicit. We’re Elliot’s friend. The biggest factor at play though is that it’s finally become easy to believe that Elliot and Mr Robot are distinct entities.
Of course, that’s obvious within the context of the show. They’re portrayed by two different actors. Still, they inhabit the same body and while I’m not a psychiatric historian, I’m pretty sure there’s never been a recorded case of personalities so separate, distinct, and ultimately hostile to each other. The mind can’t help but cry ‘bullshit.’ That’s why Elliot’s psychic battle against Mr Robot in Kill Process is so striking.
The action scene in which Elliot enters the midtown building marked for death to try to neutralise stage 2 is absolutely sublime. Elliot quite literally goes to war with himself (okay, maybe I can’t fully accept that they’re distinct entities yet after all) and it’s one of the more strangely heroic things we’ve seen on TV this year – right up there with the Steve Harrington renaissance.
Elliot first tries to disable the hack from his laptop. Mr Robot takes over for fifteen minutes and gets their shared body in a cab heading towards 8th and Houston. So Elliot recovers and gets back to the building’s computer lab. Boom. Mr. Robot is in control for five minutes. Recovery. Then three. Elliot is getting better at this. But not good enough. Elliot reaches out to Mr. Robot via typed out messages to negotiate a truce. Mr. Robot smashes the computer in response. And so Elliot must try for one last desperate gambit. He has to make it to the server room and freeze them so they can’t explode.*
*Or something like that. I’m never 100% on the technical details of Mr Robot.
Elliot simultaneously walking down the stairs and then down a hallway while beating the shit out of himself is straight out of the Fight Club playbook. The show is already this far indebted to David Fincher’s masterpiece, what’s one more battle between alter-egos? It’s slapstick-y in an equally funny and disturbing way. More importantly: it’s exciting. The fact that it’s crosscut with Dom making her way to Red Wheelbarrow and then down to Tyrell’s hacking dungeon is even better.
There is real, sustained and thrilling tension here. Mr Robot may have taken quite a long time in laying down the stakes but now Runtime Error and Kill Process are collecting on them it’s legitimately riveting television.
When Elliot reconciles with Mr Robot or at least comes to an uneasy truce, it’s easy to believe that it’s the episode’s true climax. Stage 2 has been foiled, Elliot and Mr Robot are bros again. The FBI has Tyrell Wellick in custody. Roll credits.
But of course things can’t really end that way. There’s always another man behind the curtain. One more conspiracy to uncover.
In hindsight it is weird that none of us seemed to make the connection that Elliot really had diverted enough of those paper files across the country to make stage 2 not viable for the Dark Army at all. We should have been wondering why it mattered to the Dark Army that they blow up this building at all, aside from the extensive loss of human life.
In the end, of course, it didn’t matter. Elliot saves the building and the people inside it. But when he emerges triumphant, he emerges into a world where every person on the street is staring into their smart phones and TV screens in a way that is disturbingly familiar. The Dark Army has destroyed 71 other facilities across the country, presumably buildings where the paper documents are really being stored now. Elliot’s last hope to make things right is gone. Thousands of people have died.
Elliot once told Tyrell he was only paying attention to what was in front of him, not what was above him. Elliot and the rest of us did the same. Stage 2 was in front of us. White Rose was above us.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Runtime Error, here.