This Mr. Robot review contains spoilers.
Mr. Robot Season 4 Episode 2
Elliot Alderson has eight days to live.
As explained (quite thoroughly) in Mr. Robot season 4’s exhilarating first hour, our beloved Monsieur Robot’s days are numbered, as Whiterose plans to kill him once he’s delivered on her transportation algorithm and her plan is completely finished. Whiterose knows this. Her people know this. Elliot and Mr. Robot know this. The teeming Mr. Robot viewing masses know this.
That’s why it’s a little surprising that Mr. Robot season 4 episode 2 “Payment Required” decides to slow things down a bit. Elliot and Darlene are thrown a curveball that distracts each of them from the important mission at hand. Granted, it’s not really Elliot’s fault but it does cast this second installment in a curious light. Is this a natural extension of the plot or a mechanically necessary diversion to get the important pieces of the story back together?
“Payment Required” opens with a beginning that seems to suggest another action-packed hour. As images of the past few decades rush by, Price explains the entire history of his and Whiterose’s shadowy cabal. Called Deus Group, the organization originally was created as an investment group to bring together the world’s most powerful and wealthy men (Price is very deliberate in his word choice of “men” rather than “people”) to take advantage of moneymaking opportunities in a post Cold War world. Whiterose was the smartest among them and saw the opportunity that the Internet presented to create unprecedented levels of profit and control over the masses.
“We staged the biggest coup in the history of civilization and everyone volunteered to join,” Price says as helpful images of Al Gore and America Online are displayed. They created the Internet, you see. Eventually the Deus Group came to realize that they were pawns of Whiterose and not equals. All of this exposition is done quickly and done well. It even leads to Elliot and Mr. Robot proposing the always-welcome good guy/bad guy team up.
“You can get us in,” Elliot yells at Price, fully embracing the show’s sleazy hacker movie bona fides. “We can take them down if we all work together.”
Price turns down Elliot’s offer of getting the members of Deus Group together in such a way neither Elliot nor the show bothers to pretend he won’t really follow through on it. And indeed he eventually does, visiting Whiterose for a marvelous Christmas tree destroying scene at episode’s end. In the moment, however, what matters is Elliot gets intriguing marching orders to track down Susan Jacobs, the Evil Corp employee who served as counsel for Cypress Bank and therefore Dark Army. You may recognize Susan Jacobs as the same woman whose house Darlene took over and who eventually died at the hands of the stun gun.
The first 5 minutes or so of “Payment Required” aren’t quite the tautly pulled back bow that “Unauthorized’s” first act was but they do seem to set up another propulsive burst of techno-thriller storytelling. But then…it doesn’t.
Mr. Robot is a fascinating show to both watch and love because it excels at the fundamentals so well that it often seems bored of them and wants to try something else. The execution of Mr. Robot’s flights of fancy varies and I still can’t figure out whether this Darlene excursion works. Nevertheless I appreciate the boldness.
Instead of pressing forward with the thrilling action roadmap before it, Mr. Robot just straight up kills Mrs. Magda Alderson. Yes, Elliot and Darlene’s little seen but clearly emotionally abusive mom has passed away in the care of her retirement home. Elliot, despite having eight days to live and Darlene, despite dealing with extreme grief from Angela already, have to tend to their mom’s estate. That’s the thing about death and family. Even if someone withdrew themselves from your life, in death they’re still a body to be taken care of. You can’t just leave it there. So almost absurdly, on top of everything else they have to do, Elliot and Darlene assess their mom’s remaining belongings, head to a funeral home, and obsess over what could be in her mysteriously safe deposit box.
Mr. Robot has picked the strangest time to pull the ripcord on a circumstance that will force Darlene and Elliot to confront their pain and each other. But isn’t that kind of part of the experience? As any Emily Dickinson can tell you, death stops for no one, not even Whiterose or Elliot and Price’s burgeoning bromance. Elliot and Darlene really go through some shit here, and it’s a credit to Rami Malek and Carly Chaikin that they go about it in a believable, yet subtle way.
There’s both an impatience and desperation to Elliot and Darlene’s process with just enough pain bubbling below the surface. When Elliot finally agrees to listen to the tape of Elliot, Darlene, and Angela as kid’s wishing Angela’s mom a Happy Mother’s Day, it’s legitimately moving. Ultimately, Darlene’s search for the contents of their mom’s safe deposit box leads to nothing, with the bank destroying the contents due to lack of payment but on a storytelling level it’s clear this was never about the box. It’s about finding a way to bring Elliot and Darlene back together and finally understand that they need each other to bring down Dark Army. They come to that conclusion in a tense, fascinating scene in front of a glowing cross in a cathedral.
And that’s kind of both the crux of “Payment Required’s” grand pacing switch up. It requires a certain level of buy-in from the audience to work. If Mr. Robot has done its job and fully invested the viewer in the world of the Aldersons, the timing of Mrs. Alderson’s death seems like a grim, randomly timed dagger from the universe, as the universe is ought to inflict upon as all. If you can’t fully suspend your disbelief, however, it’s a hasty and ill-thought attempt to get Elliot and Darlene back together quickly so the season can really get moving.
Either way there’s no doubt that the season is poised to really get moving now. Dom once again has been shown just how serious her Dark Army handlers are with Janice’s hilariously cheery text “99.9% sure isn’t good enough. Let’s strive to keep it [100 EMOJI].” And more importantly, Mr. Robot tees up another twist at episode’s end, possibly the show’s biggest yet.
Darlene told Elliot that Vera is back, but Elliot doesn’t recall taking in this information. Nor does Mr. Robot. But that can’t possibly mean…there’s another. Sure enough, “Payment Required” concludes with a flashback to Elliot and his mother in a downtown Manhattan office.
“You shouldn’t be sitting there. That’s not your seat. You’re not ready yet,” Magda tells young Elliot.
“You mean for Mr. Robot? Elliot?” he responds.
“No. The other one.”
“The Other One” is as enticing a tease for what’s to come on this final season of Mr. Robot as possible. For now, however, that’s all it is: a tease. And that’s the paradox. Sometimes the anticipation before the action is what really delights dopamine receptors. That’s what “Payment Required” seems to be going for. It mostly succeeds in its artistic stall tactics but then again: Elliot Alderson has eight days to live.