This Mr. Robot review contains spoilers.
Mr. Robot Season 4 Episode 3
With the clock ticking down on its final season, it might feel like a weird time to include a fifteen-minute cold open set in 1982 that serves as an origin story of sorts for the series’ designated Big Bad, but, hey – this is Mr. Robot. It’s never been about doing anything the traditional way.
However, it’s easy to wonder if this look back at Zhi Zhang before she became Whiterose might not have better fit into the narrative last season, which was admittedly much more focused on concepts like whether or not we can undo the mistakes we made in the past or learn how to live with them – and ourselves – if we can’t.
As a viewer, this glimpse of a more empathetic version of this character might have landed better before Whiterose committed quite so many atrocities – before the Dark Army killed thousands in its Stage 2 scheme, or at least when Angela was still alive. Now, it all kind of feels a bit too little too late. Even if we’re sympathetic toward what is obviously the reason for Zhi’s obsession with time travel, resurrection, and various other related and semi-connected topics, it’s not like it’s really enough to make up for, well…everything else.
That’s not to say it’s unsatisfying to finally have some mysteries about the elusive Whiterose solved. She clearly wants to turn back the clock in order to literally resurrect the love of her life, a sweet, kind man who loved and accepted Zhi for who she was, but who chose suicide rather than remain in a forced marriage in a repressive China once she admits they won’t be running off to the relative freedom of a life in America together. The sequence in which Zhi’s boyfriend slits his own throat rather than pretend to be something he’s not is brutal to watch, complete with artistic blood spray arcing across a wedding gift from Zhi known as the “funeral flower” and a completely panicking Whiterose, in what may actually be the last moment she’s ever not been in total control of something.
But, hey, at least we know where Whiterose’s ever-present constantly beeping watch came from now. And the use of Culture Club’s “Time (Clock of the Heart)” during Zhi and her boyfriend’s first scene alone together is one of those absolutely perfect subtle musical cues that Mr. Robot is so great at. Perhaps it’s also enough to explain her increasing impatience and irrationality when it comes to her still-unexplained project in the Congo. If internet speculation has been right all these years and Whiterose really is building a particle accelerator in the middle of the jungle, she’s as close as she’s ever been to realizing her life’s work – which, after this flashback appears to be simply giving herself the chance to make a different choice.
And isn’t that what most of these characters want, deep down? A shot at a do-over, a chance to erase their mistakes, an opportunity to make better decisions than they did, once up on a time? Of course, there’s always the possibility that Whiterose is even more lost and broken than Elliot is, chasing a phantom that she alone is convinced exists. There’s honestly every chance this is simply a tragedy of epic proportions waiting to play out, as Mr. Robot has leaned so heavily into the possibility of unexplained phenomena like time travel that it seems almost unbelievable that it could all turn out to be anything other than an elaborate feint.
Didn’t Angela and Philip Price’s conversation basically lay this out for us at the end of Season 3?
There are no such things as do-overs. We can’t erase the things we’ve done that we wish we hadn’t. There is only going forward. Like Angela, we have to learn to live with what we’ve done, and use our anguish over own mistakes to change the way we both move and look forward, not as a reason to obsess on the past.
Following an episode in which Mr. Robot chose to slow down the breakneck pace established by the season premiere, in order to meditate on grief, loss and family, you might expect a story that amped the action back up as quickly as possible here. Elliot only has a handful of days left to live, after all. The show makes a point of telling us this several times.
And yet, there’s no particular sense of urgency to “Forbidden,” even though Elliot’s attempting to track down an access key for Cyprus National Bank and Fernando Vera is creepily plotting a blackmail scheme meant to cement the hacker as some sort of mystical architect of his new world (or at least New York) order. Instead, where last week’s episode focused on grief, this one takes a timeout to explore the necessity of human connection.
Given Mr. Robot’s history this probably isn’t as weird as it sounds, especially if you’ve been along for this ride the whole way. Despite its hacker focus and various doom and gloom trappings, this is a show that’s surprisingly sentimental. Mr. Robot believes in things – in big, gloppy concepts like goodness and hope, change and faith in one another – with its whole heart, even when it’s busy showing you the worst side of humanity at the same time. Therefore, it’s really not that surprising that the series is doubling down on the idea that we’re the only ones who can save each other in its final days.
“Elliot thinks the more he restricts everyone’s access, the more vulnerable he’ll be. But there’s a trade-off that he’s forgetting,” Mr. Robot explains to the audience at one point. “If you block everyone, then what’s the point of being here? Of doing all this? Of existing?”
This is the answer that’s always been in front of us, even when we didn’t know the question that the show was asking. We’re stronger together, and sometimes the most radical act comes in the fixing of a thing that was broken, rather than in the breaking of it in the first place.
And that’s true for people, as much as it is for operating systems.
Cyprus account holder Olivia Cortez may be a means to an end for Elliot – she has access to the codes he and Darlene need to wipe out Whiterose’s financial holdings – but she’s also a reminder for him of what it’s like to genuinely connect with another person. No matter what how Elliot may behave, he’s not as alone as he likes to pretend. Or, at least, he doesn’t have to be.
“Forbidden” doesn’t exactly move the needle on many of Mr. Robot season 4’s plotlines. We’re inching towards a meeting of the shadowy Deus group, but we still have no idea what’s going on with the (assumed) third alternate personality in Elliot’s head, and there’s been little progression on Dom’s Dark Army mission, the details of Whiterose’s ultimate plan, or even exactly what Fernando Vera is up to. Yet, this is also the sort of story Mr. Robot excels at, which focuses on the why of things, much more so than the specifics behind them.