This review contains spoilers from episode eight of Mr. Robot Season Two.
Last week, after I torched Mr. Robot’s big “twist,” I re-read my recaps of the series’ maddening second season—only to realize that the moments on which I’d hung my flagging hopes were, in the main, absent Elliot. Strange then, that creator Sam Esmail should oblige with the aptly titled “succ3ss0r.p12,” an hour of (relative) restraint that returns Mr. Robot to its feet. The heir apparent, of course, is Elliot’s sister, Darlene, and though we’ve caught brief glimpses of her caustic leadership throughout the past seven episodes, the latest is the first to treat her motives as more than the sum of political talking points and sibling allegiance. It’s as if Esmail, released from the obligation to his unreliable narrator’s neural misfires, is free to forget, for a spell, that Elliot even exists; actor Rami Malek doesn’t appear in “succ3ss0r.p12,” and the one mention of his name, in the opening flashback, might suggest to fsociety’s new recruits that he’s a useful fiction. (A baseless question that occurred to me while watching the episode: In the universe of Mr. Robot, is Elliot real?) Whether or not Dark Army’s foreboding phrase—”Stage 2 is about to begin”—is meant to suggest a change afoot in the fundamental shape of the series, Darlene’s succession of Elliot turns out to be far more engaging than her brother’s “melodramatic” manifestos.
Not that “succ3ss0r.p12,” is subtle: From Angela’s karaoke rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” to the sight of Edward Snowden on CNN, Esmail seems incapable of drawing a point without flogging it half to death. After the initial sequence—in which Trenton and Mobley meet for the first time, in which the soundtrack’s horns intrude on Elliot’s missive as if it were no more than white noise—the episode turns to the FBI’s Operation Berenstain, a PRISM domestic surveillance program abetted by E Corp and other name-brand companies. If the apparent reference to the Berenstain Bears seems inexplicable, consider Paul Farhi’s reflection on the beloved children’s books, from 2005: “The action usually starts when the kids face a problem. They turn to Papa, who offers a ‘solution’ that only makes the problem—or the kids’ fears about it—even worse.” The parallel to “succ3ss0r.p12” is potent enough to merit mention, and not only because the FBI’s actions, intended to capture those responsible for the 5/9 hack, ultimately force Dom to let Mobley go. It’s Papa Alderson, after all, who proposes a solution to the problem of late capitalism that lands his kids in hot water—and, in tonight’s episode, pushes Darlene to frightening extremes.
Darlene’s cold, calculating appraisal of the situation with E Corp’s Susan Jacobs, who returns home from Greenwich to find fsociety squatting in her sprawling manse, is enough to set even her closest allies on edge: Before the FBI closes in, it’s clear that Trenton and Mobley are uncomfortable with the project’s increasing moral compromises. If Esmail flubs certain details—reducing Jacobs to Islamophobia, for instance—it’s the accomplices’ significant role in “succ3ss0r.p12” that sets Darlene’s actions in sharpest relief. In its potent sense of soured idealism, Mobley and Trenton’s exchange on the subway platform seems to mark the moment at which Mr. Robot’s revolutionaries become symbols of the system they’ve worked to overthrow: Jacobs’ murder is no less evil than the crimes perpetrated by the corporation that, at least to the Aldersons, bears the very word “evil” in its name. In fact, after Darlene’s last conversation with Jacobs, the dividing line between the desire for vengeance and the demand for change is blurrier than ever. The issue, as in all revolutions, boils down to power, and to its corrupting influence. As Darlene admits to Cisco, there was nothing to hold her back: “I always knew there was a part of me that wanted to do this to her for what she did,” she says, “but I figured when the time came, something would stop me.”
I’m not sure this is a smart move for the series, at least not in the long term—the idea of Esmail going Godfather on us will give me night sweats until next week—but by the end of “succ3ss0r.p12,” I found myself weighing possible outcomes as if I’d never been burned. What’s Angela’s endgame, and what does Mark Moses have to do with it? Why didn’t Mobley show up at the rendezvous with Trenton? Where does Dom’s investigation go from here? What is “Stage 2”? And how might Elliot’s incarceration fit into all this? I suppose I’m admitting to the inconsistencies in my own criticism here—the cliffhanger is as cheap as the plot twist—and yet the prospect of the series shifting its focus to Darlene is bracing indeed, if only because that’s the one wrench in the works I didn’t see coming. If she’s the central figure in Mr. Robot’s next stage, there’s also a chance Esmail’s turning a corner. In that case? Long may she reign.