This review contains spoilers from episode six of Mr. Robot, Season Two.
Don’t adjust your dials. It’s “Word Up Wednesday” on “America’s favorite cable network,” and twisted sitcom Mr. Robot is on the road with the Aldersons!
In a surprising, if derivative, departure, “m4ster-s1ave.aes” opens with a curdled homage to the family comedies of the 1990s, down to the saccharine main theme and the Full House font for the titles. The 17-minute sequence’s more recent point of reference, though, might be Adult Swim’s unsettling comic short, Too Many Cooks, which captured the Internet’s imagination in 2014 by transforming familiar TV tropes into a surreal, anti-narrative slasher. Mr. Robot’s rendition suffers by comparison—imitation flatters the imitated, not the imitator—but “m4ster-s1ave.aes” is so strange, and in stretches so arresting, that it offers a rare glimpse into writer/director Sam Esmail’s obscure logic. Throughout the first half of the season, the series has cited the Book of Revelation, World War I ballads, Karl Marx, and Macbeth, often to inexplicable effect, and the metafiction of “m4ster-s1ave.aes” gestures at the method in the madness. As Elliot returns to consciousness after last week’s brutal beating, the sound of seagulls in Mr. Robot the sitcom becomes the bleat of hospital monitors. Our hero, as it happens, is as subject to the force of suggestion as the rest of us, and in his frail state an episode of Alf seems to have seeped into his brain. This is, in essence, Esmail’s approach to television: In Mr. Robot, the culture of the present is no more and no less the sum of its influences, a thin layer of new sediment sitting atop the past.
It’s notable, in this context, that “m4ster-s1ave.aes”—a reference, perhaps, to Marx’s own influence, G.W.F Hegel, of the master-slave dialectic—is among the show’s most backward-looking entries. It begins and ends with depictions of Elliot’s fraught familial relationships, with the sparkling suspense of Angela’s FBI infiltration sandwiched in the middle, and the parallels between the two sequences frame the exaggerations of the sitcom as inextricable from Elliot’s real life. The issue of his father’s health, discussed sotto voce in the episode’s final moments, comes up earlier as well, in the form of a bone-rattling cough and a blood-spattered palm (“Sounds like that cancer’s acting up again!”); if Edward’s secrecy implies estrangement among the Aldersons, the ugliness of the fighting in the opening sequence—Mrs. A extinguishing her cigarette on Darlene’s arm, for instance—makes it explicit. As is Mr. Robot’s wont, it’s rather too emphatic to be called a success, but there’s nonetheless a sense, in “m4ster-s1ave.aes,” that the dialogue is not the sole medium for the episode’s message. It’s a capricious, abrupt hour, replete with constant shifts of key, and in this it at least demands attention.
Whether that “message” is in fact leading to a larger point remains to be seen. The notion that our inner lives are fed by an incessant stream of memories, impressions, and cultural artifacts isn’t exactly new, but it does forge a firmer connection between Elliot, the unreliable narrator, and the postmodern world the series inhabits. Braiding together Esmail’s penchant for distraction, Elliot’s, and the viewer’s, the very slipperiness of “m4ster-s1ave.aes” is its self-reflexive subject: “Used to be you could trust in the story,” as the sitcom’s theme song has it, mirroring Elliot’s confounded glances into the camera. “Imagine a world gone insane.” In this sense, our protagonist’s illness is an objective correlative of the shredded social contract, an emblem of the most common metaphors for late capitalism: the derangement, the crack-up, the psychotic break. If we are all slaves to one or another master, as Elliot argues, is revolution— “trial by death,” to use Hegel’s phrase—the only solution? And is it a solution we’re willing to accept?
The problem, of course, is that Mr. Robot is subject to the same influences, to the same disorganization and dislocation, the same dread. It’s the handful of heedless choices in the episode’s otherwise superb midsection that illustrate the shortcomings of Esmail’s approach, which seems, for now, to be to steer into the series’ turbulence. From Darlene’s disguise and the foot-tapping music, to the camera’s fleet movements, the final stage of the FBI hack is the season’s most riveting sequence to date. Filmed, for the most part, as a single, tense shot, each hitch in the plan—the woman in the bathroom, the leering male agent—becomes, in real time, a new risk. And the lag between Angela’s actions and Darlene’s reactions pulls the action more taut. It’s disappointing, then, that missteps creep in: the perplexing dissolve through the cubicle, the cheap “broken wi-fi” twist, and the cutaways to Elliot, which release the pressure as it’s reaching its peak. There’s a certain arrogance in the urge to interrupt an astute set piece, to hear the hero pontificate about power and control, and here Esmail exposes the downside of his interest in influences: One man’s allusion is another’s distraction, and a surfeit of ideas is no guarantor of drama.
Too many cooks, as they say, can spoil the broth.
Matt Brennan is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Indiewire, Paste, Slant, The Week, Flavorwire, Deadspin, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.