This review contains spoilers from episode three of Mr. Robot Season Two.
Near the end of “k3rnel-pan1c.ksd,” as his eye-widening Adderall bender comes to a close, Elliot slumps down in his chair, peers up at the ceiling, and musters his finest impression of Karl Marx. Though he regrets it immediately—more, it seems, for the uncomfortable silence that follows, than for lack of conviction—he describes religion as a mechanism of control, through which powerful “charlatans” divide the masses and thereby conquer them: For Elliot, “the opium of the people” is “the drug of hope.” That this is not exactly what Marx meant is, in the context of Mr. Robot’s psychological and political extremes, immaterial, though it reflects the series’ reliance on slogans and broad strokes to construct its surreal universe. In keeping with “unm4sk,” the brash, intermittently brilliant “k3rnel-pan1c.ksd” is run through with a sense of historical, even existential, scope, but its insights are perhaps not so piercing as its tone would suggest.
Elliot’s outburst in church group, for instance, erupts after a fellow member confesses to beating an Indian man who stood up to his bullying, and seeing in the sunshine the assurance of God’s forgiveness. That’s not, as the esurance ad campaign has it, how any of this works, and positioning religion as such a soft target undermines the otherwise irreproachable point that faith-based institutions are not immune to manipulation. Admittedly, few series evince much more than passing interest in the subject of religion—the foremost exceptions are The Americans, The Leftovers, and Rectify—and Mr. Robot, always poised on the edge of Elliot’s hallucinations, prefers to paint bright lines and sharp binaries. But if the series’ God complex is to dramatize Elliot’s struggle against his inner demons, as it’s meant to here and in “unm4sk,” setting up straw men is a strange approach. As Phillip Price understands, the more compelling narrative is one of “ordinary men” made “capable of extraordinary things” by the systems (including, yes, organized religion) in which they operate: The narrative of Hamlet’s traitorous childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or of what Hannah Arendt called, with reference to Adolf Eichmann, “the banality of evil.”
See? The pileup of Biblical, historical, political and pop-cultural allusions by which Mr. Robot signals its (self-)importance—I’m not innocent of it, either, mind you—also strains its attentions. A Bachelor-style reality show; kidnappers in the black suits and boater hats of Hoover’s FBI; a German broadsheet reporting the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting in motion the start of World War I: What these might add up to, other than admiration for the wildness of writer/director Sam Esmail’s imagination, remains largely obscure. At least with regard to the latter, hanging on the wall of Price’s office, the dialogue suggests an interpretation. “Perhaps you find it as a fascinating as I do,” he tells Angela after inviting her to dinner, “that a man can change the whole world with a bullet in the right place.”
As I wrote last week, the strength of “unm4sk” was to suggest revolution’s unintended consequences, and if Elliot is to be our Gavrilo Princip, fsociety our rebellious Black Hand, Mr. Robot at least seems aware of the growing gulf between actions and results. In this vein, Darlene’s nonchalant response to Romero’s murder—the idealistic insurgent becoming the pitiless leader—is telling. Bearing that calm, dead-eyed expression, the border of the frame separates her from Mobley on the subway as if the pair were on opposing pages of an open book, guided by similar principles but in disagreement as to their costs. Similarly, she bristles when Trenton takes issue with fsociety’s tactics: “That ‘stupid hijinks’ is killing public confidence in E Corp,” Darlene spits, “which is exactly what we need to be doing right now.” The question, with Agent Dominique DiPierro on their tail and capitalism itself as their adversary, is whether Darlene’s political instincts are correct. Is the spectacle of suicides, assassinations and bonfires a bullet in the right place? And if not, how might the world change if the bullet is aimed at the wrong one?
In the final estimation, ” k3rnel-pan1c.ksd” hinges on two characters, indeed two montages, that function as eerie mirror images, and it’s to this end that Esmail applies his directorial bombast to greatest effect. One chugs coffee, the other pops pills, but both Dominique and Elliot resist sleep as if it were, as in Hamlet, a metaphor for death. She, too, is a lonesome figure, calling out to Alexa in the night as he does to his unnamed “friend,” masturbating to men’s messages in one or another online chat room. And if she requires a few strokes of luck—a phone call from the police, a flyer in a box of kitchen wares—to reach fsociety’s old doorstep, she’s nonetheless a tenacious figure, to the point of rolling joints for Romero’s grandmother. Dominique lives, in short, on the other side of the dissociative divide, and the contrast between the characters’ respective montages emphasizes the distinction. Down to the abrupt cut of the diegetic music, hers is tethered to the real; Elliot’s, not long after that nauseating search through his own vomit, segues into the realm of fantasies. With arcade-game sound effects, vertiginous compositions, repetitive dialogue, and flashes of broken code, with sped-up speech, static and sharp flourishes of color, this manic interlude finds Elliot in the midst of a system malfunction: “My internal fatal error,” he says. “Kernel panic.”
If his drug of hope convinces him, for a time, that he too can be saved—”He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone,” he chants. “Amen. Amen. Amen.”—Elliot soon discovers that its effects are fleeting, and it’s here that he comes closest to understanding Marx. “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering,” the German thinker wrote. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Elliot warms to Ray’s description of life as a process of “grasping in the dark,” I suspect, because he recognizes that Mr. Robot has become his religion, his God: both the expression of his suffering and the protest against it, at once its cause and its effect. Ray, recalling Marx, offers an alternative to the illusion of Mr. Robot, though for now it’s unclear if this is a solution to his problem or simply a new way of framing it. After all, if my reckoning is correct, their meeting occurs on the seventh and final day of the Adderall bender. This may be the end of Elliot’s Genesis, but creating a new world carries risks of its own.
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.