Review: Mr. Robot Goes All Sopranos on Us

If Mr. Robot exists in a time where the moniker “The Golden Age of Television” still applies–I think we’re past the “golden age”, but then again I’m kind of a jerk–it owes a lot to The Sopranos, arguably the series that started this whole idea of “television series as serious piece of art”. The Sopranos did it first and did it best in many people’s opinion. It was cinematic to its core before that was a thing. It delved deep into the finer aspects of the human condition almost a decade before Mad Men and Breaking Bad and True Detective treaded similar ground. It revolutionized episodic narrative structure for television–outside of Twin Peaks–with an episode where a guy named “Fat Pussy” embodied an annoying singing bass fish and scared the hell out of Tony. Of course Tony was in some sort of fever dream, and that’s just the way fever dreams go.

Enter Mr. Robot. Having spent some time in the first three episodes reminding us of Elliot’s drug problem–*nudge* *nudge* *whisper loudly* he snorts morphine… a lot–the fourth episode works to put Elliot through the paces of his finally dried-up supply. Like a call back to papa Soprano–or maybe just a kid learning how to do it like Dad–Elliot ends up in his own fever dream, coming in and out of an altered reality that hopes to impart nuggets of truth on Elliot through coded symbolism. Mixed in, is a smattering of fsociety plans to take down Evil Corp, a pinch of Shayla and Angela getting some “quality time” together and a chunk of Darlene annoying the crap out of me with her incessant “too cool for school” routine, when she clearly isn’t too cool for school at all.

Elliot and Mr. Robot make their viral video

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So I’m being snarky, no doubt about it. Yet I didn’t hate this episode, for all of its problems. In fact, I kind of liked it… well… some of it.

What works here is the fever dream, oddly enough. Here it’s handled through Elliot’s own withdrawals from morphine–versus Tony’s food poisoning–but it adds up to the same thing in the end. Elliot is forced to take a step back and look at his actions, considering the extremely crazy role he’s willingly putting himself in as technical leader of fsociety and acquaintance of Evil Corp’s rising star, Tyrell. It’s an important chapter in the pacing of the show, since Elliot diving whole hog into the fsociety pool might seem a little fast for his oft paranoid character. We also get a glimpse of Elliot out of control, not of the nutty world around him but of the demons inside of him–the episode is called “Da3m0ns” after all. This is probably Rami Malek–Elliot–being put to his greatest challenge yet; having to play the jonesing junkie realistically and without too much over the top flair. Elliot’s writhing around in bed–once he’s bed-ridden–gets to be a little much, but otherwise I’d say that Malek nails it.

The symbolism here is so messy though. There’s some deep symbolism around the various forms of imprisonment that exist in our daily lives, but there’s also a talking fish yelling about wanting a window. Sure it’s all commenting on the same idea, but the post-modern mood swings from “dark commentary on the soul” to “whoa, this fish is talkin’!” is a little jarring. I find myself thinking through each scene and trying to figure out if there’s some true artistry at work here, or if it’s just Sam Esmail and his writing staff throwing everything “weird” up on the wall to see what sticks. I’m hoping that I’ll have time before the next episode to do a “deep analysis” post covering the symbolism of specific scenes from Elliot’s break down, so keep an eye out for that.

Elliot at the onset of his withdrawal

Outside of Elliot’s “fun with withdrawal” storyline, the episode is a mixed bag. I really like where they take Angela through the course of the episode–it’s equal parts fun, engaging and intense–but I don’t think it quite suits her character. Spoiler here, but she’s so quick to drop some ecstasy when Shayla offers it, that it betrays her “middle of the road” persona. I guess that’s the point, but her moral compass could have spoken up a little. Plus, we get the ubiquitous “female characters making out” scene. Let’s add to the Bechdel test that alongside having a conversation between two women where they don’t mention a man, that same conversation has to end without them kissing each other for no apparent reason outside of titillation. Listen, I’m a warm-blooded American man, but at least give me a reason for a sensual scene between two women to exist. Neither one of them even seems curious about falling in love with another woman, so much as “we’re both objects, let’s kiss!” It’s a little despicable and cynical, as if the studio came in and said “See here boys, we gotta get that ratings bump. Two girls kissing, that oughta do it, see?”. I get that just like Tyrell in last weeks episode, so much of what happens these days in Mr. Robot is meant to elicit thoughts like, “Woah, these characters are W-A-C-K-Y”, but it seems like that could be handled with more care. If these two women wind up together again next week, pursuing said “relationship”, I’ll kindly shut my mouth and promise to not make snap judgements in the future. To be fair, this episode was directed by the filmmaker and noted lesbian Nisha Ganatra–a director of a few episodes of Transparent–so at least we know it’s not a leering man forcing these two actresses into a potentially uncomfortable scene. Still, come on Mr. Robot, that was cheap.

Shayla and Angela meet up in the park.

As for the fsociety crew, while Darlene’s characterization this week was just as annoying as ever–probably worse–her particular storyline does a good job of tying together the two divergent paths between Elliot’s life and the mysterious “Dark Army” hacker group. Also, the members of the fsociety crew who had been ancillary up to this point–often giving me unease with their lousy sideline performances–pulled it off this week, proving that in previous outings they were probably just trying to make the most of their screen time, or were simply just getting bad directing.

Speaking of the directing, Ganatra does a good job with some tough material this week. “Da3m0ns” is one of those episodes that’s constantly on the verge of flying off the rails with its trippy imagery that could be completely meaningless in the wrong hands. Ganatra though, keeps a consistent tone throughout, pushing the idea of societal imprisonment through the stream of consciousness feel of Elliot’s withdrawal period. As I mentioned earlier, the symbols themselves are a bit wonky, but the way they’re presented visually works to form a whole.

Darlene and Mobley wait for a meeting with the Dark Army

This will probably be the make or break episode for many of Mr. Robot‘s audience, since the sheer oddness of “Da3m0ns” has to be a turn off to a certain sector of viewers. It’s actually surprising that the writers would go with this divisive of an episode this early in, but I’m still on board, despite some choices that weren’t handled in the best way. More than anything, I’m still hoping that Mr. Robot gives its characters a break in the “world falling down around us” category. Elliot’s drug problem never had to get this bad, just like Angela never had to randomly make out with Shayla. It makes for good drama, but I’m still missing the character nuances that we got in the series premiere. If Mr. Robot gets back to those nuances through Elliot’s revelations here, “Da3m0ns” will go down as a worthwhile and necessary episode. Otherwise, I’m just not sure it is.

Matthew McCrary
Matthew McCrary
Pop culture writer at Monkeys Fighting Robots and Boom Howdy. Currently hosting the Toondiculous Podcast, where two grown men point out the logic flaws in children's programming. This sort of thing makes him feel like a big man, you see.