Written by Matthew Haviland
Mr. Robot Season Two, Episode One, Part Two Review
Plot summary: Fsociety’s ransom becomes national news, Angela (Portia Doubleday) struggles with her demanding E Corp job, Elliot (Rami Malek) meets unwanted opportunity, and Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) gathers ground.
You know when you get everything you’ve ever wanted? During part two of Mr. Robot’s season premiere, cutthroat beauty Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliussen) receives a black gift box with crimson ribbon. This episode is everything inside that box. The first part of the premiere was positive (by Mr. Robot standards), funny, and weird. After the intermission, we get seething darkness underneath elegant wrapping. And it’s fantastic.
We begin with E Corp’s Battery Park ransom exchange, which I was not prepared to love after the discussion from part one. Despite my reservations, Scott Knowles’s (Brian Stokes Mitchell) guarded presence in the earthy, urban tide, underneath glowing parking garage, lamplight, and skyscrapers with about six million dollars in black duffel bags, delivers. Mitchell is stunning here, from his prolonged suspicion at fsociety’s bike messenger (“Are you from E Corp?”) to his revolted opening of fsociety’s pack (“No, we don’t recommend that . . .”) to his Greek struggle when, having donned fsociety’s mask, he empties the ransom money and burns it while “Take Me Home” by Phil Collins soars. As soon as we notice her, Darlene (Carly Chaikin) withdraws from the gathered crowd (fantastic reserve from Chaikin). Knowles stands unmasked by the fire, broken down in front of New York. This scene is worth your ticket. This is the first scene.
Then we’ve got E Corp’s CEO, Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer). While he wasn’t given much before the intermission, this episode grants him one of the great knockout confrontations of the series. After being explained how badly E Corp is doing, Price’s Washington cohorts resembling Lewis Carroll characters, Price tells Tweedle Jack (James Lloyd Reynolds) he has something there. Jack thinks he means logically. Cristofer’s delivery of, “No, on your face!” is startlingly funny, and after being asked to resign, Price’s response evolves into a beautiful monologue where he explains, primping his cloth napkin, grabbing advantage with earthshaking power, that FDR lied to America to save the economy because everything’s ruined unless the public stays confident. And he can’t resign without blowing the national con. We see unshakable strength from Price. He leaves with more than the upper hand but their dignity, and him telling Jack to wipe his face is savage.
Must we have more knockout scenes? Of course. Grace Gummer is here as FBI agent Dominique DiPierro, almost unrecognizable. Gummer plays conservative, displeased socialites. She makes other characters look like losers (see: Frances Ha). But here, she’s chatting breezily while showing working-class toughness, cruising through her FBI office, smiling powerfully. Her introduction is brief, but she’s breathing this role. Same for Portia Doubleday. Angela (Doubleday) is excruciated doing PR work at E Corp, gasping for breath beneath thick professionalism. Barside after sealing deals and spitting acid, she looks agelessly tired, and after she crushes her lawyer, Antara (Sakina Jaffrey), Antara’s parable about trying to proposition sex for money speaks volumes.
More riches to come. After dressing down Leon (Joey Bada$$) over a basketball standoff, which reveals unforeseen venom in Elliot’s friend, a business owner named Ray (Craig Robinson) provides Elliot (Rami Malek) an inquiry as gripping as anything we’ve seen, building on Elliot’s remarks from part one by asking him what he sees on the basketball court: amateur players, badass ballers, or dumb creatures trying to put a ball through the hoop. Robinson, known for The Office, has mostly played comic roles, not even really drama-comedy, but here, he’s sharing all the depth we saw under The Office’s Darryl Philbin and bringing dark wonder to what’s happening between the players (“C’mon, boys!”), gravity that might crush you under his charming warmth. Robinson is a subtle, powerful actor. Mr. Robot seems his coming-out party. Elliot looks away.
We need to reassess Elliot’s alter ego, dramatically, thematically, and otherwise. When Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) appears on the bleachers, it’s almost shocking, and it soon becomes clear he isn’t just some psychosis. He’s Elliot’s inner drive being stuffed down. It’s Mr. Robot advancing the form, playing not only with psychoses but conscience. “Help him,” Robot says, when Ray starts to ask about Elliot’s hacking. But Elliot stuffs him, growling underneath his silence and cutting Ray down the first chance he gets. His gauze headband is immaculate.
Mr. Robot appears between them again, invisibly, the next time they’re at the bleachers, when Ray mentions seeing Elliot the night before; Elliot doesn’t remember. There’s Mr. Robot, winking from the void. Elliot confronts him with some of Malek’s strongest work, what seems like a scream turning into horrifying laughter while the shot cuts like crazy. Robot saying people see him when they see Elliot makes for one the strongest psychological shocks so far (and that’s the question, who do people see when you’re there, the persona you’ve cultivated or your insistent demons?). Mr. Robot’s a power player, because he’s not just shooting Elliot with fake bullets, he’s taking over when Elliot’s asleep, writing new entries in the blank space of his journal.
Everything about this episode kills. There’s too much to mention. I was thinking about how great Gideon (Michel Gill) was—his sweetness was a well this series nourished itself with—and his farewell scene at the bar finds him tired and melancholy (“I’m just having a drink”). The off-center shots Mr. Robot loves go to the extreme, here, making Gideon’s assassin Brock (Chris Kipiniak) a blurry, occasionally shifting lump, barely there (were he not in the shot, but he’s crammed into the edge, so we instinctively hover there, picking at the splinter), the camera lovingly watching Gideon while this splotch of darkness talks and talks. The background noise throughout this scene is incredible, Brock’s soothing voice making everything before the violence heavenly.
This episode is Tyrell’s black gift box, stuffed with ominous goodness. Joanna touching the felt music box. The charming gentleman who shoots Gideon, seeing the broken marriage in his face. Angela sitting before her television, repeating affirmations (visions of Tyrell brutally affirming himself; the self-help culture of the wealthy elite). Antara drinking Angela’s wine before leaving her with wisdom. Everything’s falling strongly together. Characters? We now have plenty. Stakes? While fsociety’s burning ransom feels symbolic more than powerful, I’m ready for the long game. With the news often in the background (you could glaze over it), we’ll see whether hacking to save the world helps people or just screws up their bank accounts. Bonsoir, season two.
Rating: 9.5/10 (Brilliant)