Review: How tonight's 'Mr. Robot' briefly turned into another show – in a good way
A review of tonight's Mr. Robot coming up just as soon as I give Alf four...
"I'm never going to leave you. Promise." -Edward Alderson
"Master Slave" is essentially two distinct episodes of Mr. Robot mashed together, starting off with a long and unusual Elliot/Mr. Robot sequence, then turning into a caper movie revolving around Angela and Darlene. had you told me last season that an episode would have had such a clear split, I would have assumed the Elliot half was the more exciting part, and that Angela teaming up with fsociety was just something to keep the supporting actors busy to avoid working Rami Malek to death.
Instead, the caper plot was the episode's clear winner, while Elliot mental journey into '90s family sitcom-land was a fun idea that (like a lot of this season) arguably ran too long, before paying off well in the end.
Certainly, it takes some guts to devote the first 17 minutes of an episode of your grim cyberpunk thriller to a cracked mirror recreation of Full House, Step by Step, and ABC's other TGIF staples. Mr. Robot's not the first show to tackle the idea — Scrubs and Community, to name two, have done similar fantasy sequences, albeit not as dark — but it's one thing for absurd single-cam comedies to try that and another for an often humorless psychological drama. Still, we are living in a post-Too Many Cooks era, and when your own riff on those shows runs 1 1/2 times as long, but with much less variation — even factoring in the arrival of Alf (Gordon Shumway to his friends) — the impact of it all fades too quickly. I liked the idea that Mr. Robot would create this fantasy construct for Elliot to escape to during his beating at the hands of Ray's goons — thinking about the kinds of shows Elliot watched as a kid, blended in with the Alf rerun on the hospital room TV — but that Elliot's psyche would then color it with memories of how dark and abusive his actual childhood was, but that point was conveyed long before Mr. Robot began giving Elliot the kind of sappy inspirational speech found at the climax of most TGIF episodes.
And yet, that speech did a nice job tying into the climactic moment of Elliot's story in the real world — or, as real as it can be when he's wrapping his dad-shaped alter ego in a tearful bear hug — in reminding us that both characters who wear Christian Slater's face are as capable of helping Elliot as hurting him. Mr. Alderson was an abusive father, and Mr. Robot is manipulating Elliot to serve his own ends, but they do on some level care about him. (Mr. Robot, for instance, believes that Elliot wants the same things that he does, and is just too afraid to admit it to himself.) Closing the episode on a flashback to the moment before young Elliot coined the name of his father's store, of his split personality, and of the series on which we watch him, was a lovely bookend to seeing the adult, damaged Elliot trapped in a fantasy that might have been more appropriate for the age of the kid who promised to keep his father's cancer a secret.
But because last week finally saw Elliot turning his focus outward again, and interacting on some level with the other characters, this lengthy trip back inside his own head did feel like one step forward, one step back. Darlene and company turning Angela into an overnight hacking sensation, on the other hand, was an unexpected delight, and a credit to the work that Esmail and Portia Doubleday have done in building Angela up into a character capable of both pulling off that mission and carrying long Elliot-free swaths of an episode.
The tone of that story wasn't exactly Ocean's Eleven, but it was more spritely than similar capers Elliot was involved in last season (the prison break, the visit to Steel Mountain), because he's such a fundamentally dark character that he sets the tone for everything around him. This end of the story didn't lack for dread and suspense and coldness — whether the Dark Army reps threatening to inject Cisco for questioning Whiterose's decisions or Angela, recognizing the importance of pulling off the stunt, very quickly swallowing all her feelings about Cisco's role in potentially ruining her life — but it also had playful moments like a glammed-up Darlene making her way into a fancy hotel room to play spotter, or Angela figuring out on her own how to keep the overbearingly flirtatious Agent Thomas from giving her too close a look. Over the course of the series' first 16 episodes, we've seen Angela evolve from someone who would never even consider being part of such a stunt, let alone capable of successfully pulling it off, to someone who takes big risks and often succeeds with them — give or take what happens now that Dom has paid her a visit in mid-hack. Even if she's leaning heavily on her affirmations in a fake it til you make it kind of way, it's working for her. And that was very entertaining to watch.
This was a fun one, folks — as fun as Mr. Robot can probably be, given its baseline tone — though one that still could have benefited from some tightening.
Some other thoughts:
* The bleeping of the curse words in the TGIF sequence hung a lamp on the fact that Mr. Robot proper is featuring more and more muted F-bombs with each passing week, it seems. My screeners leave the bad words in, and the later streaming versions will as well, but it can become distracting if it happens a lot, and particularly in an episode with jokes about the same thing in a different format.
* I'm not especially invested in finding out what happened to Tyrell Wellick — I'll presumably care when we find out, but I haven't minded his absence — but if I were a fan for whom this was an important story point, I would feel the show was taunting me at this point with how brief and opaque each of his appearances has been this season. Wellick pleading that he's "an important businessman" right before crashing into the rear projection screen made me laugh, though.
* On a show that is full of cold and closed-off characters, Dom is a real ray of sunshine, even though it's clear she's carrying around comparable levels of damage to most of the other regulars. Grace Gummer's been a real pleasure in this role, and I look forward to what happens now that Dom is even more directly intersecting with fsociety.
* Price is powerful enough that he gets to put the Speaker of the House on speaker, but not powerful enough to bully him into a bailout involving Chinese money.
* Notable songs: "Gwan" by The Suffers as our caper music, and "Guiding Light" by Television for the concluding flashback with young Elliot and his dad.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com