Though so much of USA’s Mr. Robot has thus far focused on E Corps and Elliot’s (Rami Malek) struggles with it, last week’s “eps1.4_3xpl0its.wmv” began to tie in a much more immediate threat to his life when the drug dealer Vera (Elliot Villar) appears to have worked out that Elliot is the one who turned him in. It was a moment that married together several subplots of Mr. Robot, including Elliot’s drug use and his altruistic moonlighting as a vigilante hacker.
In the past, his acts of hacktivism (liberating his therapist from a lying boyfriend, sending a child pornographer to jail, rescuing an abused dog) happened with casual triumph, leaving Elliot able to justify any of his other actions through this silent chivalry. And at first, him sending Vera to jail and rescuing Shayla (Frankie Shaw) from his clutches seemed like another one of these celebratory moments. But the end of “eps1.4_3xpl0its.wmv” showed that, unexpectedly, Vera wasn’t going to be put away that easily, and he already activated his network to come after them.
What has made Mr. Robot such an excellent series is, in part, the fact that it makes things work that shouldn’t. In one general example: voiceover is a tricky thing, but in Mr. Robot it makes sense. Elliot isn’t pointing out things we are already seeing or understanding on screen, he’s giving us additional information about his thoughts and feelings. Somehow it amounts to more than just background babble, and actually gives us true insight into his character.
The same is true, more specifically, in how unexpectedly the show executed the apparently “zero-sum game” in “eps1.5_br4ve-trave1er.asf.” Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) makes a brief appearance in the midst of it almost like Elliot’s conscience, telling him he’s a fool who’s already dead if he doesn’t run away in that moment. But Elliot feels responsible for what happened to Shayla (and now Carly Chaikin’s Darlene), and won’t abandon them. There’s a lot of repetition that this prison hack to free Vera — the deal that will give Shayla back to Elliot — is impossible, and that no matter what, people will die. It’s just hard believing it, and somewhere around that staircase meeting, the stakes drained out of the episode. Elliot isn’t going to die, and he’s going to find a way to do the impossible. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but it’s not truly life or death.
Except ultimately it was. The episode went through several subversions of viewer expectations, not only when Elliot realized that it was Vera’s brother, Issac (Rick Gonzalez), who had ratted him out (and that Elliot was just a pawn in their larger fight for power) but also in Vera’s final reveal. Elliot did get him out of jail, and Vera did have his own brother killed. But then he let Elliot have Shayla by uttering one the incredibly chilling statement: “she’s been with you all along.” Shayla was in their trunk. The stakes of “eps1.5_br4ve-trave1er.asf” amounted to the fact that there weren’t any real stakes, but not because Elliot would save the day. It was because Shayla was already dead.
Elliot has worked hard to minimize casualties so far, like in his attempt to hack Steel Mountain rather than blow it up. That desire, brilliantly, ties back to his shared background with Angela (Portia Doubleday), and the death of their parents, and helps establish Elliot’s moral code. And yet, that has started to give way. Elliot absolutely decimated the man who gave him the Steel Mountain tour, reducing him verbally to a quibbling mess. It was horrible to watch unfold, but in the moment he saw no real alternative. Elliot used his ability to read people for its worst possible purpose, but it was all part of the plan. Yet that plan ultimately failed, so at what cost did it play out?
Now, with Shayla’s death, Elliot is facing a real casualty caused by his direct actions. In a stunning moment, the camera lingered just on Elliot for what felt like full minutes as he popped the trunk and reacted to seeing Shayla. It gave so much time to that moment, which is such a rare thing on on TV. Rami Malek has been fantastic in the series, but never more so as when he tried to hold it together, and then let out a sob over Shayla’s corpse. For a few minutes before we saw it, it allowed some ambiguity — was she alive? Before any confirmation, we struggled with Elliot, only slowly reading the truth of the realization on his face. It was a terrible moment, and one that was rendered with the maximum amount of emotion. Thinking back: when Angela said “say hello to Shayla,” when Mr. Robot was telling Elliot that Shayla was, for all purposes dead, she was dead. Right there.
Now, everything has changed. For the first time in a long time, Elliot had no control. Despite his speed and his smarts and even his new fsociety cohorts, he couldn’t save Shayla, and hacking into the drug network ultimately meant nothing. (Not to mention the fact that Elliot just released untold numbers of criminals, also for nothing). The show has proved it’s not afraid to show real consequences, and Elliot is having to face new struggles outside of himself and his inner monologue. The last moments, tellingly, were silent.
Mr. Robot is the kind of series that seems set up as the story of a brilliant rogue hacker who breezes through his online life — dealing with moral quandaries as he works for E Corps, sure — but ultimately being the kind of guy who can always find a hack, a solution. Almost every major save that Elliot has done has had collateral damage, and many of his plans have failed, from the initial fsociety hack to the Steel Mountain security attempt, to him trying to save Shayla. Mr. Robot tells Elliot that Shayla was dead the moment she got involved with the bad guys, but it doesn’t help him. In his mind, he could save her, like everyone else he tries to save because he can’t help himself. “Eps1.5_br4ve-trave1er.asf” ultimately showed that darkness is rapidly closing in around him, and he seems powerless to fight it. What that pushes him to next, especially as Angela reveals her plans against E Corps, just might make an already great show extraordinary.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on USA