Review: How does 'Mr. Robot' get through an entire episode without Elliot?
A review of tonight's Mr. Robot coming up just as soon as I create an Angelfire fan page...
"I didn't know I could do that." -Darlene
A year ago, an episode like "Successor" — in which Elliot is entirely absent, along with his eponymous alter ego, while the focus is almost entirely on Darlene and her remaining comrades — would have been unthinkable. In season 1, Elliot was the show, and vice versa, and most of fsociety barely registered as more than vague shapes lingering on the edge of the frame (which, given the framing of Mr. Robot, rendered them particularly obscure).
At this stage of season 2, though, it mostly works. It's not even that Mobley or Trenton or Cisco have transformed into vivid and exciting characters (though we're at least at the point where I remember their names), but that after spending so much time this summer inside Elliot's head — up to and including last week's revelation that much of what we've seen of him has been an imaginary construct to help him cope with being in prison — that it's almost a relief to get a break from our "friend" and his inner father figure for a week(*).
(*) I imagine an episode like this is also a relief for Rami Malek, who is on camera so much of the time most weeks — and so often asked to do the sort of acting that I imagine is more physically and emotionally draining than if he was, say, the lead on a network procedural — to get a break at mid-season. Other shows that place a similar workload on their stars often find ways to give them a break — "Blink," perhaps the most beloved Doctor Who episode of them all, was part of that series' annual tradition of doing an episode in which the Doctor barely appears — and I wouldn't be surprised if, at a minimum, we get occasional Elliot-light hours going forward.
As the title suggests, much fof the hour deals with Darlene's struggle to be the successor to her brother — and, on a level we understand more than she does, to her father — as leader of fsociety, where she not only gives the orders but gets to wear the familiar tuxedo, top hat and mask for all the viral videos. She's been running the show all season, and had more individual victories than the group did during most of Elliot's leadership. But as Mobley notes — and as we've seen evidence time and again throughout the season (like Dom's favorite sandwich maker having to close his deli) — they inadvertently seem to be making the world worse, not better, and there have been times under both regimes where it's seemed as if fsociety has been less about social justice than a very personal kind for the Alderson family.
That aspect comes into uncomfortable focus when Susan Jacobs surprises the hackers by returning early to her smart house and Darlene, given a chance to blackmail or otherwise control a hated Evil Corp executive, instead simply murders her when no one else is watching. It's an incredibly dark turn for Darlene, but one that also makes sense given what we know of both her and her family as a whole. No one who grew up in that house, with those parents, and who experienced everything they went through thanks to E Corp, was likely to come out totally healthy and normal on the other end. Elliot's damage is more visible, and perhaps — depending on exactly what Mr. Robot is capable of doing when Elliot isn't around to stop him — runs much deeper, but Darlene is broken in her own way, and cynical enough to believe that some people can't be punished, or controlled, in any way short of premature death by taser and swimming pool.
It's a measure of how confident and nuanced Carly Chaikin's performance has become over time that she could carry a whole episode like this without the help of her Emmy-nominated co-star (or, for that matter, the more famous guy who plays the ghost of their dad). With Elliot absent, "Successor" is a much more conventional episode of Mr. Robot, with no voiceover narration putting the episode's emotional conflicts into computer programming terms, and less stylistic craziness overall. At times, it becomes too conventional: you know Susan will try to escape when Trenton cuts her loose, this becomes the umpteenth dark cable drama where our heroes have to dispose of an inconvenient corpse (Cisco even jokingly references how Breaking Bad and Fargo the movie did it), and Cisco leaving his computer unsecured for Darlene to see his messages to the Dark Army(*) seems a plot convenience that a hacker of his salt wouldn't fall prey to. (UPDATE: It was apparently clearer in the final version than the screener that Darlene hacked his password to get on, so nevermind that point.) But the hour is still a pretty compelling one, which speaks not only to Chaikin's skills as a performer, but Sam Esmail's skills as a storyteller: even a Mr. Robot stripped of the main character, the title character, and many of the show's other quirks, still functions as both an episode of the series and an interesting hour of dramatic television.
(*) Do we have any evidence that Darlene has any Chinese language skills? The fact that the message was subtitled could mean that she was translating it, or it could be another instance of the show letting us know more than the characters do, while Darlene was only able to make an educated guess based on the picture of her and the language being used.
"Successor" also neatly underlined something we all knew on some level already, but didn't have fully confirmed until last week: Elliot hasn't just been keeping to himself since the end of last season, but has been physically separated from Darlene and all his friends, except on visiting days at the prison. As viewers, we've been toggling back and forth between Elliot's inner turmoil and Darlene trying to keep the mission going without him, but here we got it as more than just an idea, but her reality. This is what her life is like, and what fsociety is like, without Elliot around to provide not only leadership, but on some level a moral compass. (Mr. Robot is the idea man, but Elliot keeps his alter's worst impulses in check.) Maybe Darlene would have killed Susan Jacobs even if Elliot were still running the show, and just not there in that particular moment. But she's all on her own, with no one to fully respect, or trust — least of all Cisco, who's going to have some 'splaining to do once he recovers from that thumping Darlene gives him with a baseball bat in the episode's closing shot — and as an already broken person in a world that she's somehow made even more broken, it doesn't take much to push her past a point she should never go, and to do something she can never take back.
I'll be glad to see Elliot back, especially now that the overall plot is really moving again, but where his absence could have made "Successor" feel like a filler episode, it instead gave us a more complete picture of what the life he abandoned has looked like while he's been talking Seinfeld with Leon and pretending to live with his mom.
Some other thoughts:
* Dammit, Duck Phillips is off the wagon again! Or, at least, Mark Moses is again playing a character who enjoys both a bar and a chance to flirt with a woman young enough to be his daughter. That Angela's reciprocates his interest isn't a surprise, given her interactions with Price, her complicated feelings about her estranged father, etc.; as her would-be boyfriend — who turns out to be working for the FBI — tells Dom, "I think she's just into old dudes."
* At the karaoke bar, Angela sings Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," which has resonance beyond the connection to its title and Angela's current employer, since it's memorably featured on the soundtrack to one of the earliest films about eccentric outsider geniuses hacking the government and trying to bring truth to power: the very funny (and, decades later, still enormously quotable) Real Genius with Val Kilmer. (Here's Kilmer introducing himself — and his filing system — to his new roommate.)
* On his wall, Cisco has a "Regulators! Let's Dance" poster, which is a reference to Young Guns — and, thus, a sideways reference to Young Guns 2 star Christian Slater. Where have you gone, Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh?
* Trenton and Mobley's first meeting takes place at a Ron's Coffee, but not the location with the great wifi where we first got to see Elliot's vigilante work in action back in the pilot, as it turned out the great wifi was because the owner was running a child pornography site. I thought it was a nice touch that the flashback concluded with Darlene reading a note from Elliot that's part of the narration from that debut episode, while noting that her brother has a flair for the melodramatic.
* I'm on vacation next week, and though I'll eventually see next week's episode, I won't be writing about it and will jump straight ahead to the September 7 one for my next review of the series.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org