Review: It's time for 'Mr. Robot' to cut down on the super-sized episodes
A review of tonight's Mr. Robot coming up just as soon as my DJ career gets me free trips...
"I can't beat you. And you can't beat me." -Elliot
Earlier today, Sam Esmail tweeted the following:
Ahead of tonight's #MrRobot I want to apologize for the extra long ep (again). Next week will be shorter. Again, sorry for being so long-win— Sam Esmail (@samesmail) July 27, 2016
This is a self-aware and funny tweet (note how it ends), and hopefully a sign that Esmail realizes he's taken too much advantage of the free hand USA has given him this year. Even if you want to treat the premiere as two separate episodes, they still aired on the same night, meaning all three weeks of this season have featured viewing experiences that ran around 90 minutes with commercials. Without ads, tonight's ep was an hour and 5 minutes, which is longer than even the great majority of HBO or Showtime drama episodes (give or take your extra-long Game of Thrones or Wire finales). Most of the initial responses to Esmail's tweet were people telling him not to apologize, that they'd always take more of this show they love, and I've heard similar defenses of, say, the Netflix Arrested Development season or at least parts of the period of Sons of Anarchy where FX stopped telling Kurt Sutter what to do(*).
(*) I mentioned tonight's length to a friend connected to Sons, and his response was, "Damn, that's longer than most of our episodes."
But if episode lengths were originally designed because of scheduling and space for ads, they've also turned out to be very valuable for shaping storytelling, and every show should be aware of its ideal length. Some dramas are meant to do full hours, or even beyond that (given all the story and characters to cover, GoT would often benefit from longer versions, assuming there was time to film the extra material), while others are wise to know that every minute past the 40-45 minute range of broadcast network and basic cable risks making the whole episode feel padded and slow. The two-part Mr. Robot season premiere mostly got away with it because the individual episodes were the usual length and structured accordingly, and because premieres and finales in general tend to need more room to maneuver. (The series pilot was the only season 1 episode to run over an hour without commercials, and the finale was about 10 minutes longer than normal.) But the show has been really dragging with these two most recent installments.
Last week, the show got away with it because the creative highs were so high — many of them, like Elliot enjoying a Mr. Robot-free existence on Adderall, working because Esmail let them run on much longer than he would have in a regular-length show — but tonight's felt sluggish without any of the compensating insanity. Outside of Elliot's fantasy of a life without Mr. Robot — where he could be a normal guy, date Angela, be friends with the Wellicks, apologize to that guy he emotionally destroyed during the climate control caper last season, etc., and eventually enjoy a nice dinner in the middle of the street with all his pals, even as the Evil Corp tower collapsed in the distance — this was a pretty straightforward episode that just kept going and going and going. Near the end, Mr. Robot admits to Elliot that he knew their chess match would end in a stalemate every time, but let it play out at length because he needed Elliot to understand that neither of them could defeat the other, on either the chess board or in general. But we're not Elliot. We see things more quickly than he does, and the show knows this, if you take Esmail at his word that he assumed the whole audience would figure out the Tyler Durden of it all much sooner than Elliot did. So that conflict, like most of the hour (plus) could have played out more quickly and still easily gotten the point across.
Outside of the pre-credits flashback sequence, where a surprise visit from Darlene led the Mr. Robot persona to begin plotting out the Evil Corp hack, and maybe the season's first appearance of Whiterose, every single scene in the episode could have been much briefer and still given us the necessary story and character beats. (And even the Whiterose scene was a lot of dancing around the details of whatever she and Price are up to; I was just happy to have B.D. Wong back playing that character again.) The rest of it — Darlene connecting with Cisco, Joanna battling money troubles, Angela trying to outmaneuver Price, and most of the material with Elliot and Ray — probably could have been cut in half with no appreciable loss.
Hand-in-hand with the length issue, of course, is Esmail's decision to begin the season with Elliot in such an internal emotional and even physical place(*), where he's mainly having arguments in his head with Mr. Robot, interacting with entirely new characters, or briefly entertaining visits from people like Gideon and Darlene. Allsafe wasn't the most thrilling TV workplace setting of all time, but having Elliot out in the world gave the show a sense of forward momentum, and a more vivid emotional contrast between the face Elliot let the world see and the one he wore for us, than what we're getting right now. Maybe the season 1 architecture could have supported these longer episodes, or maybe not.
Longer than normal episodes aren't inherently a bad thing. The first super-sized Sons episode, "Balm," is maybe the best that show ever was. Fargo season 2 did several episodes that clocked in around this length, and the time just breezed by because of the number of colorful characters and the way the story kept bouncing along. When I'm fully absorbed in an episode of television, it could run forever — or, at least, until I have to be home for dinner — without me noticing or minding. But when a show is taking place as much inside the main character's head as Mr. Robot is at the moment, this length is incredibly hard to sustain without feeling the weight of every minute ticking by.
(*) I'm saving discussion of The Fan Theory for the very end of this review, for the sake of any of you who have somehow managed to avoid learning what it is. And if you have, I would tell you to try to stay that way.
I'm glad to hear next week's will be shorter, and I hope that either continues to be the case, or that Elliot's decision to use Ray's computer to contact Darlene and hack the FBI means the show is moving past this phase of things and can more comfortably spread itself out.
Some other thoughts:
* The show is using small background details to make its version of New York seem more dystopian (or, at least, futuristic), with Darlene riding the subway alongside people wearing VR goggles, gas masks, and other breathing apparatuses.
* Last week, Ray complained to his late wife that people's allowances were making it harder for them to spend money on flowers. Here, the parking lot attendant complains to Joanna about his allowance limiting his available funds. It seems the Evil Corp hack has severely limited the amount of cash anyone can access.
* Joanna comes across as sincere in insisting that she's in love with her young lover, but everything we know about her would suggest otherwise.
* Now that Leon has seen the Seinfeld finale, what pop culture obsession will he distract Elliot with next?
* Among this week's songs: a couple of different Scottish National Orchestra pieces from Gustav Holt's The Planets (the prologue), "Rainy Night in Georgia" by Brook Benton (Darlene gets off the subway looking for Cisco), the Chromatics' cover of "Into the Black" (Darlene has sex with Cisco in the bathroom), and Twinkle Twinkle Little Rock Star's cover of "Basket Case" (Elliot's fantasy about a normal life without Mr. Robot).
Finally, a few thoughts on The Fan Theory. Again, if you haven't heard what it is, I'd suggest just stopping here, rather than being unable to watch half the scenes without trying to see if they fit the Theory.
* Last week, I noted that Ray's travels out in the world seemed to go against the idea that Elliot was in jail or a mental hospital, but several of you countered that Ray could be an employee of the facility: a guard or an orderly or something else. And their interactions in this episode very much had the feeling of some kind of professional relationship, rather than a total stranger from the neighborhood hanging out with Elliot a lot. Darlene's line about how she can't understand why Elliot did this fits him voluntarily committing himself to a hospital just as well as to the idea that he moved back in with their mother, and even if Mrs. Alderson's relationship with her kids is awful, it feels odd that we would have seen zero interaction between her and Darlene. Like I said last week, I hope this isn't where things are going, because I don't want this to be a show where anything can be revealed to be fake — or, at least, not quite matching the reality that we're seeing — at any time. But if this is what's going to be revealed (hopefully very soon), the show hasn't exactly cheated about it.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org