We very much enjoyed episode 2 of USA Network’s Mr. ROBOT. So much so that we may have gotten a wee bit wordy. Fair warning, this piece is spoiler heavy. Read on at your own peril. – Ed.
Episode 2 of MR.ROBOT (ones-and-zer0es.mpeg) picks up where we last left off, with Elliot being delivered to a meeting room full of Evil Corp alumni. He was hand delivered by a trio of muscular suits. Tyrell Wellick, Senior VP of Tech and interim CTO, sits at the head of this proverbial den of wolves and greets Elliot in equal parts confidence and menace.
Wellick launches into a sales pitch about 1% living, updating Machiavellian strategy for the new warzone of the modern financial stage. “The will to take is all that is necessary” he quips, indicating that power, money, and ambition beget more power, money, and ambition. He acknowledges the circular wall of Armani suits and power ties around him, identifying them as the most annoying legal minds Evil Corp employs. “Technically, what I’m doing might be considered illegal,” Wellick states, with little hesitation. “We have a non-compete agreement with AllSafe.”
With that, Wellick makes a surprise offer to Elliot. While the offer is initially sweetened with promises of riches and power, Elliot’s initial reluctance forces Wellick to reveal his sinister side. Thinly-veiled threats are soon added to the list of “perks” for accepting the offer. True to form with his character, Elliot awkwardly responds, resulting in a sinister window-gazing Super-Villain monologue from Wellick.
The same muscle that initially grabbed Elliot off the streets at the end of episode 1 is charged with delivering him back to the urban jungle. The only member of the group who spoke previously addresses Elliot again. He tells Elliot they will be nearby when (not if) he changes his mind, indicating that not only does he not have a choice, but that he is under their continual surveillance as well. They are always close by.
Elliot travels between worlds as he exits the corp-owned vehicle, passing quickly from the white collar existence he grudgingly pretends to belong to into the familiarity of the dirty streets he seems more comfortable within. He meets Shayla, his dealer from Episode 1 (hellofriend.mov). He bears witness to a tense interaction between Shayla and a thuggish brute outside his apartment. After the brute departs, Shayla and Elliot do business. Shayla expresses concern over Elliot breaking from his normal schedule, as it is quite out of character for him. She expresses a level of concern for him that is beyond the scope of their dealer-user relationship. She asks him to make her a promise; “No, Elliot, promises matter. You have to say it, Elliot.” He grudgingly commits, only to break said promise in the next scene.
Three rails later, Elliot gets back to his vigilante activities, hacking Wellick and beginning to pull his data. He gets in far too easily for his liking, and upon finding nothing incriminating, his paranoia causes him to identify the current data and accounts as a trap. His paranoia gets the better of him, and he immediately destroys all of his SIM cards and hard drives.
All of the pressure is starting to get to Elliot. We get a glimpse of a picture that might show him with his mother. He struggles with taking care of Flipper, his canine companion acquired from hacking target Michael Hansen in episode 1. He engages in bargaining with Flipper, and the kind heart buried in his dark outlook and anxiety is revealed yet again, albeit briefly.
Back at AllSafe, things are going in many directions. Elliot is offered a raise for his efforts in “stopping” the Evil Corp hack, courtesy of his manager Gideon Goddard. Gideon also reveals that he knows about the .dat file (or seems to; it is difficult at times to discern what is real and what is fiction created by Elliot). Fsociety has also released a video condemning the evils of the world society and demanding the release of Colby, whom they had framed for the hack performed in episode 1. This serves to sow cunfusion while continuing to paint Colby as the culprit of the attacks. If their demands are not met, they threaten to begin doxxing anyone related to the data they acquired (most likely to be Evil Corp employees or affiliates). You can almost hear Christian Slater narrating through the video, voice modded and face obscured by a mask that combines elements of Guy Fawkes and Rich Uncle Pennybags. “The People are waking up from economic slavery.”
Angela (Elliot’s co-worker at AllSafe) attempts to get him to come out for a social gathering, along with poor-pretender fratboy douche Ollie Parker. Elliot is distracted, however, by men in suits, and agrees to attend in a mild panic before turning and fleeing the scene. Before departing themselves, Ollie purchases a freshly dropped rap album from a artist pushing burnt CDs on the street in front of AllSafe, lording his position and money over the artist. “Look, I’ll buy it, just quit bothering us.” The rapper says track 2 is legit; “I’ll tweet about it if its good” remarks Ollie. “I have 48 followers and growing.”
Returning home, Elliot finds he is not alone; someone is in his shower. It turns out to be the still nameless female from the initial FSociety meeting. After a short exchange, they travel back to the boardwalk, at times encountering more men in suits who seem to be pursuing them. I have to state at this point, that I find it interesting that no one but Elliot has interacted with any of the characters from FSociety thus far. Could they simply be figments of his imagination at this point? It’s too early to tell, but the option appears to be open.
They enter the Fsociety HQ to a standing ovation from the small group of digital anarchists within. Elliot jumps at the sound of gunfire before realizing that the sound has come from an arcade cabinet of what sounds like Duck Hunt, being played by Mr.Robot. As he joins the conversation, a tentative hierarchy for the clandestine group begins to emerge, but is never finalized. We learn that the girl’s name is Darlene, and she is a malware coder. The players are beginning to show.
Mr. Robot pulls Elliot aside to share the next step in the plan. “Steel Mountain” he says, will be the next target. Soon identified as an off-grid data repository containing the tape back-ups for Evil Corp. Steel Mountain is a hackers nightmare, as there is no way to get in remotely. It’s location next to a gas refinery has allowed other options, however. Mr.Robot asks Elliot to sabotage the facility’s failsafes, causing an explosion that should take Steel Mountain out. Civilian casualties are expected.
Elliot shies away from the plan; it is evident in his demeanor as well as his statements that he has no wish to hurt the innocent. He makes those statements about former Evil Corp CTO Colby as well. We begin to see the inner workings on his moral compass; though he wishes to bring change and hound the system, he is unwilling to spill innocent blood to do so. Mr.Robot’s response is clinical and detached: “Sound and alarm,” he says. “Give them a head start.” Mr. Robot goes further and states that this part of the plan is critical, and that they have hacker allies such as the Dark Army on standby to carry out the next step once Steel Mountain is reduce to slag and ash.
Elliot pushes back, however. Dark Army? They’ll code for anyone: military, governments, despots. As long as the cash is there, their services can be bought. In this exchange, we learn the significance of the episode title. “Tell me one thing, Elliot,” Mr.Robot starts. “Are you a 1? Or a 0? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. Are you a yes or no? Are you gonna act or not?” Elliot dismisses this. The world is not so cut and dried in its duality. Shades of gray bridge the gap between black and white. “Life is not that binary,” he says. “Every choice is a 1 or a 0. You either do something, or you don’t,” Mr. Robot responds. Elliot, conflicted, moves to exit. “If you leave, you can’t come back; you become a zero,” Mr.Robot yells after him.
Elliot stops by Shayla’s apartment to pick up Flipper, whom he had left with Shayla during his trip with Darlene to the boardwalk. The thug from earlier is there, clad solely in tight whities, fist clenched firmly around a crackpipe. “Shayla is taking a bath,” says the bruiser. Elliot attempts to talk with Shayla through the door, but no answer comes. The thug tells Elliot to wait, in a series of statements that escalate in tone and implied violence. Elliot complies, for now. The cutthroat identifies himself as Fernando Vera, Shayla’s supplier, before attempting to pass the pipe to Elliot, who refuses.
While Vera fellates his own ego, Elliot reflects inward on the hacking he has already done on this scumbag. Vera continues posturing and waxing dark idiotic while we are shown an inventory of the dirt Elliot has collected. Vera is not a smart criminal; all of his illicit business is done online, via text, email, and tweet. Though most of the messages are in a ghetto-twisted street cant, Elliot has already broken the code with his own cipher, and has linked the gangster through his message timing to a number of high profile news reports about gang violence, killings, and drug deals. Verra is already done; Elliot must simply pull the trigger.
We see yet another conflict take hold in Elliot as Vera continues his hate-filled speech. Shayla has done business with Verra because he also supplies the withdrawal meds for the drugs he pushes; a business relationship that may have developed due to Elliot’s unique needs. What begins as a rotten attempt at a ghetto-ganger heart to heart takes an even darker turn, as Verra begins to speak using race hate verbiage and gender discrimination as he objectifies Shayla. It becomes clear that he has violated Shayla sexually, which is confirmed moments after Vera’s departure. Elliot picks the lock on the bathroom door, revealing a barely conscious Shayla, sporting a shiner near one eye. Thus, the dilema: take down Vera and jeopardize his own supply? Or do nothing, be a zero, and compromise Shayla? Shayla asks Elliot to not retaliate, as the money is too good; she is another slave to the financial system. Elliot makes this promise to her, and it ends up being the second one he breaks regarding her in the episode.
The wrap up comes hard and fast from here. Elliot begins to slide further and further from sanity as the issues he is dealing with pile up. He visits his therapist, and we see his edges fraying. He has an angry outburst coupled with a rambling monologue about the illusion of choice. “How do we know if we are in control? How do we know we are not just making the best of what is?” Interesting issues regarding his father and their relationship come to light. He turns over all the evidence on Vera to the police; a traveling shot shows Vera and his gangmates in cuffs on a curb. Vera’s computer hardware is loaded into a forensics van. Elliot files Vera’s data away with his others, on a burnt CD in a binder disguised as music.
We cut to the apartment of Angela Moss. She is preparing to go out for the evening, to the social event that she had invited Elliot to previously. Meanwhile, Ollie sits at her computer, attempting to play track 2 from the CD he purchased off the street peddler earlier. Defeated and disgruntled by an error message, he moves to his email, where we are privy to a less than honorable exchange between Ollie and an unknown female acquaintance. Ollie quickly excuses himself, and tells a quick lie about meeting a friend from Arizona before exiting. Moments later, the webcam on Angela’s machine activates, and we witness a figure in a black hat monitoring Angela, as well as code in kanji. Could this be the Dark Army? If not, then who?
We close with Elliot returning to the Coney Island boardwalk. He approaches Mr.Robot, who is perched on the railing of the walk, dangling over a drop to the rocks and sand below, casually reading a book. Elliot states that he has an idea for destroying the backups without the loss of life. Mr.Robot replies to Elliot, telling him that he walked away; if he wants back in, he’ll have to repay a debt to FSociety. “I thought you didn’t believe in debt,” Elliot replies, alluding to a conversation he had on the Wonder Wheel with Mr.Robot at the end of episode 1.
Mr.Robot is not amused. He asks Elliot to speak about his father as his ticket back in. Knowing that Mr.Robot likely already has the information, Elliot complies. He divulges that his father, a computer engineer for Evil Corp, was diagnosed with leukemia. He told no one except for Elliot, whom he told not to tell. Elliot eventually told his mother, sparking an altercation with his father that resulted in Elliot’s arm being broken. The two never spoke again; Elliot’s father died some time later. Mr.Robot asks Elliot if he thought he deserved the pain, the outcome of that situation, engaging in some strange victim blaming. The scene is a break from expectations, as Elliot allows physical contact from Mr. Robot, something we know he does not like based on earlier interactions. Elliot begins to stammer out an answer, but before he can finish, Mr.Robot pushes him forward off the boardwalk. Roll credits.
While not nearly as explosive and tense as the pilot, ones-and-zer0es.mpeg begins to flesh out some of the threads introduced in hellofriend.mov. I find it interesting that no one other than Elliot has ever interacted with the members of FSociety, though there have been opportunities to do so. Akin to my speculations in regards to the pilot, I find myself asking if FSociety even exists, or if the members are simple mental constructs created by Elliot’s shattered mind, for the purpose of justifying his actions. Determining how much of what we see is real will likely be a challenge throughout the season. Elliot’s complexity and imperfect anti-hero nature come together to create tension, and his peculiar set of morals allow each of his exploits to be consumed differently based on the experiences of the viewer. Watching MR.ROBOT has become a labor of love for this author; while I appreciate Elliot’s views and decision to take action, the sheer amount of paranoia and conspiracy gives me pause. I’ll eagerly await the next episode, and at this point will not likely rest well until the first season concludes, assuming it maintains the pace it has set.