Scene of the Week:
“I understand what it’s like to lose a parent. It’s heartbreaking. Did you ever think he was right?”
“Hurting you that day? For what you did to him? You ever think you deserved it?”
“I didn’t do anything to him. I was trying to help him.”
“For betraying his trust.”
“I was eight years ol–”
“You didn’t commit to the sacred pact you formed.”
The most recent episode of Mr. Robot has spun out the pilot’s initial concepts in interesting, unexpected directions. I realized all bets were off about five minutes in, when, instead of Elliot deliberating over Evil Corp’s job offer before accepting it and working to take them down from the inside (my personal guess as to the plot’s direction), he almost immediately turned them down. The story spared the company very little attention for the next 47 minutes, instead choosing to focus on the inner workings of fsociety, Mr. Robot’s moral ambiguity, and Elliot’s struggle to make various key decisions. This episode’s explicitly stated thematic center was one of action vs. inaction: will Elliot help fsociety’s efforts to change the world, despite the potential loss of innocent lives? Will he take down his drug dealing neighbor’s sexually abusive supplier, even though he’ll lose a reliable morphine source to numb himself with? The very end of “eps1.1_ones-and-zer0es.mpeg” even offers the quieter but no less narratively significant question of whether Elliot will trade away a degree of his sacred privacy to Mr. Robot in order to rejoin fsociety and enact a plan to destroy more data without killing anyone (a risk the group initially shrugged off as a nonissue).
Elliot’s responses to the first two dilemmas are consistent with what we learned from the pilot – despite his flaws and questionable moments, he ultimately does want to do the right thing and help vulnerable people. On the flip side, he also refuses to fall in line with Mr. Robot’s easy acceptance of collateral damage. This is a smart characterization choice on the writers’ part; with many ethically complex protagonists, we see a focus on the question of how far they’ll go to save people or carry out their ideals, and how frequently they can sacrifice others before they become monstrous in their own way. Elliot is a different breed: he doesn’t have all the answers, but his moral limitations are strict, and he knows sacrificing harmless citizens in order to take down the capitalist system they’re all trapped under wouldn’t make him any better than self-justifying Evil Corp executives like Tyrell Wellick.
Naturally, this brings us to his complicated relationship with the title character of Mr. Robot. In the pilot, Christian Slater’s coolheaded anarchist was mysterious by design, an almost godlike figure as he told Elliot how much he understood and empathized with his embittered views, and how they could change the country’s oppressive structure together. He seemed
like a character that could take any kind of path going forward – as a witty, incisive mentor to Elliot, or a potential antagonist framed as a dark mirror to his status-quo-altering ideals. Essentially, it wasn’t clear whether he’d be a force for good, bad, or something in between. While Mr. Robot remains difficult to decipher in terms of specific motivations, this episode provided a lot to chew on, especially in terms of the final scene transcribed above.
Earlier, we saw him get frustrated with Elliot and demand that he either commit to fsociety or leave; when Elliot returns to him, offering a non-lethal alternative to one of the organization’s plans, Mr. Robot says he’ll let him back in at the cost of some personal information about Elliot’s deceased father. Elliot explains that, as a young child, he gave his word he wouldn’t reveal his dad’s cancer to anyone; after he broke that promise and told his mom, the father shoved Elliot out a window and caused him to break his arm. Mr. Robot abruptly pushes Elliot off the railing they’re sitting on; his final line in their exchange is also the last line of the episode. He walks away, and we don’t see whether Elliot’s unharmed or even conscious.
It’s hard to know exactly what Mr. Robot’s intentions are here, how he expects Elliot to react, or if he thinks this might jeopardize his further use of Elliot’s talents. In one solidly effective “holy crap, did that actually just happen?” moment, the only clear thing is that he’s going out of his way to reprimand Elliot for trying to leave in a matter-of-fact and brutally physical manner. Personally, I’m tempted to believe he hadn’t decided what he was going to do until hearing his Elliot’s story and learning how he could echo a traumatic formative experience as punishment. It’s a gesture of control and manipulation, toying with Elliot the same way he casually blows off the risks his schemes pose to others. He operates entirely in a mode of careless self-interest and vindictive impulses. Mr. Robot talks about rescuing society from the likes of Wellick and E Corp, but he’s only interested in people as a concept, not as actual individuals. Whatever you can say about Elliot, he sympathizes with his friends’ problems and tries to improve their circumstances. Mr. Robot wouldn’t think twice about hurting any of the people he supposedly wants to set free if he thought there was something to be gained from it.
All of this has fairly sinister implications for the character, as well as Elliot’s future interactions with him. I don’t have a solid guess as to what state of mind we’ll see Elliot in next week, but I’m hoping we’ll learn more about the other members of fsociety, and where they fall within the ethical framework that’s been set up. Carly Chaikin’s Darlene was a particular highlight this week; I can’t wait to see where her dynamic with Elliot goes. As everyone’s agendas begin to intersect and collide, it seems each character will be forced to confront one of the major defining questions of the series: where do you stand?