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‘Mr. Robot’ Has a Pacing Problem

Seven episodes in, the show is still dancing around the story

USA Network
USA Network

Like any thriller worth its crushed morphine dust, Mr. Robot strung its audience across the gap between seasons with a few basic questions. It seemed like a fair trade at the time: one big reveal — even one so heavily foreshadowed it was less a reveal than a mutual agreement between show and audience to wrap up the pleasantries and finally get on with things — for a thousand smaller ones down the line.

In retrospect, this didn’t exactly bode well for all those open questions. If it took creator-auteur Sam Esmail nine full episodes to tell us something we knew all along (great Fincher’s beard, Elliot IS Mr. Robot!), what did that promise for all the things we didn’t know? Because there was quite a bit: What happened during Elliot’s three-day blackout? What happened to murderous Evil Corp exec Tyrell Wellick during Elliot’s three-day blackout? What was going on with Angela, who was either committed to bringing down her mother’s killer from the inside or a suddenly brainwashed corporate zombie? What would happen after a hack that effectively turned the world economy upside down?

Those are a lot of balls up in the air, covering a lot of ground. Read those questions again: They touch on everything from basic world-building (the hack), to conventional suspense (Tyrell), to general issues of character and motivation (Angela).

And more than halfway through Mr. Robot’s second season, almost none of them have been answered.

Instead, we got “eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme” (hereby known as “Handshake,” because: no). It’s an episode whose central twist feels like a half-size version of Season 1’s — and a far less necessary one, given that, just like Christian Slater’s true identity, attentive viewers had predicted it from day one. Elliot, it turns out, hasn’t been at his mother’s house after all. He’s been in prison, and the carefully structured routine he laid out in the premiere is less a matter of choice than a mandate. His “mom” is a guard; his “friend” is a fellow inmate; his guardian angel turned tormentor, Ray, is a corrections employee of some kind. It’s all very neat. And it falls very flat.

It’s not the twist itself that I object to. Elliot’s mind, after all, is still broken, and it’ll continue to warp reality into a nightmare version of his own childhood as long as it stays that way. It’s how long Mr. Robot kept up the pretense that this was a twist at all. At least the Durden-esque truth of the title character felt like part of the show’s studied pastiche; one could complain about Mr. Robot’s reflexive homages (and many did, memorably), but they’re so fundamental to the show that objecting seemed pointless. But even Fight Club fans would roll their eyes at Mr. Robot’s choice to go through the motions once more, with so much feeling. Elliot’s prison interlude would have been a nice transitional touch if it had lasted a couple of episodes, three max. But it went on for seven.

“Handshake” will mostly be remembered for its water-cooler moment, but the litany of smaller reveals throughout the episode struck me most, largely because I realized I’d been waiting more than a month to hear them. On a cab ride, Angela hears a radio newscast about the cratered economy’s inability to provide basic services like trash disposal, leading to a black market of trash burners and a postapocalyptic vibe. (Conveniently, the cab drives by a dumpster fire at precisely the right moment.) It was such a simple act of exposition, and one that could have easily been dropped into an earlier episode. Instead, we get it here. That narrative efficiency holds throughout “Handshake”: We finally learn just how much Angela knows about her best friend’s involvement with fsociety, and Mr. Robot gives Elliot a maybe-trustworthy answer to Tyrell’s whereabouts.

Yet Mr. Robot’s pacing problem remains. In a postgame with Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall, Esmail concedes that Elliot’s isolation and continued hallucinations are polarizing choices, while still promising, “We will do plenty of question-answering in the back half, especially with all the things we set up in the first half of the season.” That’s certainly reason for optimism — except virtually all of Mr. Robot’s season to date has merely teetered on the edge of actual forward momentum. Elliot’s return to hacking, even if under duress, felt like a turning point; so did the unveiling of Mr. Robot’s origins. Neither sparked the domino chain of action we hoped they would. Even if Esmail’s right, though, the stagnation of the season’s first half is still a problem unto itself. It’s a big part of why Mr. Robot has lost some of its critical sheen, and it’s left precious time to course-correct before the season wraps.

As a cable drama that’s struggled to impose a structure on itself in the absence of traditional guideposts like procedural rhythms or sitcom beats, Mr. Robot is hardly alone. Netflix dramas often find that freedom’s just another word for “all the rope you need to hang yourself with”; Preacher, another summer slow burn, overcompensated for its hyperactive source material by slowing to a crawl. Unlike these series, however, Mr. Robot may be unique in already having an answer to its own problems.

In the same interview, Esmail describes Grace Gummer’s Dominique DiPierro, an FBI agent on fsociety’s trail, as “the flip side to Elliot.” Esmail was mostly referring to Dom’s character; she and Elliot may start from similar places of loneliness, but Dom is constantly trying to overcome hers, reaching out to a local bodega owner or a murdered hacker’s mom. Even their roles within the larger story couldn’t be more different. Elliot brings it to a standstill, where Dom is a catalyst; Elliot has spent the season in quarantine, where Dom, alone among the major characters, hopscotches among the major story arcs virtually at will. She’s gotten close to the heart of fsociety. She’s gone to China to track the Dark Army and inadvertently met its leader, Whiterose. And this week, she is dropped into ECorp, rightly intuiting Angela’s role in an FBI hack. I’m consistently startled by how dynamic Dom is, because dynamism is something this show has no longer trained me to expect. Dom’s mobility and dexterity aren’t just missing from every other character on Mr. Robot — they’re missing from Mr. Robot itself.