Review: ‘Mr. Robot’s shortest episode of the season is also its most suspenseful

09.07.16 11 months ago 56 Comments

USA

A review of tonight's Mr. Robot coming up just as soon as I give Africa to the Chinese…

“But sooner or later, Elliot, this will all catch up to you.” -Angela

At a shade over 43 minutes without commercials, “Hidden Process” is easily the shortest standalone episode of season 2(*). It's also, not coincidentally, the tightest and most suspenseful installment of the season, bringing various story threads together in a way that had more impact because – particularly in the second half – the story kept moving forward with a relentlessness making clear something very bad was about to happen. And then it did.

(*) Technically, each half of the season premiere was shorter, with “Unmask Part 1” clocking in at a brisk 40-plus minutes, and “Part 2” at 42 minutes, but they aired together and were primarily treated as one big episode. Prior to tonight, the shortest episode to air on its own this year was “Successor,” which clocked in at over 47 minutes. We've had two others in the high 40s, two in the mid-50s, and two running over an hour before commercials were added in.

In particular, I loved the different editing style used for the closing section of the episode: rather than cutting from one full scene to the next, we had scenes involving Elliot, Darlene, and Dom taking place all at the same time, bouncing back and forth so quickly that sometimes our glimpse of Dom or Elliot wouldn't feature any dialogue at all. All three sets of characters were linked, their actions affecting one another, as Elliot had to face the reality that he had put his loved ones in danger while he was off discussing Seinfeld with Leon, Darlene again confronted the notion that she will forever exist in her brother's shadow, and Dom finally tracked down people connected to fsociety by more than just a hunch and an Angelfire page. As the cutting became faster and more fragmented, my sense of dread rose and rose, and Sam Esmail's use of a static camera shot across the street from the diner where Darlene and Cisco were eating both telegraphed and then underlined the violence that occurred with the arrival of more Dark Army killers.

Do I believe that, because Dom ran out of the diner on her own, stained with blood, that Cisco and Darlene are both lying dead on the floor of Lupe's? No, although Darlene's earlier monologue about being kidnapped as a little girl – and wishing she had stayed there, because the woman treated her better than her parents did – could function as a classic case of a doomed character revealing a huge and telling piece of backstory shortly before being killed. (The Walking Dead does this all the time with its more cannon fodder-y characters.) But because the camera was across the street, we couldn't hear anything being said inside, and could only vaguely see what was happening, and my money would be on Darlene being under that table, shaken but alive, and told to stay there by Dom as she runs out to liaise with the arriving cops. And the less vital Cisco can be as dead as some of Dom's redshirt colleagues were in China.

Prior to the shooting, and to Elliot and Angela's heart-to-heart – and more – on the subway, the early sections of “Hidden Process” focused on the search for Tyrell Wellick. We're now two hours (give or take) from the end of this season – and already equal to the number of episodes that the shorter first season gave us – and Wellick has only appeared fleetingly in a few flashbacks, dream sequences, plus a phone call that could easily have been another Mr. Robot-generated hallucination. As a result, Sam Esmail has painted himself into a tight little corner regarding what happens with this character. If it turns out that Mr. Robot was telling the truth and he shot and killed Wellick during Elliot's lost time, then that feels like an anti-climax not worthy of it being strung out over this many weeks. (I don't believe this will actually happen, since when Elliot begins to doubt the reality of something Mr. Robot says, does, or is, he's usually right.) But if he's not dead, but hiding out somewhere (or being held prisoner by Price, Whiterose, or Mr. Robot), then that's also going to have to be presented in an audacious enough way to justify how long this was strung out for. Though Wellick was a memorable part of the first season, I haven't exactly missed him in his absence. I'm hopeful Esmail has something particularly clever up his sleeve, but we'll see.

Our other big development in a week that was lighter on overall plot than most weeks because it was drawing various threads together: Elliot and Angela's kiss on the subway. Because Elliot has been physically separated from her and the rest of the cast for most of this season, the kiss had slightly less weight than it would have coming closer to discussions of his feelings for her last season. But Rami Malek and Portia Doubleday still played the tension of the moment – and the way that this was simultaneously a terrible moment for Elliot to do it and the only one where it might have worked – was still terrific, and as much a payoff to Elliot's feelings of guilt for abandoning Angela and Darlene as it was about the lifelong crush he's nursed. Both Elliot and Angela seem to realize that the end is likely coming soon for all them (though not as soon as it may have arrived for Cisco and/or Darlene), and if they can't connect now, they never will. It's a comfort, but perhaps also a goodbye.

And because it was happening in the midst of everything with Dom's hunt for the man in the composite drawing, the tension surrounding it (and the two people who approach Angela on the subway car afterwards, perhaps already aware of what she and Elliot discussed) was much greater than it would have been in an episode that was structured differently, or that ran the length of something like “Kernel Panic” or like “Init_1,” which prompted my original essay on how the season's super-sized episodes were starting to work against themselves. “Hidden Process” was a potent reminder of how less can sometimes be much, much more.

Some other thoughts:

* I was on vacation last week when “Init5” aired, so didn't review it. Beyond revealing more about the true nature of Elliot's incarceration (he was locked up for hacking – and dognapping from – Krista's sleazy boyfriend, Ray was the warden), the most interesting material concerned the interplay between Elliot and Mr. Robot – not just the revelation that the mysterious Stage 2 was given to Whiterose by Elliot himself (or, rather, by Mr. Robot in the guise of Elliot), but that post-prison, the relationship between the two personalities is getting glitchy, with Elliot occasionally taking on some of Robot's personality traits, and vice versa, and one or the other seeming to switch off at random. Not much of that this week, in part because Mr. Robot vanishes relatively early in the story.

* Elliot is, by design, a deeply serious person, but the show over time has learned to generate humor from him without undermining his fundamental nature. Here, we get his frustration at realizing Mr. Sutherland is unburdening himself with stories of other frustrating clients, which leads to him using us as a means of distraction. And that in turn leads to the camera turning us into almost literal flies on the wall, and the ceiling, looking round and round the apartment for evidence of whatever it was Mr. Robot was so desperate to retrieve there. I assume there will be a few dozen sub-Reddits on this alone by morning.

* Does Phillip Price possess the strongest filmed God complex since Dr. Jed Hill in Malice? His speech to Terry Colby about always needing to be the most powerful person in the room, and following the standard set by God Himself, suggests he just might.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com
 

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