Review: ‘Kernel Panic’ presents the extreme highs and lows of ‘Mr. Robot’

A review of tonight's Mr. Robot coming up just as soon as I open a dwarf sanctuary…

“I will not be owned!” -Elliot

Elliot spends most of “Kernel Panic” battling for control against Mr. Robot, even temporarily banishing him from his head for a while through massive doses of Adderall. Eventually, though, he runs out of pills – and the ability to function without sleep – and his dark alter ego returns, proving new best friend Ray's theory that “Control is about as real as a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow.”

The episode as a whole represents Mr. Robot as a series that's at once both wildly out of control and under complete control. At slightly over an hour without commercials, it feels much too long for the amount of story it contains, and there are certain sequences (Angela's dinner with Price, for instance) that feel like they go on forever, just because they can. But a lot of the show's self-indulgence goes to sequences so remarkable that I just have to smile, go with it, and accept that all the different excesses come from the same basic place: Sam Esmail saying to himself, “How can I present each moment in a way that looks, sounds, and feels like nothing that's ever been on television before?”

Elliot's battle for control with Mr. Robot would have worked just fine played straighter, thanks to the work of Rami Malek (more on him in a minute) and Christian Slater. But mixing in hallucinations of mob hits, the Philip Glass piece “Opening” from Mishima, and the image of a defiant Elliot digging through his own vomit to re-swallow the pills Mr. Robot made him throw up turned the whole affair into something I wanted to applaud by the end. Ditto the sequence of Elliot enjoying a Mr. Robot-free (and sleep-free) life thanks to all the Adderall, with a mix of rapid-fire editing, special effects (multiple Elliots walking down the street at once, Elliot's exaggerated pupils reflecting the swirling laundry), and music to create a giddy drug trip montage that managed to not feel like every other drug trip montage (including some of the ones from the episode last season where Elliot went through morphine withdrawal). Each time my patience with the hour started to ebb, Esmail and Rami Malek would throw down with another stunning moment, like Elliot – or, perhaps, Mr. Robot controlling Elliot, in what seemed to be our first glimpse of what it looks like to the outside world when Elliot transitions from one personality to the other – telling the church group what he thinks of organized religion.

Malek, as always, is worth the price of admission to this particular wild, violent arcade, and what's perhaps most impressive about all the technical pyrotechnics of “Kernel Panic” is how they continually enhance his performance, rather than distract from it. It's remarkable how he can appear to change the entire shape of his face, so he looks more goblin than man as he defiantly swallows the Adderall pills in front of Mr. Robot. His first spin as Mr. Robot (if, indeed, that's what was happening at the church group) has me wanting to see even more of that in the future, even if it will occasionally minimize Christian Slater's presence, and the glimpses of him trying to be “normal” under the Adderall's influence, and instead being disturbingly manic, were hilarious. Mr. Robot is constantly in danger of being crushed by the weight of its own self-seriousness, but there's room even in this aesthetic to be playful at times without it undercutting that sense of doom and alienation.

The show also runs the risk of inviting its audience to spend too much time questioning the reality of what's happening. After Elliot has his cryptic phone conversation with Wellick, he instantly questions whether it happened at all, noting that he once thought his conversations with Mr. Robot were real, too. On the one hand, it's smart and self-aware for the show to have Elliot asking these questions, but it's a slippery slope. (For more on this, see the final bullet point below.)

The non-Alderson family members of fsociety have never really come into focus – I'm frankly more likely to remember Romero's name in death than I ever could in life, and I still forget Trenton exists the moment she's not on screen again – but Esmail seems to have realized that he has to start making other characters besides Elliot, Darlene, and Angela feel like fully-realized human beings, and not just bits of code in Elliot's program. It's interesting that both of our two major additions are revealed this week to talk to imaginary friends of a sort, albeit not in the way Elliot does. Ray has a daily conversation with his dead wife, entirely aware she's not there to hear it, but relying on the ritual to get himself through another day. And Dom leads a solitary existence – and one that, like Elliot's at the moment, is largely sleep-deprived – where her only companion seems to be the voice of her Amazon Echo(*). We still haven't seen much of Dom yet, but Grace Gummer is playing her with this really endearing desperation to connect with anyone, even if it's not to advance her investigation, and the moment when she tracked down fsociety headquarters felt like a satisfying win for her, even though we know the party advertised in that flier contaminated all the DNA evidence inside the arcade.

(*) If there isn't a Tumblr page for Dom/Alexa 'shippers by the end of the week, then I don't know the Internet.

Again, this was an uneven episode, which dragged at various points and then was an absolute delight at others. After that first season, Sam Esmail got pretty much everything he wanted from USA, including the permission to direct all the episodes. Sometimes, that level of freedom gets you a Mad Men (run by Mr. Robot superfan Matthew Weiner); at others, it gets you the later seasons of Sons of Anarchy. The highs this week were so incredibly high that I'm prepared to shrug off the lows and some of the sketchier bits of plotting, but the worry is that the bad kind of crazy comes to dominate the show.

But when “Kernel Panic” was cooking… man.

Some other thoughts:

* Mishima, by the way, has several parallels to Mr. Robot, including a segment about a failed attempt to overthrow the government, and segments from Mishima's autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask.

* Romero at least got to do a lot of talking before he died, spinning a fascinating monologue to Mobley about the violent history of the arcade that would become fsociety headquarters. With his death, I guess we'll never hear the “story for another time” about how the U and N from the FUN SOCIETY sign fell, giving the hacker group its name.

* There's a germ of an interesting idea in the Angela/Price interactions – as well as an excuse to let Michael Cristofer be quietly hypnotic – but, again, their scenes together could have all been much shorter and still gotten across the point about his manipulations and her discomfort with them.

* Price is fascinated with World War I, with his office decorated with a drawing of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and this caricatured map from 1914.

* Besides the Philip Glass piece, notable songs this week included “You Don't Have To Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield (the helicopter shot of New York), “Just Say the Word” by Jerry Townes (Angela gets ready for her dinner), “Highwayman” by The Highwaymen (Dom puts her face on for work) and “Lovely Allen” by Holy F–K (the Adderall montage).

* Finally, I want to talk for a moment about a fan theory that's been floating around for the past week. (I have no idea if it's correct or not, but if you'd rather not have something potentially spoiled – or have the way you watch the show fundamentally changed until it's proven true or false – stop reading now.) As the theory goes, Elliot hasn't actually moved back in with his mother, but is currently in prison, a mental hospital, or some other kind of facility with a strict daily regimen, and that's why his schedule is the way it is, why he's hanging around someone like Leon, watching basketball games, etc. It's not impossible, given what we've seen – though the amount of material with Ray moving about and interacting with people in the real world suggests otherwise (or suggests that Ray is either coming to visit Elliot in this place, or works there) – but I'd rather it not be correct. When I spoke with Sam Esmail at the end of season 1, he said he didn't want the audience to constantly be questioning the reality of other characters and locations, and that's smart. The show got to turn over that card once with Mr. Robot's true nature, and there it had been so heavily foreshadowed that it could barely be called a surprise. Do it again – and on this scale – and you risk turning the entire show into a parlor game, where viewers are never paying attention to what's happening between the characters because they're constantly looking for clues as to what's real and what isn't. Joss Whedon talked about this back when he was doing Dollhouse – how he got frustrated that after one too many “Oh, that character's really another doll” reveals, he inadvertently conditioned the audience to assume every character could turn out to be a doll – and it becomes far more trouble than it's worth in short order. But we'll see. Everyone may be overthinking what's there, even as the show itself invites us to do exactly that.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at