Review: ‘Mr. Robot’ hits the panic button

As befitting of the deeper dive into Elliot’s psyche, season two of Mr. Robot continues to feel a bit amorphous. Thus far the episodes haven’t had a clear structure and with no definitive seasonal endgame in sight (yet, it is still early) it all feels so very different from what has come before.

Several moments in tonight’s episode, entitled “Kernel Panic”, shook me to the core and I have some thoughts on the episode as a whole coming right up.

“It doesn’t matter where you go or where you come from. As long as you keep stumbling.” – Elliot

One quick note that I didn’t get to mention in last week’s review; Rami Malek is an astounding actor. This show lives and dies on his performance as Elliot. It simply doesn’t work without him. Ok now to the real review.

A kernel panic refers to an internal error that a system cannot safely recover from (thanks, Google!). In tonight’s episode, we see Elliot at his lowest point yet and in danger of crashing from his own “kernel panic.” He spends much of the episode trying anything to rid himself of Mr. Robot to no avail.

It’s been a little difficult for me to adapt to this season of the show. I miss the simple, clear goal of initiating the hack that drove season one. But, upon discussion with a friend whose opinion I greatly respect, this is simply indicative of the show Sam Esmail wanted to make all along. Yes, it addresses a lot of important contemporary issues but in the end, it’s about Elliot’s battle with the demon inside him. Zooming out to include the other characters, it’s about the battle for control that they wish to exert over their lives. It’s fleeting and as Ray (Craig Robinson) remarks at the episode’s end “it’s all a fall.”

“Kernel Panic” really lets Rami Malek let loose with Elliot. He’s practically manic throughout the entire episode. I won’t go into detail on every moment but I could hardly take my eyes off the screen. It was in those moments that I was shaken to my aforementioned core. The depths that this panic takes Elliot borders on excessive to me. I can admire Esmail wanting to track every step of Elliot’s mental journey but it just didn’t jive with me. Indeed, this all led to the first time I was let down by Mr. Robot.

At about the episode’s midpoint Elliot takes a ton of Adderall and as he is walking gets abducted by some mysterious men. At first, I thought this was Tyrell making contact with Elliot after their (annoyingly) cryptic phone call at the top of the episode. Sadly, I was mistaken. It was simply a hallucination concocted by Mr. Robot to the pills out of Elliot’s system. Here is where the show begins to walk a dangerous line.

Plain and simple the show cannot rely on these fake-out moments too often. If it does it risks creating a barrier between the audience and their investment in the show. I understand the purpose of the scene and why it was there but to me, it represents a slippery slope that Esmail is on. The reveal that Mr. Robot was a part of Elliot’s subconscious was one of the capstone moments of season one but the “none of it was real” trick can’t become a crutch. I want to believe that Sam Esmail is too smart to rely on a cheap trick over and over again but this was troubling for me.

“Kernel Panic” also gets us a little more acquainted with Ray; who continues to pop up in Elliot’s life. I’m not quite sure what to make of the scenes with Ray interrogating a beaten man or who that guy in the truck was but I’m sure we’ll learn more soon. What I find fascinating about Ray is that he represents a point of connection for Elliot. You see Ray has conversations with his dead wife every morning in a manner similar (albeit less violent) to how Elliot and Mr. Robot interact. The great tragedy of Elliot is that he cannot connect to others despite his desire to. Ray represents a beacon of hope for Elliot, someone who can help him face the demon inside him.

I was ultimately hopeful for our protagonist by the end of the episode. Someone helped him find the courage to face his demon, to fix what’s wrong right now so he can continue moving forward. Isn’t that something we can all relate to? When life throws a problem our way we have to deal with it or risk letting it consume us. Now it’s time for Elliot to fix his.

Some other thoughts:

  • I have to say while Elliot’s rant in the church was an acting marvel, it upset me a little. I’m not ashamed to say Jesus Christ is my savior and Elliot’s tirade about religion didn’t sit well with me. However upon discussion with a friend, he helped me realize that those were Elliot’s skewed views of religion and not Sam Esmail’s (who is a Muslim). If anything it makes me sad that someone, even a fictional character, could feel that way about the church.
  • We get a more detailed introduction to Agent DiPierro (Grace Grummer) this week. She seems about as lonely and unhappy as everyone else on the show.
  • Angela’s indoctrination into Evil-Corp continues this week with more mind games from Phillip Price. My investment in this part of the show is due in large part to how great Michael Cristopher is (for proof, look no further than this scene from AMC’s short-lived Rubicon).
  • Someone is picking off members of F Society, this episode seems the death of Romero. It certainly gives the show a nice mystery going forward and allows for the season’s first mention of The Dark Army.
  • Holy moly this episode was long. I certainly hope future episodes adhere a little close to standard runtime. If only for the sake of the show’s focus. Overlong runtimes can lead to shows becoming over self-indulgent (looking at you Sons of Anarchy). Maybe save the extended length for premieres and finales?

That’s all for this week! How did you feel about tonight’s episode? Did the fake out annoy or thrill you? And where the heck is Tyrell? Let me know in the comments below.

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