Posted on Thursday, August 11th, 2016 by Corey Atad
Let’s talk for a moment about expectation. In other eras, television was all about expectation — that is, the expectation that each week, without fail, we’d get a familiar set of characters performing a familiar set of tasks in a familiar way with familiar tone and even familiar dialogue. Expectation; delivery. TV still serves that function. Even highly serialized shows will often stick to a kind of format. We know what we’re going to get, and we’re happy to get it.
There’s another kind of expectation: expecting the unexpected. We expect that a show will shock us. At least once per season a favorite character will die, or a major revelation will occur, or a sudden event will reshape the format of the show going forward. Preferably this will happen several times per season, or, if you’re Scandal, it’ll happen several times per episode. As audiences, we become numb to it.
During the first season of Mr. Robot, obvious cinematic references, and a constantly shifting understanding of the show’s end goal kept us on our toes. Twists came, but we expected twists to come. “You knew, didn’t you?” Elliot asks when he learns the true identity of Mr. Robot. We’ve become so savvy as viewers that even show needs to recognize we’re ahead of the game, if only to assure us it’s in good hands.
For a whole season, Mr. Robot expected us to expect the unexpected, and it delivered, but at some point that would get old. Sam Esmail clearly understood that, and in the show’s second season he’s attempted the difficult task of shifting the show into a grander space, and one which allows for a different kind of expectation. Fitting in with his auteurist mindset — and yes, I’m aware of the issues surrounding that label — Esmail has brought the series into stylistic focus. Like The Knick, and The Girlfriend Experience, and even older shows like Twin Peaks, Miami Vice, and The Prisoner, Mr. Robot is asking us to expect style. When we talk about the show years from now, it’s not the plot — the twists — that we’ll discuss, but the style of it all. The daring jolts in form. The expectation that at any moment the camera might surprise us — or the music, or the editing — if not necessarily the script.
The first season might have already given us a taste of this approach, but now the show hopes we’ll expect it above anything else. The magic of it is that style is as good as tool as any for delivering an emotional gut punch. It’s the synthesis of form with subject that makes us care, and in the latest episode, “Master/Slave,” Esmail takes us on a whirlwind trip, stylistically entrancing and surprising us until we come around to a new understanding of who our protagonists are, and what drives them.
But enough preamble, it’s time to address the episode at hand. And because Esmail dared to break with form, I’ll do the same. No “questions” this week. Instead, let’s journey through the expectation game… As usual, BEWARE SPOILERS!
I know. You want to talk about the incredible first act of this week’s episode. Well. Too bad. I’ll be getting to that later. First, let’s talk about the ways in which this felt like a familiar episode of Mr. Robot. Familiar, though with a little bit of a twist.
Technically, this was the sixth episode of the second season, but it’s actually the fifth week. If we look back to the fifth week of the first season, we find some curious repetition going on. That was the episode of the Steel Mountain hack. This week? Angela ventures onto the FBI investigation floor at E Corp, earpiece in her head, being fed information about her surroundings, her mission, and even the people standing in her way. Familiar? Completely.
There’s no way it’s a coincidence either. We’re at the same point in the season, once again going on a hacking mission into “enemy” territory. This is the Mr. Robot we thought we knew; that we thought we might’ve lost in a possible sophomore slump. Here we had Angela, much like Elliot did the season before, figuring out a way to dress down a person in an instant, to tear down and flatter their ego all at once for personal ends. We also got to see the way in which a hack often needs direct physical contact, in contrast with the entirely virtual approach we’re often presented with in media. Mr. Robot bridges the gap, showing us what hacking looks like in the real world. What it takes. And more importantly, the very direct risks along the way.
But the hack wasn’t the only familiar element. Let’s not forget Elliot’s association with criminal kingpin Ray. An odd plot, and not exactly related to the main arc of the series, which is highly reminiscent of the Vera arc in the first season. Once we’ve found Elliot mess with criminals for his own purposes, only for it to come right around. But where last season is was Shayla who was the victim of his dalliance with the underworld, here he is the one taking the beating. He cannot get away clean, and his belief that “saving the world” will carry him through hasn’t exactly worked out for him, or the people he cares about.
With both of these storylines, “Master/Slave” has given us that taste of Season 1 we so craved. For a few episodes now we had felt unmoored, maybe unsure whether to trust in the path the show’s creator was leading us down. Though the show hasn’t explicitly stated its direction for the season, this episode reminds us the show still knows what it is, and what it can do well when it’s really cooking. It’s comforting. Easing us with familiarity; assuring us that the show we fell for is still there, under the surface, but pushing toward something new.