'Mr. Robot' - The 10 Biggest Questions From "Init1"

There's no question Mr. Robot's second season has started off slow. It has engendered complaints. Impatience. The truth is, this is common for TV series in a new season. Mad Men, for example, frequently got complaints during the first few episodes of each season, with people claiming it had finally lost its luster, or that nothing interesting was happening. Of course, once each season was over, the long game had become clear. More than just setup, those early episodes set the tone, established the overriding mission of the season, and helped give shape to the movement that would become apparent episodes later.

It's immediately clear to me that Mr. Robot is doing something similar in its second season. The first season put pedal to the metal, catching up with Elliot and company mid-plot. Season 2 thus far has done something of a reset. Where the show has always been an interior exploration, the first three episodes of Season 2 have prized interiority above all. It's hard to tell exactly what that's all for, but it would be a mistake to assume it's about plot. Plot can be handled easily and quickly, but defining a perspective, both of character and style, takes more work, especially when it represents a sharp change from what came before.

The season's fourth episode, "Init1," appears to begin the "payoff," such as there will be one. Its style has begun to coalesce into something more coherent and emotionally compelling. Its plotting finally appears to signal some forward momentum after a period of forced stasis. And, just as we'd hope from this show, it creates more and more mysteries, more questions to be answered.

Let's take a look at some of those questions, shall we? And remember, spoilers are to come, so you best have watched the episode in question. 

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Who instigated all this?

For a long time it could have been reasonably assumed that Elliot, in full consciousness or not, initiated the show's storyline. This episode calls that into question. Not on the literal fact of who came up with the idea to hack E Corp—that was definitely Elliot, as we learn—but the ambiguity of cause and effect. Who pushed whom, and who is really in control. There are indications that outside forces are actually pulling the strings—such '70s-era paranoia! Let's leave those forces aside for a moment, though, and focus in on Darlene. In the episode's cold open we see the moment Darlene came back into Elliot's life. He tells her that he was fired from his job after they locked him in the server room and he destroyed all their hardware. He's now seeing a therapist for anger management.

Meanwhile, Darlene has troubles of her own. She suffers panic attacks, and talks about wanting to remember their father. "Do you want to see something," Elliot asks, and he shows her the Mr. Robot jacket he's kept in his closet. She gets him to put it on, along with the fsociety mask—a mask from a weird old movie called The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie. It's in this moment, with the mask on, that Elliot envisions the E Corp hack. His idea, pushed into being by Darlene. We are nothing without the people who push us into action. But as Elliot tells her even then, the action isn't enough. It's the follow-through that will be most important in taking E Corp down. The hack alone won't do it. A good metaphor for a series' purpose in its second season, of course.

Mr Robot Joanna Wellick

Mrs. Wellick, what’s your game?

Tyrell Wellick is still missing, and it's causing problems for Joanna. Her emotional attachment to Tyrell is becoming less and less clear by the episode, but in this episode we find her scrambling for income. Her motivation, above all, is to provide the best, most well financed life for her newborn son. Her fling with the bartender/DJ-wannabe? It's just that. He gives her the escape. But showing up at Scott Knowles' house to offer him a deal—she'll testify against Tyrell's alibi in exchange for his severance package—is quite a play. Knowles refuses, saying that Tyrell's baby will get exactly what he deserves, nothing. But it's not even clear that Joanna meant what she said. Between her shady behavior, and that scary bodyguard of hers, it seems clear there's something else going on beyond securing her own safety and income. Unless that really is all she wants, and like the best (and worst) parents, she'll stop at nothing to achieve it. Where she takes this is anyone's guess, and how things change if Tyrell ever comes back will be something to watch for.

Mr Robot arcade

Now what about Chekhov’s gun?

Put a gun on screen in Act 1, and watch it go off in Act 3. The rules of drama are so clear. Sure, you can play with them. Maybe the gun doesn't go off at all. Surprise! Twist audience expectations and elicit a new response. In Season 1, Elliot stashed a gun in the popcorn machine at the arcade. At the end of the season we were reminded of the hidden gun as Tyrell Wellick looked over fsociety's work. In the Season 2 premiere we got a flashback that saw Elliot reaching for the gun. Whatever happened to the gun, whether or not it even went off, Sam Esmail has pulled a neat trick, skipping over that Act 3 payoff, feeding us the answer piecemeal in retrospect. It's all still a mystery, but we got another clue this week, with the FBI finding an empty bullet casing in the arcade—literally the only clue they found on the premises. An empty casing must mean a bullet was fired, right? Maybe. This is Mr. Robot, so the surface may not mean much. What actually happened the night of the hack is still a huge question mark.

Mr. Robot - Season 2

Is Angela in control?

She's certainly fighting for control, that's for sure, but Angela's place is tenuous. It's not even clear whether she's in control of herself, though as we learned in the premiere, control is illusory. Angela builds her illusion of self-control with motivational tapes. "I place myself in alignment with the things I want," the voice repeats in her head as she walks to work. "My beliefs create my own reality." That control extends well beyond herself. For the first time this season we see she definitely has a longer game in the works. She hasn't been suckered in by E Corp and Philip Price, at least not completely. She really is working them from within. This is revealed in a conversation with her lawyer. Angela wants to look over the settlement agreement. She knows something's been overlooked, and it's something connected directly to her. Price is building leverage over her, which means she's important. She needs to find out what that is, and twist it around to use it against E Corp. But as we see later, finding the truth is only the first step.

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Is Darlene okay?

Alright. That's a stupid question. Of course she's not okay. There she is, in the bathroom of a dive having sex with her hacker ex-boyfriend, still unable to escape the reality she's created for herself. Her life, it would seem, is in danger. The FBI is after them, he tells her, and what's worse, it seems Romero was onto something. Operation Berenstain—yes, like the fictional bear family. What that operation is, why Romero was researching it, and whether it has put Darlene and the crew in even more danger than they originally thought, is all up in the air. More to the point, much like Elliot, whether Darlene can escape the labyrinth of her own creation is an open question. Her situation is dangerous at best, and the paranoia doesn't help much either. Walking down the street, worrying about every shady looking guy in a suit, is no way to live, especially for someone who already suffers panic attacks. Darlene's visit to Elliot couldn't shake him out of his own battles enough to start helping her, but she needs to keep trying. Getting him on a computer might do the trick.

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Is Elliot in an asylum?

So I guess it's time we address the theories. Is Elliot living in an asylum? Are Ray and Leon and the rest not real? There is some evidence for this. The general feeling of unreality in his environment. The way he meets with people at regular locations. The fact that people from his outside life, like Gideon and Darlene, see him only at the table in his mom's house. The fact that his mom doesn't interact with anyone, just sitting there watching the news all day. It's definitely dreamlike. So maybe it is all a dream. Maybe Elliot is in some sort of institution. I'm not convinced of this theory, though it is compelling. Events in this episode involving Ray might indicate that Elliot can't possibly be in an asylum. How would he be able to access a computer? Then again, maybe Ray is actually a worker at the institution, giving him that access. Or maybe not. It's hard to say, but it's definitely not a theory we can dismiss. Of course, it's also possible that the dreamlike presentation is all style. A way of better getting into Elliot's headspace. It's all possible. We'll find out the answer soon, I imagine.

Mr Robot Whiterose

Is Whiterose the puppetmaster?

She's back! Whiterose, the enigmatic head of the Dark Army, was one of the best, most interesting characters in Season 1. Appearing in exactly two scenes, but leaving a real mark, at this point she's the omniscient one. For all the talk this season of gods and prophets—and we got more of it this episode—Whiterose is the closest thing we have seen to a god. We're witness to a telephone conversation she has with Price, once again putting on a male persona for him like she did in the post-credits scene last year. Does this mean Price doesn't know who he's dealing with? Even if he doesn't, she still seems to be in control over him. And they've got a plot hatching. Something to do with a plant. More on that in a minute. After she puts down the phone, we learn that she's also spying on the FBI's investigations. Whiterose really does have hands stretched into every corner. If anyone is pulling the strings on this show, it's probably her.

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What future does Elliot dream about?

We did get hints of this last season, but here it's more fleshed out. Leon, having now watched all of Seinfeld and accrued its incredible wisdom, challenges Elliot to envision the future he wants, to dream about the future he's fighting for. Elliot has that dream, set to a beautiful, lilting, instrumental rendition of Green Day's "Basket Case." He sees himself on a date with Angela. He sees himself at a barbecue with friends from work. He sees himself there for Darlene's engagement. He even sees himself apologizing to the worker from the server backup site who he tore to shreds. And he sees himself spending time with the Wellick family. He sees all this, and he sees them all together, dining beautifully in the middle of a New York street, watching the E Corp tower collapse in front of them. This is the future he wants, and the future he wants to fight for. It's almost too perfect. Unachievable. Especially when it includes destroying E Corp. It's hard to see how he can do that and get away with being happy, but he's apparently going to try anyway.

Mr Robot Phillip Price

Does Phillip Price have the upper hand?

Or is it all a confidence game? Angela confronts Price in the E Corp parking lot. She's discovered the connection between all the agreements, the one thing E Corp has consistently been unwilling to give up. They want a third party to be in charge of inspections at the Washington Township plant. Why? Who knows. I suppose we'll find out. But either way, Angela thinks she's found the key to everything, and she plays her hand. Only she may be playing it too early, because Price brushes her off. He doesn't actually seem threatened, but that may be for show. It's reasonable to think Angela is on the verge of something. Even if Price still has control over her, how long can he keep that going? Angela is proving incredibly tenacious. She's going to take this as far as she can go. Imagine what happens if she somehow teams up with Elliot. They could be unstoppable.

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Is it all a chess match?

Ray tells Elliot he needs to play "himself" at chess. It's a great way toward self-improvement, Leon says later. And so, in a battle to rid himself of Mr. Robot for good, Elliot plays him at chess. Three stalemates later, Elliot realizes it may be impossible. How can he defeat himself when he knows all his own moves? Full control will have to wait. Darlene calls and needs him to get to a secure online channel. Elliot, in order to do this, agrees to do work for Ray. Migrating a server is a simple task, but Ray is up to something more. He's also quite menacing. But Elliot jumps in nonetheless, even against Mr. Robot's protests. He opens the channel and sees Darlene's messages. The FBI is onto them. They have an illegal surveillance program called Operation Berenstain. Elliot finally sees some clarity. The way forward. What is he doing, Mr. Robot asks. "I'm hacking the FBI."

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Stray Thoughts

  • The score in this show continues to impress, as does the music selection. A Chromatics cover of Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" is a particularly impressive selection.
  • Elliot's dream of the future was very cool, but also surprisingly emotional. It's no secret that what he's wanted all along is an escape from loneliness. Seeing what that might look like is even more touching than expected.
  • This episode needed more Grace Gummer. The show needs more Grace Gummer. Let's hope she becomes an even more major character as the season progresses.