The latter half of the latest episode of Mr Robot was as taut a thriller as the show has ever done. But the first half was a descent into a late '80s/early '90s sitcom that was as bizarre as it was amusing. Especially those "special guest stars".
So. Let's talk about Alf. And the "Man in the Trunk" and Mr Robot's whimsical journey into the land of sitcoms. Because, you know, that happened. We just got 20 minutes of Elliot's gobsmacked confusion as he interacted with Christian Slater, an alien puppet and a laugh track.
Ostensibly the world we witnessed was all in Elliot's head. He was being beaten nearly to death and disappeared into his brain, seeking out a time and place that was far more appealing than his present life. Only Elliot comes from an abusive and broken home; he never had the contentedness plied by sitcom families. So he creates his own, hoping the pastiche of the '90s, and the laugh track that accompanies it, will be enough to gloss over the wretched parts of his memory — such as his dad beating him, his mum putting cigarettes out on his sister and he and Mr Robot maaaaaybe murdering Tyrell Wellick? We can't be sure because Elliot, and Mr Robot, are such deeply unreliable narrators. Also because both seem to think the other committed the murder.
Man, that conversation was way more fun in fuzzy Standard Definition with a laugh track playing!
And there are few genres as able to handle the discordant emotions at play as well as a sitcom from the '80s or early '90s. That was half of Diff'rent Strokes, which included an episode where Gary Coleman's Arnold is nearly molested by an old man as the laugh track plays. The laugh track served as a kind of collective Xanax forcing the audience to stay calm no matter how uncomfortable things on screen got. But the louder the laugh track plays, the more Elliot rejects his fantasy road-trip with the family.
So his new mindscape presents another fun bit of nostalgia: ALF.
Yeah. That ALF.
ALF could simply be a fun gag by show creator Sam Esmail. The furry dude was everywhere in the decade of sitcoms this brain trauma is set within — and random sci-fi elements were incredibly common then, too. Remember when Urkel created Stephan so he could woo Laura?
But ALF was also a show produced during the Cold War, and while ostensibly about a gluttonous freeloading alien who loves cats, it was also a not at all nuanced examination of American paranoia and perceived superiority in the face of a 30-year stealth war against Russia.
Which might be important, because while Elliot is off on his drug and beating and psychosis-induced adventure, waylaid briefly by Ray reminding Elliot that he owns his arse until the new Silk Road project is complete, the rest of the cast is embroiled in a very excellent spy thriller that confirms major suspicions laid out last week.
This show is actually not about a guy toppling American capitalism in revenge for his father's death. It's about China systematically toppling American pillars of economy and defence in a bit to destabilise the only other superpower on the planet.
Elliot. Darlene. Darlene's skeezy boyfriend. They're all tools in a new Cold War. Less the anarchic heroes we thought them to be in season one, and more patsy villains being hunted by the real hero of this whole damn thing — Grace Gummer's Dom.
A show that started as a fun piece about idealistic hackers has twisted into a fascinating thriller about modern spy warfare.
The confirmation of the new shift comes not when Dom points out that the shooters she survived last week were really Dark Army stooges sent to disrupt her investigation (we guessed as much), but when Darlene's skeezy boyfriend secures a piece of hacking equipment from the Dark Army and then asks why they're helping.
Well, gross boyfriend, the Dark Army is helping because they know you and your F Society pals are try to hack the FBI so they can probably just piggyback off your hack to get into the FBI themselves — which would be huge, what with the FBI still serving as a primary form of defence against spies in the US.
Image: Michael Parmelee/USA Network
This was a problem in the last Cold War. Both sides had a tendency to co-opt political movements in an effort to hurt their opponent superpower, and neither side really hurt the other. Who was hurt were the little people. Like Dom's dead co-workers and her friend forced out of his deli by the systematic collapse of the American financial system.
And Angela, now deeply entwined in this plot — from all angles — is deeply devastated by all parties as well. While she's committed herself to helping Darlene in order to save Elliot, she's now fully aware of how wrecked her own life has become due to the F Society and its hack. She's just a tool being used by other tools.
And Elliot, meanwhile, continues to be sidelined. As colourful and fun as his half of the episode was, it also highlights just how far from the central plot Elliot has gone. Everyone else is fighting a war, and Elliot's just zoning out with his new pal ALF.
- There's a lot of fun stuff to dig into when it comes to the opening scenes. From Darlene playing a Gameboy to Angela appearing as an Evil Corp stooge to the very obvious shooting in a studio instead of a highway on the way to the beach.
- My mother texted me after this episode and asked why it was set in the '60s. I have not responded.
- How does Dom know Angela? Is it because of the investigation? Or are we about to find out who Dom's old definitely a lady flame is?
- While I understand F Society's worry that they couldn't teach Angela to hack, let's be real. She's just a script kiddie using other people's work. All she had to do was type some stuff in terminal that she memorised.
- Angela is becoming a remarkable spy. Three cheers for Angela.
- I am really looking forward to when Darlene and/or Elliot realise they're being used by Chinese spies.
- I'm also really looking forward to when Elliot is actually integrated back into the overarching plot.
- Though I am not complaining about this show turning into one about a bunch of ladies fighting spies.
- The old USA graphic was a nostalgia bomb of the highest order.