Season 4, Episode 6: ‘406 Not Acceptable’
Dread, Mr. Robot explains, is that feeling of crossing a line you don’t realize exists until you’ve already crossed it. It’s that “My God, what have I done” sensation, when you find yourself in over your head and realize you’re the one who got yourself there.
And if there’s one thing the director Sam Esmail does well, it’s dread. His long takes, his slow zooms, his beautiful close-ups of big-eyed people staring in disbelief: They make him television’s poet laureate of waiting for the other shoe to drop, and knowing that when it falls, it will hit hard.
This week’s episode of “Mr. Robot” was all about that ugly feeling. It divides its time between three situations in which characters are held against their will, desperate to find a way out, waiting to see what their captor will do next. Throw in the composer Mac Quayle’s increasingly ominous score and the cinematographer Tod Campbell’s confidently stark camera work and you have a recipe for a very black Christmas indeed.
In all three cases, the captives are unable to meet their captors’ demands without breaking some important part of themselves clean off. For Olivia, the seeds of her predicament were planted a couple of episodes ago when Elliot slept with her in order to access files pertaining to the all-powerful Deus Group. Exploiting her history of addiction and child-custody disputes, Elliot returns to her apartment bearing a peppermint latte spiked with oxycodone. Once the drugs are in her system, the hook is set: He warns her that he will see to it that she loses custody of her child unless she helps him steal her boss’s login credentials.
It’s his dread-inducing dilemma. It’s also a power play so callous and brutal that even Mr. Robot, who was once the firebrand personality of Elliot’s mind, wants no part of it. It works, especially after Elliot mentions the Deus Group’s complicity in a paramilitary massacre that killed Olivia’s mother. It also drives Olivia to attempt suicide.
“I may work for monsters,” she says after Elliot finds her and treats her wounded wrists, “but you are one. And you’re the worst kind, because you don’t even know it.”
I have a feeling he knows it now.
Elliot’s sister, Darlene, could no doubt relate to both sides of Elliot and Olivia’s dilemma. Like Elliot, she once slept with a woman — in her case, the F.B.I. agent Dom DiPierro — in order to gain access to otherwise off-limits intel. This unethical maneuver landed Dom directly in the clutches of the Dark Army, which, through its perpetually perky operative, Janice (an excellent heel performance by Ashlie Atkinson), threatens to torture her family to death if she disobeys them.
Dom’s problem now, though, is that the Dark Army has ordered her to execute Darlene for refusing to help them locate Elliot using the tracer she activated on his and Darlene’s phones. As we’ve seen, Dom still harbors some romantic feelings for Darlene in addition to her seething hatred; moreover, Dom simply isn’t a coldblooded killer, and executing a woman as she cries and begs for her life is a bridge too far.
In the end, Dom hands her gun to Darlene and, shockingly, begs to be killed instead. This is the only way, she reasons, that the Dark Army will finally leave her family alone. Unfortunately, Janice and some henchmen barge in at this exact moment — leaving Darlene just enough time to wipe her phone and prevent them from accessing Elliot’s location with it, but also leaving her and Dom’s fates in limbo.
Our third hostage crisis involves Elliot’s old gangster foe, Fernando Vera (Elliot Villar), and Elliot’s therapist, Krista (Gloria Reuben), whom Vera is holding captive in her own apartment. Vera tells her his origin story, an expletive-laden tale about getting bullied until he turned the tables with an aluminum baseball bat he had received as a Christmas gift. It wasn’t the beat down that permanently gave him power over his abuser, he explains: It was going to the hospital afterward, seeing the bully at his lowest and most vulnerable, and tenderly holding his hand. It’s not enough to break a man: You have to be the one to rebuild him, too.
What exactly this means for Elliot is uncertain. Cowed, Krista gives Vera access to her file on Elliot, telling him that Mr. Robot is the key to her client’s psyche. But if Vera somehow exploits Elliot’s split personality — as it seems he intends when his minions toss Elliot in the trunk of a car — how, and to what purpose, will he build him back up again?
Across the board, the cast — Rami Malek, Carly Chaikin, Grace Gummer, Gloria Reuben, Dominik García — are doing phenomenal work with characters who are close to the edge of despair, if they haven’t tipped over already. Malek makes Elliot’s decision to blackmail Olivia look like a physical struggle, while Gummer’s Dom DiPierro looks as if she might vomit from anxiety and hopelessness at any moment.
Part of me wonders if Elliot wouldn’t mind being broken down by Vera. His manipulation of Olivia was cruel, reckless — her suicide attempt took him completely by surprise, as if forcibly doping an addict after having sex with her under false pretenses and threatening to have her child taken away wouldn’t raise this possibility. And it was as manipulative as anything the Deus Group ever did, albeit on a smaller scale.
I’m not saying Elliot is asking for whatever Vera plans to do to him. But on some level, I suspect he feels he deserves to be punished. He may not be wrong.
Whiterose, in her Minister Zhang guise, appears in one brief scene, giving orders to have Elliot brought in to witness … whatever it is she has been trying to do with her Congo project. “It’s time he learns we’re on the same side,” she says. Whatever you say, lady.
In order to salve his own conscience, Elliot takes a swipe at Olivia’s, saying she ought to have known her client was crooked. “That’s their business model,” he says of the men who run the world. “They back everyone into a corner until all that’s left is for us to compromise ourselves.” That’s a 2019 mood if ever there were one.
There’s a tremendous split diopter shot of Dom in the foreground and Darlene in the background during their standoff that absolutely delighted the former film student in me. The Esmail-Campbell team really knows its way around the camera.
I can’t help but figure that the surprise return of the Joey Bada$$ character, Leon, a one-time Dark Army assassin turned “full-time freelancer,” presages Elliot’s eventual escape route out of his current predicament. You don’t introduce a professional hit man if you don’t plan to have him whack some goons.
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