‘Mr. Robot’ Season 4 Premiere Recap: E for Vendetta
Season 4, Episode 1: ‘401 Unauthorized’
It starts with the death of a main character. It seems, at first, to end with the death of the main character. In between, it plays out like an eerie paranoid thriller against a backdrop of international corruption and capitalism run amok. Written and directed by the series’s creator, Sam Esmail, the fourth and final season premiere of “Mr. Robot” plays to all the show’s strengths and none of its weaknesses.
While it’s good to have the show return, it’s worth noting that this is also a return to form after the strange misfires of the Season 3 finale. That episode, in which the hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) undid the “5/9” hack that wiped millions of credit records clean and accidentally unleashed a tide of chaos and violence, appeared to be an act of creative retrenchment for a show that has historically been at its best when it pushed the narrative envelope. How can you trust a show about revolution when the revolutionary wants to pull the plug?
With vows of vengeance, that’s how. This episode opens with one such declaration of vendetta. Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) tells Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer), the chief executive of the global conglomerate E Corp — and, she has just learned, her father — that she will stop at nothing to get “retribution” against the architect of the terrorist bombings for which she was an unwitting cat’s paw. That architect is Whiterose (B.D. Wong), the trans woman general of the violent hacker collective called the Dark Army — and, under her male-presenting secret identity, a powerful minister in the Chinese government.
Unfortunately for Angela, Price is wearing a wire, so her threats are piped directly to her intended target. Watching the two realize that Angela has signed her own death warrant is some of the show’s most emotionally affecting work; Doubleday plays Angela as raw but resigned, while Cristofer’s Price visibly, almost physically struggles to keep himself together as assassins appear to snuff out his daughter’s life.
With the ruthless Dark Army lurking around every corner, every subsequent sequence plays out like a matter of life and death, because all of them are. In the first, Elliot and his alternate personality, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), blackmail the low-rent lawyer and pedophile Freddy Lomax (an impressively sleazy and sweaty Jake Busey, appearing as a guest star) into a meet-up in Grand Central Station. Lomax is the signatory for many of Whiterose’s shell companies; by searching through his files, Elliot discovers the bank where his enemy’s cash is stored. His next move is simple enough: Steal the money, win the war.
But there’s no place for Lomax in this plan, and the shady lawyer quickly realizes that his blackmailer has no exit strategy in place for him. Dreading both exposure of his crimes and what might happen if the Dark Army got its hands on him, he commits suicide by shooting himself on the crowded streets of New York City at Christmastime — but not before providing Elliot with a name and address for his Dark Army contact.
We then briefly catch up with the other players in Mr. Robot and Whiterose’s great game. Once the prime suspect in the 5/9 hack, the E Corp chief technology officer, Tyrell Wellick, (Martin Wallstrom) is now hailed as a hero, credited with undoing the hack and masterminding a loan program involving the company’s proprietary “ECoin” currency.
Having witnessed the ax murder of her crooked boss last season, the F.B.I. agent Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) is holed up in her childhood bedroom, where her paranoia about the Dark Army has grown so severe that she pulls a gun on an innocent plumber. (When the woman whom her mom tries to set her up with later in the episode proves to be a Dark Army operative, Dom’s paranoia looks a little more reasonable.)
Finally, Elliot’s sister and comrade-in-hacking, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), has developed a serious cocaine habit, which feeds into her conviction that Angela is still alive. Elliot, who has been sent pictures of Angela’s corpse, won’t use them to shake Darlene out of her delusions because he fears they’ll “break her heart.”
In his own hunger for revenge against Whiterose, however, Elliot falls for a whopper himself. The contact provided to him by Lomax was bogus, and his obviously uninhabited apartment is a trap that leads Elliot directly into the hands of the enemy. These men in black drag him kicking and screaming right past the apartment building’s complicit doorman, who eats Fruity Pebbles cereal and listens to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as if nothing were wrong.
Forced back to his own apartment, Elliot is held in place as an agent (played by Sam Esmail) spikes his vein with a fatal overdose of heroin. As Elliot struggles to reach his phone to call for help, he sees a vision of his father (a.k.a. Mr. Robot), his abusive mother and himself as a child, all of whom are preparing to fade from existence along with the mind that has conjured them up.
Elliot dies. Cut to black.
And cut right back, as the agents return and revive Elliot with naloxone. We then learn that they’re not with the Dark Army at all: They work for Phillip Price, who appears to want Elliot to join his quest to defeat Whiterose. Finally, something everyone can agree on.
Despite its abundance of plot, the episode moves with a taut and sinuous rhythm. Esmail knows how to block, shoot and cut scenes for maximum audience unease, with his unusual habit of “shortsighting” characters by placing them in the extreme lower corners of the frame being foremost among his techniques. He has an eye for bursts of lurid color, like the reds of the DiPierro’s Christmas decorations and those Fruity Pebbles.
And by killing off Angela, one of the series’s main characters since the start, in the very first scene, he makes Elliot’s “death” that much easier to believe. Yes, I was bamboozled into thinking Esmail was killing off his Academy Award-winning leading man in the season premiere, and I’m not ashamed to say it.
All of this played out against a steady drumbeat of grim news from the real world, lending added oomph to the thrills and chills onscreen. Like the song says, just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.
Joining the cereal-eating attendant in that apartment lobby is some guy loudly conducting a FaceTime phone call in a foreign language — with one exception. When Elliot tells the doorman which room he would like to visit, the guy clearly says “Pied Piper.” It’s a creepy, almost subliminal detail that gets more unnerving the more you think about it.
Pour one out for Doubleday, whose eyes would have conveyed the way her character had been hollowed out by grief and guilt even if she hadn’t said a word.
The composer Mac Quayle’s score twists, turns and twinkles throughout the episode, evocative of horror movies in which some awful discovery lurks behind every door. It’s the show’s way of heightening the tension without resorting to actual blood and guts, and it works beautifully.
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