Spoilers for Mr. Robot Season 4, Episode 7, “407 Proxy Authentication Required” Past This Point.
If we were only discussing the latest episode of Mr. Robot, “407 Proxy Authentication Required,” on a structural level, it would deserve being listed among the best individual TV episodes of 2019, and possibly one of the best of all time. Every season, Mr. Robot delivers a genre busting hour, and I thought that was the nearly dialogue free episode that aired two weeks ago, “405 Method Not Allowed.” This week’s episode trumped that by broadcasting a nearly hour-long, five act play set in two rooms, mostly revolving around three characters: Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), monstrous gangster Fernando Vera (Elliot Villar), and Elliot’s psychiatrist Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben).
As the episode continues, it’s filmed mostly like a stage play, complete with Sam Esmail’s camera showing the width of the living room/kitchen in Krista’s apartment where Vera is attempting to break his target/obsession, Elliot; and the library room next door where Krista is being held hostage. There’s some breaking of that as the camera zooms over the top of the “stage,” but mostly Esmail lets that fourth wall exist. As the three parry and test each other — with a fourth character, Elliot’s other personality Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) popping up as the emotional crux of the plot — thunder and lightning crash in the background. In classic “Chekhov’s Gun” fashion, there’s even a knife introduced in the first act that pays off in the last act. And the episode ends with the lights slowly turning off one by one, stage style.
That the script and camera hold so tight to stage conventions is a stunt, to be sure; but like most things on Mr. Robot, it has the calculated purpose of keeping us, the audience, entirely focused on the characters. There are no cutaways to what’s going on with Elliot’s sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin), no flashbacks as past events are described. In fact, other than a short prologue where Elliot is in the trunk of a car in darkness as he’s taken to Krista’s apartment by Vera’s thugs — clearly an allusion to the audience sitting in darkness, eagerly anticipating the start of the play — it all takes place in these two rooms, slowly building the tension to agonizing levels.
So that’s the structure, and of course the dialogue and plot are meticulously structured as well. As revealed last episode, Vera wants to break Elliot down, then be the one person there when he’s broken to tell him he loves him, in order to own him. This week, we get to find out Vera’s plan for Elliot post-breaking, which Mr. Robot immediately pokes holes in… Vera wants to own New York, and sell Dominican crack on every corner. But it’s clear he doesn’t understand that pharmaceutical companies are already doing that, in essence, on a grander scale. That businessmen like Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) or hackers like Whiterose (BD Wong) make decisions that crash global economies over casual drinks at the club. Vera wants to own Manhattan, but hasn’t thought through what that means. Vera sort of doesn’t care, though, and proceeds to reveal that he knows about Mr. Robot, knows that Elliot is hiding something, and ultimately forces Krista to hold an impromptu therapy session that completely destroys everything we’ve ever known about the series.
I’m not being hyperbolic here, either. From the start, Mr. Robot has been about Elliot’s quest to avenge his father, who died of cancer due to negligence on the part of the massive corporation E-Corp. The big twist of Season 1 was that Mr. Robot was, in fact, a personality Elliot constructed based on his father; and we’ve seen flashes here and there throughout the series of their time together. Though Edward Alderson was clearly a conspiracy theorist and a loner, he seemed to love Elliot, teaching him how to mix M&Ms in hot popcorn for a delightful movie theater treat, and often letting him hang out in his electronics store (where the name Mr. Robot comes from). We’ve also flashed back to a crucial memory of Elliot’s, when his father pushed him out a window as a kid. Over time, we’ve discovered that memory wasn’t exactly correct, and according to Darlene, Elliot jumped out the window; he wasn’t pushed at all.
In the present, as Mr. Robot begs Krista not to push Elliot on this moment, he delves deep into his memory. Vera prompts Krista from her therapy notes, which he’s stolen, and she gets Elliot towards the truth: Elliot jumped because his father sexually molested him. Repeatedly. And as this realization emerges, one that we, as viewers, know is coming as soon as Vera starts pushing Krista, Malek absolutely crumples. It’s devastating not just for the realization that Elliot has built his entire life on a lie — Mr. Robot, the premise of the series, everything that’s happened have all been building to this moment — but because for the first time in the series, we see Elliot truly feel something. Everything that he’s been holding back since the very first episode comes pouring out, all at once. Rarely will Elliot make eye contact with another person, clad in his black hoodie army and, well, robotic delivery. But this breaks him, and it breaks the viewer, and we hold on it. And at that moment, Mr. Robot, who has been Elliot’s protective wall from all of this, walks out of frame. He disappears. Maybe for good.
It’s doubly powerful if you recall that, as my colleague Josh Wigler over at The Hollywood Reporter noted when we were both flipping out about this episode, the very first hour of Mr. Robot was mostly about Elliot exposing a man running a child pornography website through his coffee shop. Despite blocking out his past entirely, Elliot was fighting against the wreckage of his childhood, and what his father did, since the very beginning. This is a secret that has run through the entire series, and recolors every single that has previously happened; from Elliot’s mission, to his relationship with Darlene, to the presence of Mr. Robot himself.
And it’s a moment that works because of the structure of the episode. Lesser shows would have had flashbacks, showing Edward as he preyed on young Elliot. Keeping everything in the present means we, as viewers, can extrapolate from here, and feel what Elliot is experiencing, as he’s feeling it.
The rest of the episode begins to deal with the fallout from this, as Vera reveals he’s been through the same thing — as a boy, he was “passed around” at parties, and has been using his anger and shame to power himself through his life ever since. Vera is a monster, but just as Elliot does finally connect with him, Krista stabs Vera in the back, and he dies on the floor. It’s the knife Vera casually introduced in the first act as the same one he used to kill Elliot’s girlfriend in Season 1, bringing everything full circle. And don’t get me wrong, Vera deserves to die, regardless of what happened to him in the past. But now, once again, Elliot is completely alone. How he’ll deal with the ramifications of these revelations means the entire end of the series is up in the air. It may be called Mr. Robot, but for now it’s all about what Elliot will do next. Will he persevere? Come out stronger? Heal himself? Or is Elliot Alderson broken for good?
Mr. Robot airs Sundays at 10/9c on USA.
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