Pretty much since it launched, USA's mind-bending hacker drama Mr. Robot has been playing fast and loose with reality. But last night's episode, titled "eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes," broke the fourth wall so hard, it essentially destroyed all the walls in the surrounding area, too.
Spoilers for Mr. Robot's second season past this point.
This week's episode kicked off with an extended, 20-minute long riff on '80s sitcoms, complete with vintage music, a laugh track, ads made to look like they would have appeared on USA three decades ago, and even a guest appearance from ALF.
The conceit was that Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the mentally fractured hacker at the center of Mr. Robot, was in the hospital imagining all of this so he wouldn't feel the pain of a severe beating he received last episode. And Elliot has done things like this before, created fantasy-scapes and fake people, not least of which is the specter of his deceased father, an anarchist presence named Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) who takes the form of Elliot's dead dad.
And in fact, Elliot has been breaking the fourth wall - the imaginary barrier that separates what we see on screen from us here in the real world - since the first episode. He'll often confide in "us" through voice-over, has said that he'll keep us "safe." And in a memorable moment last season, the wife of Elliot's arch-enemy/reluctant ally Tyrell, played by Stephanie Corneliussen, almost pierced the veil between the reality of Mr. Robot and "our" reality, alarming Elliot in the process.
What changed the game in this week's episode was that during Elliot's hallucination, he imagined credits for his show, Mr. Robot. The credits went beyond correctly guessing the show was called Mr. Robot and on the USA Network, though; they were correct across the board, from calling out Rami Malek and Christian Slater, to creator/director Sam Esmail.
So... does Elliot know he's on a TV show? A TV show called Mr. Robot, on USA, starring Rami Malek, created by Sam Esmail? Does he know that he's not "real?" More importantly, why would that matter?
To side-step for a second, over on Adult Swim, fans of the (excellent) animated show Rick & Morty have long dissected whether the main scientist character Rick knows he's an animated character. Early on, Rick & Morty introduced the concept of infinite realities, with Rick often calling out TV tropes like catch-phrases, resets, and credits. The creators of Rick & Morty have shot back that these are just jokes, and to stop thinking about it so much — but that hasn't stopped fans of Rick & Morty from analyzing it to death anyway.
The difference between Rick & Morty and Mr. Robot is that the latter isn't an animated comedy. It's a drama we're supposed to take seriously, and supposed to analyze for clues. The show has been set up so that nothing is wasted, and every element is important in terms of delving further into Elliot's fractured psyche.
So whereas seeing Rick telling "us" to roll credits on Rick & Morty might be a throwaway joke, on Mr. Robot things aren't as simple as saying, "We just wanted to make it look like an '80s sitcom, because that would be fun."
If anything, this gives further credence to my colleague Tim Surette's bananas theory that Mr. Robot has more on its mind than just simple hacking to take down the one percenters. He's posited that, based on statements from the enigmatic hacker army leader Whiterose (BD Wong), the show is eventually leading up to alternate realities, and possibly even exploring a way to create eternal life.
Certainly the show has been playing even more with reality and format in Season 2. Is that where we're headed? Is the endgame for Elliot not to take down monolithic corporation E Corp, but to confront his creator, Sam Esmail, and ask him: why? Why make me and everyone I know so broken? Why create a world where every decision leads to more pain? And will ALF's surprise cameo lead to a dark, gritty TV reboot?
Either way, we're definitely going to be Up All Night thinking about this.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on USA.