I have a love/hate affair with absurdity on television. Often times, it's done to be cool or LOL SO RANDOM without any actual merit or reason for it to be around. But sometimes a show finds just the right combination of wackiness and message that it becomes high art, and that's what happened in this week's episode of Mr. Robot.
And it involved ALF. Yes, the cat-eating alien life form from the late-'80s NBC sitcom ALF — itself an exercise in absurdity — made a cameo in Mr. Robot and it was everything you could have hoped it would be.
But like I said above, it wasn't just a headline-seeking gimmick to get people talking today. The first dozen or so minutes of "Master Slave" — one of the series' best episodes, easily — was a time capsule to the glory days of 1980s and 1990s sitcoms as Elliot (Rami Malek) imagined that he was inside a family sitcom starring the Aldersons, down to the Full House title font, 4:3 aspect ratio, pastel fashion and laugh track.
However, the whole sequence was darkened by some black (and spurting red) comedy, including set ups and gags about Mr. Robot's (Christian Slater) cancer, a memorable shot in the faux credits sequence of Angela (Portia Doubleday) crying over her mother's casket during her funeral and Elliot's mother (Vaisnavi Sharma) — who still doesn't have a name, btw — putting out her cigarette on Darlene's (Carly Chaikin) arm and then punching her in the face. I don't remember The Facts of Life doing that during its run.
The uneasy juxtaposition of these two vastly different emotions — canned laughter when Mr. Robot splatters blood all over himself while beating the crap out of a bound Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom) in the trunk of his car, for example — was once again Mr. Robot showing us a side of Elliot's mental illness that's incredibly evocative of the struggles he faces every day. In reality, Elliot was in a hospital bed (with ALF on in the background, natch) recovering from a beating at the hands of Ray's (Craig Robinson) men, but in Elliot's la-la dreamland he retreated back to the comforts of his childhood, nostalgia providing an escape from the brutal truth of present day.
Yet throughout all this, Elliot was the lone actor in his own play who remained confused by the transformation. Thinking Mr. Robot had won their battle for control over Elliot, Elliot acquiesced but Mr. Robot told him that lies are sometimes essential to protect us from the truth. We all do it, it's a natural defense mechanism. I've promised myself that I will go to the gym "tomorrow" for the last month but I haven't broken a sweat since June. Sometimes it's easier to lie to yourself then stare the truth in the face.
But here's where Elliot's amazing sequence got heavy and a little wringy on the eyeballs. As Elliot tried so hard to shut Mr. Robot out through the early part of Season 2, he didn't quite realize how badly he needed him. I've been saying this all along: Elliot is stronger with Mr. Robot in his life (and mind) than without him, though it's understandable if he's not keen on seeing his dead dad hovering over his shoulder all the time. Mr. Robot needed to get Elliot in the mindset of understanding that Mr. Robot is a half of him that he can't do without, and "Master Slave" was its opportunity.
Elliot lay in a dank room thanks to Ray's men putting him there after warning him to keep his eyes down, don't ask questions and finish the project he started on Ray's black market web site. Mr. Robot appeared and immediately told Elliot to not be angry, because all he was trying to do was take the punches for Elliot, i.e. send him off into a sitcom dreamland so he wouldn't be awake for the savage beating and all the pain that came after. Elliot lunged at the apparition of his father and — instead of swinging wildly — embraced his dad and said, "Thank you."
In an episode of great scene after great scene, this was the greatest scene. This got Elliot and Mr. Robot back where they needed to be, working on the same team with Elliot understanding how valuable his father — even if he is just a figment of his imagination — is to him. Coupled with the flashbacks of young Elliot and his dad conversing in his car, and it became a valuable reminder of how badly Mr. Robot wants to protect Elliot, not just use him like a puppet to take down the most powerful corporation in the world. It's also a reminder of why Elliot would be so moved by the sight of his dad and how it could really mess with his head. And frankly, as we see Elliot go on this roller-coaster ride of ups and downs as he struggles with the battle in his head, it's something I can't see enough of.
Elsewhere, the other half of "Master Slave" was a technical marvel, a brilliant return to the world of high-wire hacking that many of us loved in Season 1. Except this time it was shown through the eyes of Angela, who used her Evil Corp employment status as an in to the FBI — who were stationed on one of Evil Corp's floors — while Darlene gave her step-by-step orders over earbuds. It was reminiscent of some of Breaking Bad's more technical episodes — like the great train heist of "Dead Freight" — in its tension and attention to detail even if it was over our heads. Hey, don't dumb it down on our account.
Sam Esmail's direction was also spot on here, particularly with a long one-shot that followed Angela through the cubicle labyrinth into a woman's bathroom stall, and out again into the puffed-out chest of an overly inquisitive FBI agent (who turned out to just be horny for Angela), which amplified the idea of narrowing walls around Angela as she broke about a hundred federal laws right in the clutches of the feds. And though cliffhangers are usually reserved for the end of episodes, Angela's story ended a few scenes early on Dom (Grace Gummer) asking to speak to her as she continued to hack the building's WiFi WITH AN FBI AGENT PEERING OVER HER SHOULDER! This was great stuff, and the exact direction the series needed to go in.
Mr. Robot has turned a major corner in its last two episodes, getting back to the brilliance of Season 1 through raising the stakes, bringing its characters back together and adding depth to the relationship between Elliot and Mr. Robot. And there's still so much more to explore.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on USA.