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Mr. Robot Sticks To Its Uncertainty Principles

A bracing and effective image is still no substitute for plot as Elliot's reality continues to buffer.

It's hard to know where to begin with Elliot's hallucination of Heisenberg in last night's Mr. Robot, in no small part because I suspect that Sam Esmail only knew where to begin with it. What I mean by that is that, while I like Mr. Robot and can tolerate its refusal to commit on a reality and its preference for abstract speeches and geddit?! stories over plot construction, while I enjoy turning over its referent codex in my mind and admiring the look of its New York, my feeling that Esmail & Co. have Shyamalanned a compelling world and set of circumstances without knowing what should happen in it is increasing. The appearance of that hat is a bracer, for sure. It's immediately recognizable and fairly bristles with mental hyperlinks --

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-- to Breaking Bad, of course, and drugs and desperation. Mostly, though, to notions of identity and the characters we all play in different parts of our lives; Walter White takes on the Heisenberg alias to protect himself and his family, but also to signal the audience that the "nice guy" persona he's dwelt in his whole life is just that, a role. Heisenberg's next layer, of course, is that of his uncertainty principle, and another layer over that is that that principle is frequently conflated with the more straightforward and figurative observer effect -- that it's not possible to measure certain systems without affecting or altering those systems.

And let's not forget the questions of moral relativism raised by both Walter and Elliot vis-a-vis the necessity of breaking the law as a means to a just or "meet" end, Walter to provide for his family and Elliot to right wrongs -- and that each man is rationalizing a "because I can" as a "because someone must."

Cut to "Heisenberg"'s face.

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It's here, for me, that the show's take on the idea of core identity and whether it exists gets heavy, because we've received all the references baked into the hat almost subconsciously, but then the guy has different glasses from Walter White, and no goatee, and from the front, even the hat isn't quite the same. That allows the Heisenberg/Breaking Bad allusion to expand to ideas of memory and reliability -- the shifting of human memory, the validity of eyewitness testimony, and also what "memory" and "reliable" mean in the context of computer systems. That is a lot of ingredients in one lid, and on one hand, it's clever for Mr. Robot to just kind of turn the image loose in our brains and let us draw the connections for ourselves without making them explicit.

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But on the other hand, it's...well, "lazy" isn't the right word, and neither is "fearful," but there's a sense of letting Heisenberg's hat, and Heisenberg's not-Heisenberg-nesses, and all the suggestions and things the hat is and also is not do the work, fill the space. (From the front, the hat looks a lot like those worn by Michael Cerveris et al. on Fringe -- the Observers.) "Here's what we want you to ponder while we park the actors in the bottom 15 percent of the frame." Unfortunately, it's starting to feel like the plot is the Adderall in a pool of vomit, and the audience has to scrabble through a series of freshman-winter-break jeremiads on watchmaker theory and the responsibility of organized religion for man's inhumanity to man. If you think about it, a fair bit happened in "Kernel Panic": Romero got murdered, DiPierro started working the case, Angela...something?, and we started to get a better sense of Ray, who does seem to exist.

Fortunately for Ray, he's played by Craig Robinson, who is in Rami Malek's league as far as selling cutesy backstory and monologues about God and grief -- but I'm not in the market for those, not anymore. The Heisenberg hat is extremely effective, in that the image kept working on me in unexpected ways, like watching Grace Gummer as DiPierri and comparing her face, her immediately recognizable nose and timbre, and how the same nose and timbre aren't quite the same in her sister, and how their mother is the gold standard for disappearing into a character. It's fun to watch Gummer work as DiPierri starts working things out about Romero based on the printouts his mother wrapped her glassware in, and to think about how her mother might do the same job, but then at the same time Gummer is saddled with scenes where she's masturbating and then asking her Amazon Alexa when the world ends. ...Guys. Acknowledging that the episode is a circle jerk of metaphor and unverifiable "events" doesn't make it not that. It just means you went ahead with it anyway.

I liked Breaking Bad a great deal, and I like Mr. Robot a great deal too, but one more thing the shows share is the tendency to draw a cloak of stunning visual compositions and a game and top-notch acting corps around their disappearing into their own navels. BB earned it; MR's done nothing but it, and as much as I like unpacking a symbol, generally speaking unpacking implies that you've...gone somewhere.

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