It wasn't that long ago that Mr. Robot was one of television's most bracing, creatively adventurous series. The show, created by writer/director Sam Esmail, is the story of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a hacker who suffers from a split personality disorder; his darker, more chaotic half takes on the guise of Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who appears to him like his deceased father. In the show's widely lauded first season, Elliot comes to terms with his split personality just as he's helping bring about a global financial crisis with his team of hackers, aimed primarily at the massive, amoral corporation E Corp.
Visually, it was unlike anything on television, using the work of David Fincher was a starting point for some of the most dazzling cinematography the small screen has ever seen. The storytelling was an exhilarating blend of puzzle box mystery, fourth wall breaking social commentary, and meditations on 21st century isolation and anxiety. The show garnered Emmy nominations, with Malek winning for his riveting work as the show's uneasy center.
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The show's second season was far more polarizing, pushing the show's stylistic flourishes and reality-bending proclivities to the breaking point, with a "big reveal" that just didn't live up to the first season's. The second season, in many ways, was even more artistically daring than the first, but it occasionally missed the mark while take big creative swings.
The current third season, up until now, has felt like an overcorrection. The first four episodes of the season have been relatively restrained characters pieces, the straightest storytelling a show like Mr. Robot is likely capable of. The plot machinations have been interesting, but far from revelatory, as Elliot attempts to prevent the Dark Army (a group of mysterious, violent terrorist hackers) from carrying out Mr. Robot's plans to effectively decimate the world economy. Unbeknownst to Elliot, Mr. Robot has been collaborating with his lifelong friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday) to make sure the Dark Army's lethal plans move forward. It's been a slow simmer of a season, decidedly less flashy than the show's previous seasons.
That all changed with the season's fifth episode, "eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00.” The episode begins with Elliot - who has secured a job at E Corp in an attempt to undo the damage he did as Mr. Robot on the Dark Army's behalf - feeling uneasy, as if something's gone wrong within his mind. This isn't exactly unusual for a character with split personalities who routinely breaks the fourth wall to speak to the viewer, and yet this is something different. As Elliot's unease grows, it becomes obvious what the show is doing - minutes go by with no obvious camera cut. Indeed, an obvious camera cut never comes in the episode's frenetic 45 minutes.
This is hardly the first time a single take gimmick has been used - the Oscar winning Birdman famously used the conceit, and The X-Files even did a version of it on television two decades ago. It's also not actually a single take - there are several hidden cuts woven in to give the illusion of a continuous take. And yet, in this case, the conceit fits the chaos that Mr. Robot is attempting to express like a glove.