In an episode of The Ringer’s podcast, “The Watch,” Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan vetted a listener’s question about genres or classic cinema time periods that remained to be explored in television after the success of 80’s sci-fi, horror romp, “Stranger Things.”
Ryan almost immediately posited that he was waiting for the Pulp Fiction-esque moment in television — the watershed moment that changes the way television narrative can be told in the way the 90s critical cult classic shattered notions of film.
“Mr. Robot” might’ve done just that.
It’s one thing for a half-hour comedy to spoof the 90s sitcom. But it’s a whole other beast when USA’s already macabre thriller decides to take the plunge. In what turns out to be an elaborate coping mechanism to deal with the beating when, we last left Elliot, we begin episode six, “Master Slave” in a “Full House” spoof featuring the Alderson’s annual road trip. Complete with the staged credits we know and love from every sitcom (including a nod to a blindfolded, tied-up Tyrell in the trunk of the family car), Sam Esmail and co. commit hard to the idea.
While there’s some revealing bits (some semblance of a mother-father interaction between Darlene and Robot we don’t know anything about, or an exaggerated look at their mother’s subjective destructive force) much of it remains and feels like an extrapolated, meta version of season two’s narrative heretofore.
Fun as it is — brilliant as it may be — we largely end where we last left off, though with shifted power dynamics that seem to be at the heart of “Master Slave.” If episode five was all about getting these characters back to work in an environment where they can excel, episode six is a reminder of duty, to whom they all ultimately answer.
Ray — kind man that he is — takes Elliot to a hospital playing re-runs of “Alf” after nearly beating him to death, explaining to him in a roundabout way that he owns Elliot much in the same way as his late dog. Darlene’s boyfriend and Dark Army insider, Cisco, receives his reminder as he goes to pick-up the modified router fsociety will use to hack the FBI. “You are a foot soldier,” an unnamed Dark Army member tells Cisco as he shoves and snaps a needled underneath his fingernail, “and foot soldiers do one thing: follow orders.”
Angela quickly understands her place as newly inducted fscoiety accomplice, trying to learn how to hack in one day. A failure waiting to happen in the minds of Mobley and Trenton, Angela only reaches some level of competence when she begins hacking while reciting her “My success is assured” mantras.
After episode of these characters recovering some agency, Esmail immediately evacuates the idea that (like most things on “Mr. Robot”) that any of it can last. By mistake, force or duty to a cause, “Master Slave” suggests submission is a necessity to life — that by some way or another you find yourself in the presence of a master.
But who or what that master is might not always be sinister. It’s in the episode’s most thrilling sequence (Angela dipping and diving around the FBI’s takeover at Evil Corp to perform the hack) that Esmail pushes back on the notion of helplessness around the other characters.
Fscoiety drilled Angela, and largely instructed her throughout much of the hack; in complete honesty, she didn’t have to do so much as trust that Darlene and Mobley knew what they were doing. But the key to Angela’s apparent success (we’re optimistic that she got the job done) wasn’t solely submitting to her role as fsociety pawn, but her ability to willfully act — to disarm the Greek-food-loving, frequently mother-calling FBI agent in ways only she could.
The master-slave dichotomy and the submission to authority is everywhere in the episode, most sobering when Dom goes to her bodega after learning she may be put on a month-long psych leave. The shelves and aisles are sparser — nearly empty — prompting Dom to ask her owner-friend when he plans on re-upping his inventory. Met with the inevitable “Never” — that all the good Elliot and fscoiety thought the hack would accomplish hasn’t manifested in the daily lives of the working class — Dom apologizes to him before wobbly ordering one last gets “best turkey sandwich in the Tri-State.”
The scene punches hard. That master still exists, dolling at cash allowances that society’s slaves have no desire to spend. But in re-watching it a few times, the emotional beats are felt more strongly on Dom’s end; conversely, the bodega owner seems largely accepting of his lot, as if he’s known the truth for weeks, came to terms with it and maybe started accepting the lie he’ll be okay.
“Master Slave” seems to live there, in towing the balance of Edward Alderson’s typical sitcom life lesson: too much truth isn’t necessarily a cure-all to whatever ills plague a life. Accepting the lies before they become unknown truths doesn’t always have to be an awful, morally reprehensible decision if it makes us feel better. Because a real master simply lives — lies, truths and all — and in doing so, is a master of nothing but the lies we recite in our heads that success will happen, that it’s assured.