Now we’ve all had time to calm the hell down, breathe and take it all in, it’s time to explain why we believe that Wednesday night’s show is the best episode of Mr Robot ever.
This article will be a very detailed look at the way the episode and writers built tension; if you’re after our weekly recap of S02E10 click here, then come back!
From the opening scene, it was obvious we were dealing with mans’ base instincts – greed, power, lust, sex, violence and problem-solving survival tactics. Phillip Price and Terry Colby’s convo was a nice cold open but the Congo story is largely what Alfred Hitchcock would have called a Macguffin and since I doubt we’re ever going to see civil war-torn Africa, kinda forgettable.
Senses already overloaded by Japanese D-Pop New Wave Punk, it’s off to Joanna’s wardrobe for titillation and more sensual extreme close-ups than a man can shake his stick at…
Just like we called it last week, Joanna tasked Elliot with finding Tyrell. Tense and wet with sexual frisson, the scene trundled along without pushing boundaries, and yet something was off. The dialogue was a little… out of kilter, only by a few degrees, but noticeable. What was wrong? Elliot didn’t have the flu, his vocal chords were the same, but then it dawned on my budding TV writer’s brain – There was nothing wrong with Elliot’s voice, this was a different writer’s voice. Not Sheriff Sam’s or Deputy Kyle’s. Then I realised why…
I was torn. Over the moon that we finally got to see our buddy, Kor’s first full writing credit but with just two episodes to go, was now the time to roll out two rookie writers?
Hmmm. I wasn’t sure, but after a car journey and trip to Micro Center (a store I thought Mr Robot would never set foot in on principle) tension began to mount the second Mr Sutherland and Elliot entered his old apartment. Why? Because we had a MISSION.
After an unsure few (long) scenes, Elliot turned into a one-man A-Team and constructed a cabbage-throwing machine out of some disused farming equipment the FBI didn’t confiscate from his apartment.
Mac Quayle’s score kicked in and from this point on, the tension barely let up until the credits rolled. But it wasn’t solely down to the music. It was the writing.
I love Sam Esmail’s fantasy and dream sequences, but with extra long episodes, it’s as if he’s sometimes trying to fit too much in (I can only imagine what that must be like!)
These two freshman writers were on a mission, too:
1) Prove themselves to their mentors
2) Make every second of these short 42 minutes count.
In short, our boys Kor and Randy, thrown in the deep-end, up shit creek without a paddle had no time to mix their metaphors and were going to have to pull something very shiny out of their asses!
For once, Esmail’s labyrinthine, non-sequitur, duo-realism and tricksy unpredictability was out of the window. These two young scribes had to go back to basics and create a series of 100% watertight scenes AND steadily crank up the tension on their way to one final shot.
To achieve this, cause and effect were the order of the day and it was nice to see it in action when Angela texted Elliot twice via Wickr, urging him to meet. Esmail would have spent those twenty seconds jazz-urbating and just have them meet with no prior mention.
So let’s recap: Everyone had their own mission. Elliot had to build a cantenna and break the law to impersonate a policeman to get the info he needed so Joanna didn’t have him killed.
Darlene and Cisco had their own dilemma (dial Emma); help Vincent or let him die, before getting him to the E.R. before making the mistake of staying and going for food nearby.
Dom DiPierro had her ongoing mission; though as we near the Season Finale, her few hours steps behind turned into minutes behind at Susan Jacob’s house, at Cisco’s apartment and the hospital.
A huge part of writing, directing and editing is successfully conveying the passage of time and location plus the relationship between the two. If an audience can’t tell exactly when and where characters are, that’s when the wheels fall off the log.
Game of Thrones and The Dark Knight Rises are as guilty as each other of this.
By way of example, take a look at this early draft of English brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s TDKR script we got our hands on:
Many Roboteers – (that’s my new word for us fans) are complaining about Dom DiPierro’s CSI-style detective work. There’s a word for these people – Wrong Peoples.
And here’s why – the self-same moment Dom told her boss that putting out a BOLO on Cisco was his death warrant, we, the audience knew what was going to happen.
These Wrong Peoples (who probably don’t even know how space or electricity works) will say Wrong Things like “This isn’t the best episode ever cos I don’t want to know what’s going to happen before it happens” but inescapable inevitability is exactly how writers build tension.
We build expectations and then either play them out or (better still) subvert them, dashing them on the rocks. But don’t take my word for it, here’s The Master of Suspense himself.
By the 23-minute mark, Kor and Randy had successfully exorcised all first-time nerves and every single one of their subsequent scenes hurtled tumultuously towards the finish line.
And as geek viewers on the eve of the day of Star Trek’s 50th birthday, we could see The U.S.S. Enterprise was speeding towards a supermassive black hole at Warp Factor 9.0 while Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scottie, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov remained blissfully unaware.
When Cisco suggests he and Darlene grab some food, it was always the writer’s intention to have you screaming “No! Don’t do it” to your TV screen. Wrong Peoples, thinking they are Right Peoples may complain that Darlene’s recent mistakes have been convenient plot-driven devices. Of course they are, Wrong Peoples! Characters MUST make mistakes. If they don’t, there are no breadcrumbs to be followed… no conflict, no mission, no tension. Game Over.
I’m not the first to mention S02E10’s many similarities to Breaking Bad, a show that excelled in building tension through inevitability. Re-watch “Face Off” – the episode with the excruciating (seemingly week-long) scene with the bomb inside Hector’s Wheelchair With Bells On for a masterclass in raising blood pressure.
Yet S02E10 is not only the best episode yet because the writers have created good detective work, honest mistakes, trackable breadcrumbs and believable leaps of faith… it’s due in part to the fact that FBI Agents Dom DiPierro and Hank Schrader are both just so bloody likeable!
Being such well-written and well-acted characters, we root for them as they run across New York streets trying to save Cisco’s life, or find inscriptions in books while sitting on the john. We root for them while simultaneously rooting for Elliot and Walter White because we have grown to see the world from their point of view just as much.
Intercut with Dom’s police procedural story was Angela’s (final?) meeting with Elliot, where again, our pulses were raised by the possibility of her wearing a wire. Rookie screenwriters overwrite, they overexplain, use too many words just like this sentence; twenty-one extra words when just the first three words would have done the job!
This overwriting leaves little to the imagination but the drawn-out silences, physical awkwardness and carefully-chosen words between Angela and Elliot showed off skills beyond their rookie years. It helps that they have actors with Rami Malek and Portia Doubleday’s gravitas.
Dom’s Columbo work eventually, agonizingly lead her to Darlene and Cisco’s location. Lupe’s unassuming diner doubled as High Noon’s courtyard – an inevitable crossroads where character, time, geography and conflict must all show their hand.
I don’t want Dom to find them! I do want her to find them! Do. Don’t. Do. Don’t. Arrrggghh!
And then it happened. At risk of repeating myself, if you didn’t see it coming, you were wrong! Trust me, your subconscious knew it well before you heard or saw that motorbike pulling into view.
But Esmail and Co. were still not done cranking up tension – A Dark Army assassin crossing the street, Uzi in hand is not enough for Sam I Am! Watch the cross-light count perfectly down to zero before the hitman opens fire for an added level of aesthetic genius. Even if you didn’t see that, it also would have been burnt into your subconscious and created a physical effect on your body.
Dom’s second shootout was again shot in one continuous take, thus adding to the searing inevitability of it all but it was no tracking shot like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or Cary Fukunaga’s True Detective; it was never meant to be. The locked off camera wasn’t meant to take us into the scene, it was meant to lock us out by heightening our inability to jump into the frame, run across the street and stop this all from going down.
After a few tiny teething problems with the writers not quite capturing the showrunner’s voice, Episode 10 became a perfect half hour of television. As many as three characters may be dead, meaning if this were the Season Finale, I’d have gone to bed adrenalised but happy.
Perfection doesn’t happen often, usually once or twice a year when a season’s best episode comes along like:
Lost’s “Pilot”, “The Constant” and “Through the Looking Glass”
Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding” and “Battle of the Bastards”
Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “Hush”, “The Body” and “Once More With Feeling”
Luther’s S01E1, S01E05, S01E06
About six out of ten episodes of The Leftovers’ Season Two
Ooh, and numerous episodes of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s “Nailed”.
S02E10 is what happens when every single member of the cast and crew brings their A-Game. Mac Quayle’s score and Music Supervisor Charlie Haggard’s decision-making. Editors Samantha Uber and James Lesage’s seamless interplay, and creating more jarring cuts as we cranked our way to our final destination. Rami Malek, Portia Doubleday and Grace Gummer – a new generation of actors who’d steal any Hollywood scene.
And let’s not forget Sam Esmail’s contribution to the DEFINITELY THE BEST EPISODE EVER; he not only calls the shots directing every episode but as Head Writer, Senior Exec Producer and Showrunner who engineers every aspect like a conductor leading an orchestra of several hundred people.
I still love Sam but thought I liked Mr Robot for his dark, surreal, fantasy but this episode, steered by Kor Adana and Randy Leon, two writers who are not as honed and assured absolutely nailed it with some Good, Old-Fashioned Screenwriting Work.
Best Episode Ever. Science Fact.
Thank you, Kor and Randy. You’re now my two favorite writers as well as my two favorite words!