On Mr. Robot, the relationship between Elliot and the show's audience has always been explicitly active: he treats us as an imaginary friend, talks to us, confides in us and expects us to confide in him. The relationship was fractured at the end of season one when Elliot discovered the truth about Mr. Robot's identity and realized that we, his friend, knew the truth before he did and withheld it. Season two opened with Elliot openly questioning how much he could trust us.
Then he spent six episodes lying to us. We were shown and told that Elliot was living with his mother, adhering to a strict routine outside of New York City, when really he was living in a state penitentiary. "I'm sorry for not telling you everything," Elliot said to us two episodes ago as the wool was being pulled away from our eyes. "Please don't be mad too long. This'll be the last time I keep things from you. I promise."
Elliot had last week's episode off, as Mr. Robot focused on an unraveling Darlene and fsociety instead, but returning last night, he was back to rebuilding his relationship with us. "init_5.fve" kicked off with Elliot explaining everything, answering every lingering question we might have had about his imprisonment. We were shown who was knocking on his apartment door at the end of season one, the cops, how Elliot unflinchingly pled guilty to multiple felonies, incarcerating himself and Mr. Robot; it was swiftly explained who Craig Robinson's character was: the prison's warden. Then we saw Joey Bada$$'s Leon befriend Elliot, talk about his cruise through '90s television, and even provide us with an explanation for how Elliot ended up tripping on Adderall in prison. The recap was almost ridiculous in its candidness—on any other show, it might even be considered bad writing with too much explication. Look at this beautiful little bow this storyline is being wrapped up with.
"That's how it happened," Elliot told us. "That's all you missed, that's everything." The message being that there were no more secrets, that Elliot and the audience were embarking on a new phase of our relationship that'd be full of honesty and straightforwardness. And just when the comfort of that message started to sink in, Elliot, having just left prison, hugged Darlene. She whispered in his ear, and we weren't allowed to hear what she said. No more secrets, Elliot promised, but really, he just replaced his old secrets with a new one. It's the first 12 minutes of the episode, and it's all an exercise by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail that utterly toys with the audience. This opening may be the perfect distillation of the way Esmail fucks with your head, telling you one thing while doing another, providing transparency where there's only obscurity.
As the episode progresses, we're given a suggestion as to why these sorts of omissions are still happening. We see Elliot's world through his eyes only—"E Corp" becomes "Evil Corp," a childhood bedroom becomes a prison cell—and we're being kept out of the loop because he is too. This has been apparent throughout the season, as we and Elliot demand to know where Tyrell Wellick is (and are given inadequate explanations), even though the latter Elliot is ostensibly responsible for Wellick's disappearance. But the point was sharpened even more last night, with Elliot being locked out of multiple conversations being had by Mr. Robot. We can't know what Mr. Robot is planning, that "Phase 2" is his idea, because Elliot is our only access window into this story, and he isn't even privy to that information.
I'm still not convinced this is the most satisfying route for Mr. Robot in terms of compelling television. If a show is going to withhold secrets, is it better for it to openly tell you it's doing that? In the moment, being toyed with like we were last night is thrilling, but eventually the mind games can become too draining—a surprise is a surprise for only so long. It's especially discouraging that a reaffirmation of Elliot and Mr. Robot as characters at odds came right when it seemed that the two split personalities were cooperating and coming together to form a Super Elliot. Having a main character in stasis clearly isn't a possibility in Mr. Robot. And neither is feeling confident in what we know, have been told and shown—just like Elliot, we don't know who's at the door until he opens it.