Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 5 through 11 is “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00,” the fifth episode of the third season of USA’s Mr. Robot.
If you’ve watched Mr. Robot on any occasion, hearing that the show filmed an episode that appears to be one long take will either instantly irritate you or instantly delight you. Sure, it’s the kind of showoff-y thing this always-showy series would pull out of its bag of tricks as a desperate attempt to pump juice into its storyline. But you can also be reasonably assured of Mr. Robot’s ability to pull it off with a level of technical precision few other TV shows can match. Hence — irritate or delight.
My experience was quite different when I first watched the episode weeks ago, in the buildup to season three’s premiere: I didn’t realize it was filmed to seem like one long take at all. I was so pulled in by the episode’sstory and central dilemma that I simply didn’t notice there were no obvious edits. Those who watched the episode on TV — where USA broadcast it without commercials — likely clued in right away. But I remained blissfully unaware until I started talking about it with a friend who’d also seen the screeners.
(A caveat upfront: The vast majority of “single long take” films and TV episodes are actually several smaller shots stitched together in editing to appear to be one long one. That doesn’t erase the level of craftsmanship required to make something like this work, but it’s why I have to say things like “seems to be a long take” or “no obvious edits.”)
For my money, “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00” is one of the best TV episodes of the year — and maybe the only one that accurately captures the freewheeling chaos that is being alive in 2017.
The episode earns its long-take conceit in thrilling fashion
The vast majority of long takes out there really are just sort of there to show off. Think of the Oscar-winning 2014 movie Birdman, a film that appears to be a single take. You can argue, of course, that the long take is meant to approximate a stream of consciousness, the feeling of being trapped inside the film’s protagonist’s head. But I could never get past the sense that it was all an elaborate flourish, aggressively designed to underline how the film was great cinema as obnoxiously as possible.
For comparison, consider the 1998 X-Files episode “Triangle,” which unfolds in “real time,” with each “act” of its story — the segment of TV you see between commercial breaks — seeming to be a single shot. Yes, it’s another episode that’s meant to show off just a little, but the long takes underline the rollicking adventure of the episode and wink toward how it plays with time. (It’s set in two separate timelines, in the 1940s and the 1990s, and actually has the character Scully briefly cross time streams with her past self, in one of my favorite moments in that series.) “Triangle” earns its long takes — but barely.
“Runtime Error” (which I hope you’ll forgive me calling this episode) only really underlines its long-take nature if you’re actively looking for it. From the first, director Sam Esmail (the series’ creator) and writers Kor Adana and Randolph Leon keep throwing ideas at you, to keep you slightly off-guard.
In the elevator protagonist Elliot (Rami Malek) rides on, there’s talk of China annexing the Congo in the wake of the devastating economic meltdown Elliot and his team of hackers caused at the end of season one. Later, when he seems to address the audience (as he frequently does in voiceover), he’s actually talking to a co-worker, only to realize just how fuzzy he is after a full weekend spent as his alter ego, the titular Mr. Robot, a weekend he doesn’t remember at all.
And if none of that works, then the core conceit of the Elliot half of the episode (for it will, eventually, take on the point of view of his childhood friend turned adult foe — even if he doesn’t know that yet — Angela) is solid enough that it essentially demands the story already be told in real time. To foil an imminent attack by the Dark Army (some sort of paramilitary/terrorist group, which is behind much of the chaos in the series), Elliot needs access to computers at ECorp, the giant company he works for. But Angela has just pulled strings to have him fired, so security is looking to escort him from the building. As Elliott dashes between floors, looking for a computer he can access, it’s easier to ignore the long take.
What’s more, the dreamy nature of Elliot’s reality — in which he’s never quite sure that what he’s looking at is real — also justifies the long take. To my mind, the best long takes are either events that occur in real time (and thus replicate the way our brains can home in on a laser-focused point in stressful situations) or dreamlike situations (where they replicate the way dreams can feel like unending collections of stuff, without a break in the rhythm). Because we’re watching so much of this through Elliot’s eyes, the long take doesn’t feel showy. It feels like how he probably experiences the world.
And then the episode switches to Angela’s point of view, something that should kill it. Instead, it ratchets up “Runtime Error” another level.
The chaos of 2017, live on your TV screens
It’s in the Angela (Portia Doubleday) portion of the episode where the “gimmicky” nature of the long take should become more apparent. The camerawork switches from the rigid, careful composition of Steadicam shots, which typically follow Elliot over his shoulder, to far more frenetic, handheld camerawork, as Angela attempts to undo all of the work Elliot has just done. Elliot blocked a building from blowing up. Angela is trying to remove that block.
But for me, this section is best encapsulated by a single shot, the best in the episode, which follows Angela from overhead as she enters a high-security area where she can hack into the ECorp central systems. (As always, the hacking terms are precise, but also vague enough that viewers who know nothing about them — consider my hand raised — can still follow the characters’ overall goals.) The camera watches her, almost like she’s a video game character, then pivots outside, so we can see her work on the screen’s left-hand edge, even as everything outside the building, a dizzying drop to the ground, is also visible. The protest turned riot that Angela’s co-conspirators triggered as a mask for their actions has spiraled out of control, and the police are trying to restore order.
It’s a dizzying, surreal sequence, but it’s one that captures the feeling of living in 2017 better than almost any shot I’ve seen in film or television. Here’s Angela, a small part of a much bigger machine, but also somebody who just might have the key that will bring down a corrupt world order (and/or install an even more corrupt one). The chaos is being held at bay, but only somewhat.
Outside the room where Angela works, looters (possibly hired by her co-conspirators) rampage. Inside, she works to tear apart the world. And outside the building, something is growing, about to burst forth. Nothing is for certain, but everything is under control. Paranoia is the only natural response to the world, but so is trust, the idea that you might find people to hang on to as the deluge tries to sweep you away.
The Angela half of the episode is less daring and coherent than the Elliot half, but that has the effect of making it feel more potent somehow. When Angela steps back into an elevator to find out that China has, indeed, annexed the Congo, thus sending the world spiraling back into the age of colonialism, the sense that she is only a small part of some larger system she can’t ever comprehend only becomes more terrifying.
And yet isn’t that true of all of us? We look at our computer screens, typing away missives we hope will convince somebody, anybody. We might join protests, skeptical that anyone will listen. We worry, all along, that we are being buffeted about by forces beyond our control, because we are. The world is wheels within wheels within wheels, but so are we. Everything is under control, and nothing makes sense.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on USA. Watch the first two seasons on Amazon.