“This used to be about saving the world.” “I’m done with therapy sessions.”
This recap of Mr. Robot Season 4, Episode 1, “401 Unauthorized”, contains spoilers.
What does it mean to devote your life to a single mission? Mr. Robot’s fourth season premiere, “401 Unauthorized”, explores that question, as the show pares down its characters and storylines to a single objective: Elliot and Mr. Robot must take down Whiterose. The lines quoted above come from Mr. Robot and Elliot, respectively, but you would be forgiven for thinking this is the other way round. It’s now Elliot who doesn’t want to think about his personal life (and a sign that the show’s twists will be less reality-altering from now on), and Mr. Robot who is losing faith in the mission. Elliot often acts as if he has nothing to lose, but Mr. Robot Season 4, Episode 1 makes a lot to show that there are still stakes for him.
The opening scene of “401 Unauthorized” delivers a stark reminder of Whiterose’s ruthlessness. Continuing from where season three left off, ECorp CEO Philip Price has just pulled a Darth Vader in an attempt to convince Angela to give in to the Dark Army’s wishes (the specifics concern the Washington Township plant, the leak of which was responsible for the death of Elliot’s father and Angela’s mother. The plant has since become a MacGuffin which Whiterose desperately wants to move to the recently annexed Congo, for… reasons?). Angela remains true to her values, telling Price that the way to stand up is to “remove all emotion and you’ll do just fine, isn’t that what you’re good at?”
As Price walks away, he barely maintains his composure. In the background, Angela is executed. It’s a bold choice to kill off one of the main characters so early but reveals the stakes for the season, the mercilessness and power of the Dark Army. Sticking to your morals won’t stop them from gunning you down.
Showrunner and director Sam Esmail uses a rare handheld shot to depict Price’s vulnerability in the aftermath of Angela’s death. He is angry at Whiterose, who is gazing out at the ocean in your typical movie villain lair (Whiterose apparently only speaks in movie villain dialogue). Her assistant informs her that the transfer of the plant will occur at the end of the year; “it’s October now, so that’s two more months we have to wait”, a line that only exists to temporally situate the audience (as if the leader of a super-powerful organization wouldn’t know what month it is).
As a soft-rock cover of the Little Drummer Boy takes us to Manhattan, we enter the excitingly named “Lomax and Looney Law” (I, for one, would love to have Mr. Looney file my tax returns). Douchey looking Mr. Lomax is delivered proof of kompromat — Mr. Robot has footage of him whacking off to underage girls). Under Robot’s instruction, Mr. Lomax (regrettably missing out on Secret Santa!) takes his law firm’s emails to Elliot (who is very concerned about Lomax’s cocaine usage). It turns out that Lomax is not your average pedo — he’s Whiterose’s lawyer! Elliot is not just up to his old tricks again. He is using those old tricks to track down Whiterose and stop the Dark Army.
But all Elliot can get is a name — John Garcia — before the Dark Army catches up with them, and Mr. Looney, afraid that he will now be hunted by them, kills himself. Esmail shows us Elliot’s increasingly futile attempts to soothe Looney as he realizes that he is powerless to stop the Dark Army. What started out as smooth blackmailing turned ugly once the target realized who was really in power. Yes, Lomax was bad, (later in “401 Unauthorized”, Eliot’s phone flashes the name “Dolores Haze”, the Lolita of Lolita as if to remind us that Lomax is a pedophile), but Elliot put him in danger. His actions can have life-or-death consequences.
Elliot and Mr. Robot are now living side-by-side peacefully, but it is uncertain how long the peace will hold. Back in the AllSafe office, we see their cool new conspiracy wall (every secret hide-out must have them), they argue over the next steps. Elliot believes that the bank Whiterose is using should be their target; “You used to say you can’t take down a conglomerate by shooting them in the heart. Because conglomerates don’t have a heart. You were wrong. They have a heart”. In what sounds eerily like Elliot’s first-season vendetta against E-Corp, the show promises that what sounds like a simple plan (destroy the money, destroy the organization) will be anything but.
Oh, and yes, Mr. Robot Season 4, Episode 1 does break the fourth wall. This time it’s from Mr. Robot who talks to us, claiming that we must be “here to help”. He stresses that Elliot is trying to ignore Angela’s death. In a blunt metaphor that fits neatly into the sophomoric philosophizing the show is often accused of, Mr. Robot compares Elliot’s compartmentalizing of his grief to gauche Christmas decorations. I hope Angela doesn’t end up on the long list of female characters killed off for the sole purpose of motivating the male protagonist, but it’s not looking hopeful.
They find Garcia’s apartment. To indicate that something is fishy, the camera lingers on a picture frame still with a stock photo (of course, there’s always the possibility that Garcia, like myself, thinks stock photos are hilarious and wants to fill his house with them).
These thoughts do not occur to Elliot until he reaches for a copy of Sartre’s “No Exit” (get it, its a TRAP), and finds the name “Garcia” in the book. Are we meant to assume that Mr. Looney Keyser Soze-d it? And then he told the Dark Army the name… and they created a fake apartment… with a fake social media profile… but couldn’t remember to change out a stock photo? It doesn’t quite add up, but it’s a TRAP; Elliot is ambushed and taken away by several bulky men.
The narrowing of the season’s plot has coincided with the dwindling rank of supporting characters. Tyrell is very busy apparently, too busy to have more than one scene in “401 Unauthorized”. Darlene is refusing to believe Angela’s death, seeing her wherever she goes. Later when she invites some Flat Earthers over to her house, only to kick everyone out when she finds them going through Angela’s closet. The earlier dynamic of schizophrenic Elliot and grounded Darlene has been reversed.
Dom is not doing too hot in “401 Unauthorized” either. She’s living with her mom, sleeping in until noon (relatable), mistaking handymen for intruders and scaring them with a gun (less relatable). Dom’s mom tries to have a dinner party. Their guest is Janice, who turns out to be a taxidermist, who turns out to have been set up with Dom by Dom’s mom, who turns out to be a Dark Army agent who threatens to cut Mrs. Dom “from head to c**t”, if Dom doesn’t show up for work (in her new position as the Dark Army’s FBI mole). Dom looks around and realizes that her house is surrounded by White Vans (not the shoes). Hey, that’s one way to break out of a depressive period I guess.
Back to Elliot, who tries to negotiate with his captors before they inject him with some nasty syringe. He fails, and then passes out, not before seeing his family appear before him. Elliot’s mind flashes back to different times, characters, and aspect ratios. And then he dies. Cool. End of show?
Not so! For Elliot is revived. Those bulky men return, and with them, Philip Price? To be continued! It looks like a revenge-for-Angela group might be coalescing to fight Whiterose. Mr. Robot Season 4, Episode 1 suggests the season is aiming for a more “back-to-basics” style after two seasons of chaos (although thematically significant chaos; depicting the consequences of the 5/9 hack and splintering of fSociety, even when it was confusing to watch). Whiterose is positioned as the Big Bad. Mr. Robot initially was concerned with the takedown of a single company, but the subsequent seasons showed that fighting Capitalism can be like fighting a hydra, where the 5/9 hacking only caused more inequality and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. It seems odd then that Mr. Robot Season 4 has refocused on the quest to cut off what could just be another head, but let’s hope this time it sticks.