In one of Mr. Robot’s most impressive and ambitious episodes to date, season 3’s fifth installment follows Elliot as he desperately attempts to stop the Dark Army’s “Phase 2,” and Angela as she risks everything to ensure it. The kicker: it all happens in real-time, uninterrupted by commercials, in what appears to be a single, hour-long take.
The idea of a “oner” – an entire film captured in a single shot – has fascinated audiences for years. It can of course be near-impossible in execution, depending on length and complexity. To capture the effect of a oner when it would be otherwise infeasible, cinematographers often use shots called “stitches,” wherein the camera tracks away from the characters and back, allowing a nearly indistinguishable cut to happen sometime in the transition. Notice how often the camera panned to the news broadcast in the elevator? There’s your stich.
If these stitches become too apparent, this technique can easily fall flat. If poorly executed, a oner can come off as gimmicky or contrived. But when done properly, it can capture a real-time pace that places the viewer just a couple of steps behind the characters, on the ground as the action unfolds.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail stressed that his choice to simulate a single take was less about being flashy, and more about “how the format of this sort of seamless real-time filming of Elliot and Angela is so ingrained with what their journey is and what they’re going through in the episode.” If seamlessness was the goal, then Esmail and cinematographer Tod Campbell succeeded. I was so swept up in the episode’s high anxiety and breakneck pace that I didn’t even realize I was watching a oner until about twenty minutes in.
The long take allows for some truly mesmerizing shots. The most impressive is a spinning aerial view that alternates between the interior and exterior of the E Corp building. More important to Esmail, the style lends itself perfectly to the episode’s narrative. We shadow Elliot in the moments after he wakes up from a four-day stint as Mr. Robot, dropped into the action and forced to figure out what’s going on alongside him. As he battles through the static we can hear in his mind (his “corrupted memory”), he’s forced to flee from E Corp security. Where an action movie might have its hero sneaking around and breaking necks, Elliot falsifies IT issues and stalls with mindless corporate banter. Yet the tension is just as high – the long take lends itself to the frantic nature of his escape and the feeling of being pursued.
When the riot breaks out, the action kicks into high gear. The camera places us in the throng of protesters charging into E Corp headquarters and wreaking havoc. Then, when we join Angela, we duck with her behind every corner as she fears discovery at any moment. Completing her mission, she condemns two people to death. Walking amid the chaos she helped create, we stay right with her as the calm, unfeeling facade she’s put up comes crumbling down. The long take details every moment of triumph and torment that plays across her features, right up until the moment that she and Elliot come face-to-face.
Last week I bemoaned the glacial pace at which Mr. Robot sometimes seems to move. I said we’d need to see some action soon, as payoff for all the groundwork laid over the last couple of seasons. Well, I got what I wanted. This episode was packed with more action than the previous four episodes combined. Not to mention all the major turning points for the characters. Angela discovers that she has the capacity to kill, donning a pepper spray-filled fsociety mask in a moment as symbolic as it is bad-ass. Elliot admits just how much he really needs Mr. Robot, going so far as to create an imaginary version of his very real alter ego. He learns that Darlene has been working with the FBI behind his back. Even worse, Angela has been using him to advance the Dark Army’s goals, ensuring the very destruction he’s been trying to prevent.
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