How do you break someone as out of touch with their emotions as Elliot Alderson (Oscar-winner Rami Malek)? That is the terrifying question at the heart of Sunday night’s Mr. Robot installment, “Proxy Authentication Required,” a chapter being dubbed the best TV episode of the year. Prior to “Proxy,” our only hint to the episode’s riddle comes from Elliot’s therapist Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben). In last week’s “Not Acceptable,” Krista tells unstable drug kingpin Fernando Vera that the key to owning Elliot’s soul is getting to the bottom of his Mr. Robot personality (Christian Slater).
Mr. Robot is clearly the result of some unspeakable trauma Elliot suffered. But what is it? “Proxy” — filmed as a two-room stage play shot in five acts — answers that question, rewriting the code for Mr. Robot with an unshakable filter of tragedy.
The big reveal? Elliot was sexually abused by his father Edward Alderson (also Christian Slater).
We come to this horrifying realization in one of the darkest ways possible. Vera spends all of “Proxy” trying to force either Elliot or Mr. Robot to explain the latter’s existence. Mr. Robot is willfully hostile towards the inquiry, and Elliot is painfully confused. The hacker cannot remember the exact moment Mr. Robot was created or why he needed him in the first place. Elliot assumes the correct origin story is the one he has always told himself — Mr. Robot was born to deal with the death of his father and the physical abuse of his mother — but this hazy explanation immediately seems flimsy amid the dramatic grandeur of “Proxy.”
“Proxy” is a visually grim episode backed by the sounds and sights of pounding thunder and lightning. Whatever is coming must be equally emotionally stormy.
That tempest arrives in full force in the installment’s fourth act, when Vera forces Elliot into a therapy session with Krista. The therapist focuses the conversation on the lynchpin of Elliot’s relationship with his father: the day Elliot fell out of a window. At the beginning of Mr. Robot, Elliot believes his father inexplicably shoved him out of the window. Then in the third season, Darlene (Carly Chaikin) counters that assumption, telling her brother in the 2017 finale “Shutdown-r” that he jumped out of the window.
“Proxy” returns to that fateful day. Elliot recalls the scene as Darlene described it in “Shutdown.” On a snow day, Elliot and Darlene went to get a camera from his room. When Elliot heard his father approach, he told Darlene to hide in a closet. Then, when Edward entered the room, Elliot began screaming and waving a baseball bat around. He eventually jumped out the window. Krista suggests this incident sounds a lot like the Mr. Robot fugue states Elliot currently experiences — is it possible it was Mr. Robot who was swinging a bat in that room so many years ago? And if that’s true, why did the personality feel the need to assert itself as protection for Elliot?
The reason is inescapable fear.
It’s Vera who pinpoints the exact locus of Elliot’s fear, sighing, “His father.” As Krista recontextualizes Elliot’s window story through that lens, it becomes obvious he is the survivor of some abuse, no matter how many times Elliot claims his dad was “his friend.” That is why Elliot begins to emotionally crumble, murmuring “No!” while reexamining the day, until he is crying and shaking on a couch, lost in the memories. Whatever mental walls Elliot created to survive are gone. “Elliot, did your father sexually molest you?” Krista finally asks.
“Yes,” he responds, tears streaming down his face and nearly unable to breathe. We’re witnessing a lifetime of emotions erupt out of Elliot at once. It seems possible he may pass out from the gravity of it all.
While Elliot doesn’t faint, he is visibly enraged Vera has forced him to live with this terrible truth about his past and his father. Edward was the one person Elliot believed truly cared about him. That's over.
Now we too are aware of Edward’s darkness, and it is impossible to look at Mr. Robot the same. As many publications have pointed out, the drama’s first scene, where Elliot busts a child pornographer, takes on new power. Then there is Mr. Robot himself, who looks exactly like Edward. The character no longer merely feels like Elliot’s tough alter-ego or his Tyler Durden. Instead, we understand he is a fantasy version of Elliot’s father. Mr. Robot is a reimagining of what Edward could have been if he dedicated his life to protecting his son rather than abusing him.
Still, there is a darkness to the personality, since it suggests Elliot has been unable to shake the trauma of his father’s actions over the last few decades. Rather than let go of Edward, he has made his carbon copy the foundation of his life.
“Proxy” at least suggests healing could be ahead for Elliot. As he initially approaches the truth about Edward, Mr. Robot, who has hidden that reality from Elliot for years, resigns himself to the inevitable sea change and walks off-stage. “I can’t protect you anymore,” Mr. Robot says, never to return in the episode (and, possibly, forever).
Now that Vera has convinced Elliot he is a storm in his own right, that's probably for the best.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).