The Very Special Episode—that overwrought mode of storytelling in which the cheesy, wholesome characters we know and love suddenly find themselves in some dangerous or unsettling situation (drug addiction, gang violence) that is ultimately punctuated with a moral lesson—was once a staple of American sitcoms, especially in the ‘90s. On Wednesday’s episode of Mr. Robot, writer Adam Penn and director/creator Sam Esmail took us back to the era when ABC’s TGIF lineup was a ratings bonanza and in its own weird and twisty way, created their own version of a Very Special Episode.
For approximately the first 15 minutes of “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes,” Mr. Robot is presented in the familiar style of shows like Full House and Family Matters—from the saxophone-laden interstitial music to the laugh tracks to the rudimentary green screens. Elliott, Darlene, Mr. Robot, and Elliott’s mother are on a family road trip of sorts, to “a place that makes everything better.” But of course, this being Mr. Robot, nothing is as it seems, and every look, line, and moment has a dark undertone. There’s a man—presumably Tyrell—tied up in the trunk of their car, but Mr. Robot refuses to acknowledge him; Elliott’s mother keeps socking Darlene in the face without warning; Gideon, who you’ll recall was killed earlier this season, reappears as a cop pulling the family over and is killed again (this time by ALF—yes, that ALF).
And then there’s the screwy theme song, written and performed by the actual theme-song writers behind Full House, Family Matters, and other TGIF staples:
All the while, we get momentary flashes of the scene that ended the previous episode, in which Elliott gets a severe beatdown at the hands of Ray, seen in the convertible’s rearview mirror and on the screen of Darlene’s Game Boy. Elliott is bewildered by it all, but as Mr. Robot explains over that familiar sitcom-y musical cue—the one that tells you this is a Very Special Moment—“Everything you see, it’s all here for you. To help you. You should try just going along with it.”
The rest of the episode returns to normal—for Mr. Robot, anyway—and the plot plows ahead until the end, when Mr. Robot reappears in front of a weary Elliott. It’s here that the sitcom theme comes full circle, as Mr. Robot explains to Elliott that “all [he] was trying to do”—in creating that faux world—was “take the punches” for him, to spare him from all of the pain in the moment. Unable to stand up anymore, Elliott collapses into his arms and whispers, “Thank you.” The episode closes with a flashback to Elliott’s childhood, when Mr. Robot first reveals to him that he’s sick. “I’m never gonna leave you,” Mr. Robot says. “I promise.”
It’s touching and beautiful—a departure from what we usually get from the show. (It’s also a departure from its other most obvious reference points, Natural Born Killers and the more recent bizarro parody Too Many Cooks, which indulge in sadism unrelentingly.) This gives it the feel of a Very Special Episode, though unlike the ’90s sitcoms it so painstakingly recreates, the effects of Elliott’s emotional journey here provide a deeper understanding of the titular character and will undoubtedly linger throughout the rest of the series.