There is something amazingly liberating about the narrative structure of tv-shows; you’re unsure about endings. You don’t know when, how, or if a certain plot point will be resolved. It might happen at the end of the episode, it might take a few episodes, or even a whole season. In some instances you have to wait several seasons for a certain resolution. Just remember how Breaking Bad (2008-2013) managed to hold back the resolution surrounding the death of Jesse’s girlfriend Jane for over three seasons.
In films, you have a pretty close approximation of when an ending will arrive. It usually takes between 1.5 and 3 hours. Sometimes sequels and trilogies extend this, but even then the viewer is usually aware that they’re going to watch a middle part or something. Viewers knew Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) took three movies to come to an ending, as they also knew Harry Potter (2001-2011) would need more than double that amount.
In television, endings are much more unpredictable. First of all, because the length of a tv-show is often unknown as the series plays out. Even high-profile successful series, who can ignore the risk of premature cancellation, like Game of Thrones cannot, or will not state how many seasons are left. So the viewer is less able to orientate him/herself in the timeline of a series. Are we in the end-game, or only halfway? Is this the big climax, or just a bump in the road?
Secondly, series often have overlapping storylines and a larger cast of characters. This makes it harder to guess at plot resolutions or character developments. Much more often than in films are we surprised by sudden character deaths for example. A storyline that might feel essential to the series as a whole, might shockingly be resolved within a few episodes and main characters might not survive a first season.
So when I was watching an episode of the new series Mr.Robot (2015) about halfway through the first season, and the stakes were raised for our main character Elliot, I literally was unable to guess any sort of outcome. Had it been a movie, I would have expected at least a certain ending, but given the fact that this was just-an-episode I couldn’t even rely on that expectation. Which, of course, made it one of the most tense, exciting hours of television I’ve seen in a long time.
This episode, Brave Traveler, or Br4ve-Trave1er.asf as it is spelled-out for the show, is the subject of this One Shot. And yes, this article will finish with a single shot which I find to be brilliant and beautiful. But to get to that shot, I want to talk about the whole episode and its cinematic style.
AND more importantly, because the shot I want to discuss is one of the last ones of the episode, and Mr.Robot is a particularly new series which might not have been seen by most of my readers, I want write out a SPOILER ALERT for this article. I will discuss plot developments that are best viewed before reading my One Shot.
So for all who have watched episode 5 of Mr.Robot; Br4ve-Trave1er.asf. Read on.
Throughout the episode a style of cinematography is used that has become a trademark of the whole series. Mr.Robot excels in visualizing the alienation of our main characters. It’s a show about a seemingly paranoid and anti-social hacker, Elliot, who is afraid he’s constantly being followed, tracked and spied upon. He has a hard time connecting to the people around him and spends most of his free time avoiding the psychological pains from which he suffers by using morphine.
As Elliot is also our main narrator, we are locked into his perspective almost exclusively. Thus, we have to empathize with his social isolation and utter paranoia. This is expressed through strong acting, writing, and the usual tricks of lighting and music. Dark and dreary urban environments are all we experience and a Trent Reznor styled soundtrack pushes us into the solemn-hacker-vibe immediately. But above all, it’s the cinematography that pushes us towards empathy.
After two or three episodes I started to notice the weird way in which the cinematographer chose to stage the conversations between characters. Normally, in a dialog scene, you’d see over-the-shoulder shots and reverse-shots and see both characters as being in each others company. But in Mr.Robot most of the time people are shown alone and secluded, even as they are in each others company.
Characters are often placed in the corners of the frame, and their line of sight is directed out of the frame. This leaves huge areas of the cinematic frame empty. They feel secluded, trapped even, in the empty environments surrounding them.
The sense that there is a disconnect between people is a clear theme running throughout the episode Brave Traveler. As the episode opens we see Elliot chatting with his friend Shayla, again using the alienating cinematography to create this distance between them. They are together and not together. When, at the end of the scene, Shayla is taken away by two thugs this pays off. The whole time they were being watched by the thugs. The disconnect becomes understandable because she still was a captive and not really together with Elliot. They seem to be close, but are actually miles apart.
And this theme continues throughout the episode. As Elliot struggles to rescue Shayla from the gangsters, a parallel story follows corporate bad guy Tyrell Wellick as he struggles with a strategic defeat. In a scene where he confesses his frustration and anger to his wife there is this beautiful shot in which she looks apathetic as she quietly sits and eats.
Again we feel this disconnect between two people who appear to be close together. It starts to place a distrust in the viewer for all human connections seen in the episode. How close are these people actually? Or are they all just completely alone?
Of course, it all leads to the finale in which Elliot finally reunites with Shayla. And this is where the whole episode beautifully derails into misery. In an episode which visually segregates all its characters and places Elliot so close to desperation, because his one true friend is taken away from him, we crave an ending in which an actual real connection is restored.
So Elliot frees the main gangster, Vera, from prison and gets Shayla back as a reward. When Elliot asks Vera where Shayla is, cryptically he states that she has been with him the whole time. It’s an interesting expression of the theme of the episode and it suggests a positive twist on this theme. All throughout the episode we saw people together who were really alone. Maybe the twist is that Elliot seemed alone but was really together?
In that moment, the viewer has a sort of fools-hope that there is a silver lining to this story. Elliot gets the car keys thrown to him by Vera and we realize that Shayla might indeed simply be locked in the trunk, gagged or something.
But then comes the disruption. The scene lingers too long, the music builds too much towards dread, Elliot waits too long before he opens the trunk, and we start to fear what eventually indeed becomes the reality; Shayla is in the trunk, but she’s dead.
It is a shocking reveal that works so well because of the format of television I discussed earlier. We didn’t have any narrative orientation about the direction of the story in the overall format of the series, so we might as well have gotten a cliffhanger, a to-be-continued. We didn’t.
Now for me, that final scene fascinated me long after I watched the episode but it wasn’t until I read an interview with the cinematographer Tod Campbell that I realized the effectiveness of the cinematography herein.
See, Tod Campbell explained that he chose to shoot the entire series almost entirely stationary. No handheld camera movement is visible anywhere but one or two scenes. Most explicitly the moment where Elliot decides to open the trunk is filmed handheld.
And that is what turns the scene. All throughout the scene, when Vera arrives as a free man in front of Elliot, we feel the tension, but also a certain amount of hope because Elliot succeeded in his mission and might get Shayla back.
But the moment the camera starts to shake, we unconsciously start to feel the unease, that something is seriously wrong.
It isn’t even such dynamic camera movement. That first handheld shot is still a stationary frame. It’s just that it vibrates, while 99% of what we have seen in the series was stable, solid and stationary.
And the shot lasts for over 12 seconds, which is a long time. That is the moment when indeed you start to feel doubt rising, when you feel this isn’t going to have a happy ending.
We cut back to a stationary wide shot, and see the hesitation in Elliot as he starts to open the trunk.
Then we cut back to the handheld shot and stick with Elliot. We see a glimpse of a leg, but the camera stays on Elliot. And it is through his expression that we slowly realize Shayla’s death. The moment we finally see her throat cut isn’t even that shocking anymore, we already felt the shock through Elliot’s expression.
The entire scene is amazing in its construction and direction, but I hold a particular fondness for that first cut to a handheld perspective of Elliot. That first 12-second moment of silence where the scene is turned on its head.
To me, this was the moment that Mr.Robot really stretched its muscles of visual storytelling. The way the shot plays with our emotions and expectations through clever use of (visual)silence, camera movement and tense music is like a master class in cinematographic suspense and it pushes the series as a whole to another level.