Since the beginning of Mr. Robot, there’s been an intense struggle between the emotional side of the show, and the technical marvel creator Sam Esmail has built. Yet it wasn’t until this week’s episode, which delved into the origin story of the series’ most controlled character, Whiterose (BD Wong), that it hit its emotional peak.
Spoilers for Mr. Robot past this point.
Look, it’s not that different people won’t be gutted by different things. Mr. Robot is always a stressful watch, even if it often errs on the side of chilly, Kubrickian tension over human emotion. Plenty of characters have died, we’ve watched Dom (Grace Gummer) get completely broken down at the end of Season 3, and Elliot Alderson’s (Rami Malek) breakdowns are so charged with horror that Malek won an Emmy for lead actor in 2016. In fact, it’s hard to escape the emotional resonance of scenes when you have Elliot literally facing the ghost of his dead, abusive father every day in the form of his Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) personality.
Yet Esmail’s direction is all precision and angles, heads stuck in the bottom corners of the screen. Every shot is meant to feel off, incorrect, wrong, leading to a tapestry that is only made complete through its errors. That works both against — and in concert with — Whiterose. In the guise of Minister Zhi Zhang, the Chinese Minister of State Security, Wong’s character pushes clockwork precision, has meetings timed down to the second. But when Whiterose switches from her disguise to her true identity, the leader of hacker nation The Dark Army, everything is perfectly balanced. Whiterose has everything in order; the frame even for once. Shots of Whiterose’s secretive project, a massive machine funded by the globe-spanning Deus Group are centered. The first sequence of Season 4 ended with the camera zooming over Whiterose’s head, over the ocean to focus in on our main stage, Manhattan.
The final season’s third episode switches things up, rewinding the clock to show us Zhang in 1982. At the time, he’s brokering China’s first deal with IBM (“I look forward to stealing your intellectual property,” Zhang pleasantly says in Chinese, to laughter from the clueless IBM execs), and secretly wooing the love of his life, a male attaché who hopes Zhang will be named Ambassador, and therefore allow them to live their “truth” in America.
That’s not quite how things work out, but first, while on the trip, Zhang reveals his secret. He’s not Zhang at all, or a he. Zhang is a woman (not yet named Whiterose, though that’s coming). She’s terrified to tell her love, but he accepts her unequivocally. They kiss, and we cut to the man’s wedding day. Zhang has given him a funeral rose, as a joke, but it’s not funny for him. He wants to be with Zhang. But Zhang is already moving towards destiny, having just accepted a role as Minister of State Security.
Zhang thinks it’s fine, but the man clearly does not. He can’t live like this. They kiss one last time, and the man slits his own throat, spraying the white funeral roses with a splatter of blood.
That’s all we get of the flashback, though in the present (well, 2015, because that’s when this season of Mr. Robot is taking place) Whiterose is uncharacteristically emotional. She’s forcing the hands of both Elliot and Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer), sensing that they’re making a move to stop her ultimate plan — whatever that may be.
What we, the viewers, are left with, though, is one of the most humanistic portrayals of a character the show has ever done, and one ostensibly for the series’ villain. When Whiterose was first introduced in Season 1, she was a one-scene enigma. Was she an ally on Elliot’s path to take down the mega-corporation E-Corp, or something else? Then she showed up again, in the guise of Zhang, in a secretive club with Price. Over the four seasons of the show, she’s emerged to become the primary antagonist, yet her motivations have been dangerously murky.
At least from the information presented to us here, Whiterose is as motivated by loss as anyone else on the show. The death of her beloved was clearly a breaking point, one that led her on the path to build the machine that would take the lives of Elliot’s father and countless others. Does it justify what she’s done, leading the whole world on a path to destruction? Is her machine, as many fans have speculated, some sort of time travel device in order to bring back the love of her life? We don’t have the answers to those questions as of yet; but we do have a better look into Whiterose, who she is, and how she ticks (literally, given her omnipresent watch).
Particularly when you’re framing a show around a trans- villain, it’s a necessary step to show that she’s not all calculated monstrosity, with no depth. And given the way this season is going, perhaps she’s not the bad guy, after all. Perhaps that’s Elliot himself. But regardless of how it all turns out, Whiterose now stands as a tragic figure, alongside every other character in the cast. Credit that to Wong’s sorrowful portrayal, perhaps, for taking what could have been a one-note character and letting them grow into so much more — even if a younger actor plays Whiterose in the flashback.
Mr. Robot airs Sundays at 10/9c on USA.
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