Hello, friend. How are you this evening? Are you feeling nervous? Paranoid? Undone? Like a revolutionary in Times Square, you are not alone.
I’m not sure at what point during Mr. Robot’s astonishing first season reality and fiction began to bleed for me too. Was it when an outrageously popular website for cheaters was hacked, instantly thrusting the private details of millions into the most public of forums? Was it when the Chinese economy suddenly started to tank, throwing global markets into disarray? Or was it last Wednesday, when two journalists were shot and killed on live television — a tragedy so eerily echoed in tonight’s episode that the broadcast was delayed for a week to clear the air? What is going on here? Is Mr. Robot creating the wave or merely surfing it? Maybe the point is that it doesn’t really matter, not when all of us, like Elliot in Chinatown, live directly in the flood zone.
It’s only been 10 episodes, but Mr. Robot already evokes a signature emotion: a potent mix of breathless anticipation and dread. Anything can happen on this show, from surprise suicides to a sudden, delirious puppy emancipation. Elliot’s first meeting with the talkative ghost that turned out to be his father took place on Coney Island’s famed Wonder Wheel, but by season’s end, the series had more in common with the Cyclone located just a few steps away. It’s a rickety roller coaster that shouldn’t hold together but somehow does, the fun of it inextricably linked to the fear that it could all come crashing down at any time. Unlike nearly every other major cable drama on the air, Mr. Robot is set in the present. More so, it’s set in the RIGHT NOW to an uncanny degree. In a summer roiled by disruptions — political, social, financial — Mr. Robot felt like a pirate broadcast straight from the zeitgeist. It’s not quite enough to say it aired on USA. I want to say it breathed.
Of course, this is all riffing on the metadata, not the hardware itself. And tonight’s episode, “eps1.9_zer0-day.avi” — gotta love the commitment to detail! — was a strong and thrilling conclusion to an outrageously successful season of television. In keeping with the nine hours that preceded it, the finale pushed the story to an extreme place, leaving key characters and the entire fictional world on the brink of collapse. But it also played coy when it needed to, punting some central mysteries — where’s Tyrell? Who is Elliot talking to? What happened to Flipper? — into next season. This is a tricky balance to strike, but the correct one. Especially for a show that blazed brighter than a comet right from the start and thus ought to be mindful about conserving fuel.
Besides, misdirection is a central part of Mr. Robot’s operating system — as it is with most contemporary dramas. In conversations with showrunners and executives over the past year, the one refrain I’ve heard constantly is that “time” is the one storytelling trick left up the TV writers’ increasingly barren sleeve. Which is to say: If you are expecting a big reveal or death in Episode 9, better to burn it in Episode 4. Or: If you’re stuck in a narrative cul-de-sac of your own making, why not fast-forward a few years with a surprise chronological leap? Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail heeded that advice in the finale1 and took it a step further: After all, what is a time jump without a dose of disorienting jet lag?
An episode that, it should be noted, he cowrote and directed.
And so rather than begin the episode where the last one ended — Tyrell and Elliot, united in the arcade — the finale began where the season did: with the cheating schlub who, in the pilot, coughed up a confession and, then, a dog. Though some may have been champing at the bit for more keystroke pyrotechnics from, as Mr. Robot put it, “prophets” and “gods,” I was happy to linger for a moment with these mere mortals. Lenny’s selective outrage was fascinating: He wanted Elliot brought to justice for messing with someone else’s personal life from a distance. Lenny, of course, thought nothing of the terrible things he had done to Krista IRL. It’s a hypocrisy that indicts the viewers as well: We cheer Elliot from the safety of our couches (bought with credit cards) as he overthrows the financial order. We obsess over an insurgent TV show paid for and distributed by NBC/Universal/Comcast/Sheinhardt. We dream up wild Mr. Robot theories, then give them away for free on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. We read recaps paid for by the Walt Disney Company. If privacy is an illusion, who are we to get mad when someone points out the trick?
Our first glimpse of Elliot tonight, sleeping off the hack hangover in Tyrell Wellick’s tanklike SUV, was really more of a wink. Was Tyrell another fantasy? Was Elliot responsible for everything on this show? (Please tell me he also cooked Gideon’s breakfast in bed.) That question remained unanswered — was Mrs. Wellick smirking at Elliot out of recognition or postpartum delirium? — but the larger repercussions of last week’s final moment did not. The long-promised hack of Evil Corp had happened and, most nefariously, Elliot appears to have Rip Van Winkled his way through it.
The world to which Elliot awakens is not the one he remembers, though it’s the one he has long envisioned. Banks are offline; cash is king. Debt appears to be well and truly erased, for students and failed states alike. And yet outside of ATM lines, the streets of Manhattan are mostly calm. This was perhaps the smartest and most subtle detail in a show best known for its excess. In the earliest hours of a revolution, when the chaos is limited to “people in expensive clothes, running around,” the majority of the population — let’s call them “Lennys” — will sit back and wait for the scale to right itself. Misplaced faith in institutions has been a running theme in TV storytelling this summer, from Show Me a Hero on HBO and Fear the Walking Dead on AMC to Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show broadcast. (Stewart’s cautionary editorial about the dangers of bullshit was nicely echoed by Christian Slater tonight during his ebullient, bleak monologue in Times Square.) But none of these shows tackles the idea as gleefully as Mr. Robot. We all want to believe in the powerful men in their powerful suits, that a few speeches and bailouts can undo catastrophic damage. But not every virus has a cure. In the world of Mr. Robot, the hack isn’t the end of something. It’s the beginning.
Acting as the stilettoed Charon for our trip into the underworld of real power is Angela. I’ll forgive her implausible corporate ascension — from the Jersey suburbs to the highest echelons of power in just 48 hours! — for two reasons. One, because her presence was necessary in order to give us access to the innermost corners of Evil Corp. And two, because, as Phillip Price’s leering smile suggests, her hiring was anything but an accident. From the antiseptic bullpen of Allsafe to the gilded penthouses of Evil Corp, the only thing that has changed for Angela is the cost of her shoes and the volume of the male voices yelling at her. Portia Doubleday’s performance has been frequently overlooked this season, lost in the long shadow of Rami Malek and Slater. But in many ways it has been the most fascinating on the show: a master class in frustration and yearning. While Elliot plunged into the extralegal margins, Angela pursued her own line of revenge diligently and more or less “correctly.” She held her tongue; she subsumed her ego. And in the end, what did it get her? A higher pay grade and blood spatter all over her bleach-white pumps.
The fate of Evil Corp executive James Plouffe (Richard Bekins) was the finale’s most shocking scene — and it was so even when I first saw the episode last week, before the Virginia shootings. That its presence led to the episode being delayed a week out of respect for those affected by the horrific on-camera deaths was equally shocking, though certainly understandable. For me, the delay was as much about protecting the art of Mr. Robot as it was about responding to reality. After all, Plouffe’s death was not a political act or even an angry one. The clear inspiration was the public suicide of R. Budd Dwyer, the Pennsylvania treasurer who shot himself in a similar fashion the day before he was due to be sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit. (Said Plouffe, just before pulling the trigger: “Calm down, calm down.” Said Dwyer: “Don’t, don’t, don’t, this will hurt someone.”) There’s a brand of hopelessness unique to the very privileged. It’s evident only in the moment they realize that they, too, are mortal; that the laws of God and, yes, of men apply to them as well. Unfairness doesn’t discriminate, even if people like Plouffe often do.
But what about the men who play God? That was certainly the most eyebrow-raising moment in an episode full of them, when Mr. Robot — loosed in the flickering, neon heart of Manhattan — announced, “I’m only supposed to be your prophet; you’re supposed to be my god!” This was the second religious head-scratcher in the last few weeks, after Tyrell’s wide-eyed Come-to-Jesus moment just before his wife Went-to-the-Pickle-Fork. Is this sort of worship meant to be any different than the way Evil Corp bros prostrate themselves in front of checkbooks? Is blind faith holy or insane — or is Esmail suggesting there isn’t a difference? It’s unclear, though one glimpse of Elliot choking himself against the wall of a web café gave me a pretty good clue. And that was before the dramatics of Elliot’s imaginary nuclear family detonating on 42nd Street like a dirty bomb. “I want to be alone,” Elliot begs to his broken psyche. “You don’t want that, remember?” his father says, safe on the big screen. “You were in pain … You begged for us to come … Sit at your computer and watch the beautiful carnage we’ve created together.”
And, like a good boy, that’s precisely what Elliot does. The episode ended with Elliot staring slack-jawed into a monitor, much as you and I are right now. An Alabama Shakes song played. Outside was chaos. Inside was peace. And then a knock on the door.
Just who is on the other side of that door is a revelation that will have to wait. (Never fear: Mr. Robot was renewed for a second season before this one even began.) But there was one extra bit more: a post-credits tag set at one of those debaucherous mansions preferred by the very rich for their orgies, be they masked (Eyes Wide Shut) or Molly-sprayed (True Detective Season 2). It was no surprise to see Evil Corp’s Phillip Price2 luxuriating there, sipping champagne and bathing in the golden light of credit default swaps. But it was something else entirely to see Price joined by BD Wong’s Whiterose, minus the wig but still speaking to the rhythmic beep of a digital watch. Does this mean Price was in on the hack of his own company? Doubtful. Rather, what it spoke to was one of Mr. Robot’s core conceits: Everything is connected, from the movies we see and the Frappuccinos we drink to the people who loan us money and those who demand it back at a premium. Angela went from Allsafe to Evil Corp without blinking because the only thing that changed was the logo on her business cards. Besides, morality doesn’t do direct deposit. At the level where Phillip Price and Whiterose operate, binaries like good/bad and right/wrong are just abstractions, like paying attention to highway lines from outer space.
In a season full of brilliant choices, Esmail’s smartest may have been casting Michael Cristofer as Price. Cristofer played a similar role on AMC’s short-lived Rubicon, and few actors alive are as skilled at playing this sort of unctuous amorality.
Could Elliot ever slay high-flying dragons like these? Perhaps. He’s plenty resourceful, plenty smart, and, as we’ve been continuously reminded, plenty crazy. But the slash-and-burn mission Mr. Robot described in Times Square isn’t what Elliot is after — not really. Mr. Robot and fsociety claim they want to break the world, but come on — no one’s really buying that. Look at whose skin this would-be radical chose to wear! The truth is, Elliot wants to fix the world, namely his own. He’s a scared kid, circling his childhood home, calling out to Mommy and Daddy for companionship, for guidance, for love. And in this corpo-dystopia, that sort of wishy-washy thinking will get you pancaked in a hurry. It’s emotional static, not electrical, that Whiterose’s Faraday cage was designed to keep out.
Yet while his pulpy heart may doom Elliot, it just might save Mr. Robot. As much as this season has dazzled with bravura style and gonzo narrative recklessness, there’s a reason why Elliot’s emotions keep bubbling, uncomfortably, to the surface. As it turns out, Esmail’s greatest trick wasn’t hiding the identity of Mr. Robot or Elliot’s true connection to fsociety — comic-book nerds figured that out the second they spied something called “Planetary” in the arcades. It was Trojan horsing a highly specific family melodrama into a maximalist show about our fractured world. Rewatch early episodes now and what impresses most isn’t the tech, it’s the pathos. All of those solitary morphine snorts, the weeping against the wall, sweet Shayla3 and her transactional companionship (R.I.P.!). Carly Chaikin’s pouty performance codes as something entirely different when you realize she isn’t flirting, she’s enduring — Elliot is her big brother, and his weirdness is her burden too. Ultimately, it’s possible to see Elliot’s insurrection as little more than unchecked teenage angst; his references, from Fight Club to Pulp Fiction, are certainly all from his adolescence. I love the way Mr. Robot can’t seem to decide if fsociety’s idealism is juvenile or transcendent. Elliot is a kid crashing his parents’ car to get attention and, paradoxically, to prove he’s alive.
For dramatic reasons, I get why the character had to go. But, man, I wish Frankie Shaw could have stuck around. It takes a very specific type of actor to fold a distinct performance around Malek’s spiky Elliot. Shaw was a quilt around a cactus.
And nothing could be more young than piling questions upon questions without ever pausing for answers. It’s an audience-baiting strategy that has a short shelf life on TV — Lost remains the biggest cautionary tale for getting its audience praying for resolution, then abandoning them in church. Grounding Mr. Robot in the emotional turmoil of Elliot — rather than the physical consequences of what he’s done — provides the show with an anchor strong enough to withstand any number of twists, turns, and reveals.
But worrying about whether Esmail can stick the landing is agita best saved for another day. Why talk about coming down when the show is only just beginning its ascent? The truth is, we needed a show like Mr. Robot. As I wrote earlier in the week, we’ve never had so much TV to choose from, and yet, that bounty has in many ways isolated our experiences like never before. In Esmail’s world and our own, “beautiful carnage” is created by committee but watched in private — a million different choices streamed to a million different screens. I can’t think of a more forward-looking show than Mr. Robot in terms of aesthetics, politics, and pace. But what matters most to me today is the way the show glances backward to an important, communal era of TV — one we haven’t even yet had time to mourn.
The frenzy of enthusiasm, of opinion, of fun that has swirled around Mr. Robot isn’t new. It’s merely lain dormant since that day in 2013 when Walter White faded to black. It’s the energy that only crackles around bold, confident TV, the sort that demands to be watched live and discussed immediately, late into the night. Mr. Robot is bleak, often punishing viewing. It holds up a black mirror to societal ugliness and doesn’t flinch at the reflection. But it also talks to us — often quite literally — in a way that encourages us to talk back. Television is in fantastic shape in 2015; its only real adversary is the same one that plagues Elliot. No, not corporate overreach: loneliness. Mr. Robot may not be real. But he is our friend. And sometimes that’s enough.