[This is a review of Mr. Robot season 1, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
This summer, television has been filled with a number of very good series – demonstrating the incredible breadth of programming available to anyone with a television and a lot of free time. And while there were many decent successes, the vast majority of the programs were often just that: “decent”; everything worth watching felt like it deserved to be there. And yet, at the same time, something was missing; all that programming somehow managed to diffuse the conversation. A lot of it was good, but nothing dominated the discussion, nothing managed to become the communal experience the best kind of television so often becomes. Instead, the dialogue became one of the amounts of content, rather than the content itself. That was until Sam Esmail’s strange and brilliant Mr. Robot hijacked the conversation.
It is always fascinating to see a series work its way into the public’s consciousness the way Mr. Robot has, but what sets the series apart – aside from its unique visual style, mind-bending questions about what’s real and imagined, and an inspired performance by its lead Rami Malek – is how, from the get-go, the show knew exactly where it was headed. It’s rare to see any program kick the door in and announce itself the way this series did. It was all confidence but without the gimmicky swagger – despite the potential narrative pitfall of its conceit. From its direction to its tone to its masterful musical choices, Mr. Robot was self-assured in a way that bolstered certain precarious excursions into potential nonsense and assured the audience everything was going to be okay. And the real kicker was how it convinced those watching simply by how it chose to participate in its own eccentricities.
This is a show dedicated to making sure the world the audience sees is filtered through the damaged, morphine-riddled mind of its main character. And despite some digressions, theoretically capable of derailing the whole thing, Mr. Robot has proven time and again it is more concerned with understanding the way in which the broken central character relates to what is going on, both inside his head and in the larger world he’s struggling to be a part of, than it is in the plot itself. That’s one of the reasons why Elliot’s narration is so compelling: It feels like exposition fed directly to the audience to drive the story, but the more the series moved on, the more it became clear Elliot wasn’t talking to anyone at all – the audience in his brain is not the viewer; it’s just another facet of his broken psyche. The narrative engine isn’t communal; it’s stuck in a closed circuit inside the main character’s head.
Sam Esmail’s understanding of this, and how to dole out the information in such a way as to not only earn and maintain a captive audience, but also to make the plot work for the characters, is how the finale ‘eps1.9_zer0-day.avi’ become as compelling, curious, and captivating an episode as one would expect from a series that has increasingly managed to be all of the above.
Despite the spate of reveals the show has been reveling in for the past few weeks – the dissociative disorder making the title character and the show’s protagonist one, and the fact that Darlene is Elliot’s sister – the finale had plenty in store to keep things appropriately unbalanced. The trick, then was finding ways to ground the proceedings in the familiarity of the real (recognition of the recent Ashley Madison hack being a prime example).
But opening on the personal woes of Lenny the lothario (formerly Michael) didn’t just give Esmail a chance to hold a mirror (one produced in post production, but still) up to the world; it allowed Mr. Robot to remain as gleefully mercurial as it ever was. From the outset, the series has mixed its plot and its characters in such a way that the gaps in the story are as necessary a component as anything else. Just look at the way the series is filmed; the show’s visual palate is a representation of Elliot’s skewed mindset. And being enduringly askew allows the framework of the series itself to become equally off center. All that negative space in the frame of each shot (composed by cinematographer Tod Campbell) is illustrative of the way the story works, and vice versa.
So when the finale opens by spending several minutes with the philandering Lenny, espousing how he’s been done wrong by some “hacker,” and then following him to his home, where, while digging into some fast food, the news of the global financial meltdown hits, the disorienting nature of it all is expectedly unexpected. The move keeps the finale from being more than just a build-up to a keystroke. Instead, it becomes an absorbing inquiry into the aftermath of said keystroke.
With the help of Tyrell (or maybe without), Elliot has successfully plunged Evil Corp, and much of the rest of the world, into financial chaos. What the show does to match the success of its protagonist’s goal, is to present the events in such a way they feel disconcerting and more than a little eerie. More than once, the episode’s score takes on a distinct horror-like quality. This is particularly true in the build up to the onscreen suicide of an Evil Corp executive, but it’s even more pronounced when Elliot meets Joanna (a.k.a. the most interesting character on the show) for the first time. There is an ominous intensification in the score that underlines the inscrutability of Joanna’s facial expressions, which, when coupled with a nearly imperceptible shift in the scene’s lighting that hints at an undisclosed illumination, causes the episode to toy with genre as a means of emphasizing the nebulous implications of what just transpired.
Tyrell’s absence from the episode is a masterstroke in terms of delivering the unexpected. Questions will continue as to whether or not he is also a construct of Elliot’s psyche, but given the conversations other people have with Elliot about Tyrell’s whereabouts that seems unlikely. It’s a safer bet to assume Esmail has something better cooked up for Tyrell than a repeat of the season’s biggest twist.
And just as the episode was defined by Tyrell’s absence, it was made equally distinct by the focus on Angela’s tumultuous day at Evil Corp. The shift inside the corporation with a character the audience knows helps make the connection that no one can escape the fallout, not even the stalwart Phillip Price.
Overall, Mr. Robot proved it was as confident in its finale as it has been all season long. It takes a special kind of self-assurance to execute a season-ender in which almost none of the key characters interact with one another, and still have it feel as complete and compelling as the episode did here. The end result is a lot of questions left hanging, and the staging of a much larger narrative world in which to find those answers. And as the post-credits sequence between Whiterose and Price – as well as the question of who was at Elliot’s door – suggests, there’s still plenty of story left for next year.
Mr. Robot season 2 will premiere on USA in 2016.
Photos: Christopher Saunders/USA Network