Though it’s been nearly two years since Mr. Robot had a new episode on USA, the series announces itself with characteristic confidence at the start of season 4. It’s not just a return for the hit show after Rami Malek netted an Academy Award for his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody, and series creator, writer, and director, Sam Esmail, brought Homecoming and Julia Roberts to Amazon, it’s also the beginning of the end for the series that once took basic cable (and the internet) by surprise with its twisty, mind-bending story of anarchy and failed rebellion from the yoke of capitalism. And, as has come to be expected, the final season premiere, ‘Unauthorized,’ has plenty of twists up the sleeve of its signature hoodie, including notable guest appearances, cameos, and more than one shocking end to a major character’s story.
The new season begins with a clever recap of the series so far, one that transitions seamlessly into the premiere’s actual narrative, picking up where things left off between Angela (Portia Doubleday) and Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer). Their exchange underlines just how far the series has come since Elliot’s introduction to fsociety and his bespectacled alter-ego Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). It’s also a tacit acknowledgement of the prevalence of online culture and its tendency to cook up wild fan theories about where the story could (or should) go.
In the case of Mr. Robot, though, it’s easy to understand where such outlandish theories come from. After all, this is the series that once hid the fact that its second most important character was a byproduct of its protagonist’s fractured psyche, and then followed that up by spending half a season obfuscating its main character's incarceration. In other words, Mr. Robot likes to toy with audience expectations, and as such has to reap what it has sown, namely that nothing (up to and including time travel) is off the table.
It seems that Esmail is eager to put such talk to rest, however, and he does so in brutal, definitive fashion early in the season premiere. It’s the sort of tone setting that Esmail is particularly well-versed in thanks to not only Mr. Robot but also the unsettling limited series Homecoming. Here, though, Esmail is playing with his own toys, and he demonstrates a remarkable willingness to do what’s best for the story, even if that’s not necessarily what’s best for his characters. As such, season 4 kicks off with everyone in dire straights, as Elliot and Mr. Robot search for a way to shut down White Rose and the Dark Army, while Darlene (Carly Chakin) spirals out of control worrying about what will happen to Angela as she's pulled deeper into White Rose's deception.
Esmail throws an ironic sheen on a very dark story by beginning the final season smack dab in the middle of the Christmas season. Here, Esmail is free to position an anti-capitalism story against the most capitalistic time of the year. In another creator’s hands, this might be an iffy proposition, but Esmail is one of the few writer-directors working in TV today who can create the sort of specific pop-culture-obsessed atmosphere Mr. Robot needs, all while eschewing the kind of heavy-handedness that might otherwise impede the narrative's progression, even as it twists and turns and makes use of meta-textual elements with startling regularity.
‘Unauthorized’ methodically establishes the stakes for each character and for the series itself, drawing as much attention as possible to the notion that this is indeed where the story ends. But as deliberate as it all may seem, Esmail moves his pieces around the game board in surprising ways, putting his ostensible “heroes” in the unenviable position of being outmatched, outthought, and outgunned by the Dark Army. This makes the show’s nebulous and clandestine terrorist organization into a Goliath-like global threat, one that is not only consistently one step ahead of Elliot and what remains of fsociety, but can also absorb any damage Elliot might be able to inflict upon it. As it turns out, Esmail is committed to the idea that his ragtag group of hackers are up against a foe they can’t possibly contend with, while also fighting for a cause most people remain blissfully oblivious to.
This might seem Mr. Robot has become even more cynical than ever before, but the series is nothing if not flexible when it comes to matters of tone. Though the final season announces itself with one successive bummer after another, it creates a level of anticipation that is incredibly hard to deny. This may be a dark start to one of TV’s most routinely surprising and satisfying shows, but it is in keeping with its creator’s vision, one that hasn’t failed the show so far.
Mr. Robot season 4 premieres Sunday, October 6 @10pm on USA.