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How Real Life Screwed Over ‘Mr. Robot’

About that finale, and a hit-and-miss second season

USA
USA

“You keep trying to invoke the Fifth Amendment,” FBI agent Santiago told Darlene Alderson on Mr. Robot’s Season 2 finale, “but there’s this thing called the Patriot Act that a bunch of people signed into law. You know what that means? It means that you are not on some TV show. This isn’t Burn Notice.”

And yet — wow, of all the sentences I never thought I’d type — there were times during Wednesday night’s Mr. Robot that I wished it were Burn Notice, because then we would at least have a little more clarity about what the fuck is happening on this show. The sophomore season of Mr. Robot has been, at turns, dazzling, dizzying, maddening, confounding, poetic, frustrating, Lynchian, Alf-ian, and — an inevitability, given its stellar debut season — unable to rise to the heights of its viewers’ expectations. In some sense, the finale was a very fitting ending to this season, because it was all of those things (except one; miss you, my cat-eating friend). But it was also an unsatisfying note to end on, given that the last 20 minutes of the episode raised way more questions than they answered, and failed to resolve basic questions about the nature of the show’s reality. “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt2.p7z” had several important reveals (the FBI knows almost everything about fsociety? Scott is the one who’s been sending Joanna all those gifts? Tyrell and Angela talk on the phone?), but it doesn’t bode well that none of these plot points made me gasp as loudly as the ending credits — that’s where this show is going to leave us hanging for a whole year? Say what you will about the clichés of the conventional USA drama, but Burn Notice wouldn’t play us like that.

Real life screwed Mr. Robot over in two distinct ways this season. The first was a dynamic at play even before the season premiere: The American political reality in 2016 is stranger than even the most surreal fiction, and most of us are so emotionally fatigued by this tropical shitstorm of an election that it was difficult to get invested in Mr. Robot’s alternate (very recent) history. Next week’s presidential debates are likely to be just as Esmailian a television event as the Mr. Robot finale, and unfair as that is, it can only hurt the show. Television is a medium of the moment, and the anxieties of this particular moment have less to do (for now, at least) with the Patriot Act and income inequality than they do the fact that a xenophobic asshole is the Republican presidential nominee. Mr. Robot takes place in the (semi-fictionalized) present, and the real-life American political climate has (d)evolved so rapidly in the past 12 months that last year already feels like a simpler time. (You know times are tough when you start to feel nostalgia for your Bush-era strain of disillusionment.) The second season managed to squeeze one Trump joke in during Episode 10 (“Can you believe that cocksucker is actually running this time?” ex-E Corp slimeball Terry Colby muses. “If I wanted, the things I have on him could put me on his ticket”). Funny as it was, it felt tacked on rather than thought through, an indication that the show has not yet figured out how to respond to the present political reality.

But something else happened this season on the show’s home turf, the internet. Mr. Robot became so well known for its bait-and-switch surprises that it sent the message-board conspiracy theorists into overdrive. The latter half of the season has been centered around Elliot’s attempts to figure out what, exactly, “Phase 2” of the Five/Nine Hack will entail, and since viewers have had weeks and weeks to ponder this mystery, the internet went wild. What if “Phase 2” is some sort of Matrix-type reveal that the entire reality of this show has been an illusion, and the last shot of the episode is just the entire cast plugged into their respective pods?

One of the wackiest internet conspiracy theories is that, by some kind of Back to the Future logic, and some clever music cues, Tyrell Wellick is actually Elliot’s father, and Elliot has traveled back in time to ensure he doesn’t kill him and thus blight out his own existence. I believe this to be (very amusing) bullshit, but I confess I spent about five minutes Wednesday night on the edge of my seat, believing this might come true. It happened during the harrowing scene when E Corp CTO Scott Knowles attacked Joanna Wellick, and for a moment it seemed like he was about to murder her in the same fashion that Tyrell Wellick had murdered Scott’s own wife. My mind was racing: What if Joanna dies and then Elliot gets all glitchy and disappears because she is actually his mother? Or what if Elliot was the unborn child of Scott and Sharon Knowles, and after Sharon was killed his entire plotline has taken place in some kind of subjunctive alternative world of other possible existences? IS THIS PHASE 2?!?!

You can imagine my reaction when I learned, a few scenes later, that Phase 2 just means: “We are going to blow up a building full of paper. Paper records of the things we already destroyed at the end of Season 1.” I felt about as excited by this revelation as Angela feels when she’s singing Tears for Fears karaoke.

The second season of Mr. Robot was either trying to do too little or too much; I heard an equal amount of complaints that it was moving too slowly and that way too much was happening. I’m going to put most of my e-coins in the latter basket: My favorite thing about this show is its mood and atmosphere, and in the last few episodes it seemed to strain a little too hard to both cover all the plot points and leave its characters some room to breathe.

The best scenes Wednesday night were not the ones that had to do with the labyrinthine logistics of Phase 2, but the simple, unflashy sequences that took place between Dom and Darlene. It was a thrill to see these two characters finally go head-to-head, and especially to see Dom puncture Darlene’s jet-black nihilism by proving to her that Darlene is special — in the eyes of 6,332 FBI agents, she’s a hacktivist Bonnie Parker. The slow-motion scene when all of this dawned on Darlene was a stunner, as Dom led her through the winding corridors of her office and into an empty conference room. If the scene — and maybe the season itself — had a fatal flaw, it was that Esmail waited too long to show us what Darlene was looking at on that wall; for a whole minute and a half, Dom regaled us with an ominous speech about FBI tactics and python metaphors. This scene wasn’t about the reveal of the FBI’s fsociety web so much as it was the internal transformation that had been happening behind Darlene’s eyes as she walked through that office — it was the haunted look of a character reassessing her entire, very entrenched worldview.

In all its obsession with twists and turns, the show would do well to slow down in its third season and place more emphasis on subtler scenes like this one. The Reveals are often a beat or two ahead of where the show thinks they are — in the flicker of Elliot’s self-recognition rather than the gunshot, in the space between Darlene and Dom rather than in whatever’s in front of them. Mr. Robot still does these intimate moments exceptionally well, and they often feel more subversive than the larger machinations of the plot — or even the sly metacommentary on cable networks and prestige TV. Perhaps the show should give itself more credit for the small stuff: Characters, it turns out, are welcome here.