As a television critic, there are shows I process in public and ones I reserve for my private enjoyment. The latter category largely comrpises episodic network shows late in their runs; I adore Black-ish, but there are only so many times one can praise Tracee Ellis Ross before it becomes redundant. Yet Peak TV has made the line between zeitgeist driver and peripheral presence vanishingly thin, with a microscopic margin of error separating yesterday’s next big thing from today’s just plain thing. With so many demands on viewers’ attention, it’s hard to fault anyone for giving up on a program when it starts looking like the show may not live up to its initial promise.
For much of its third season, which concluded Wednesday night, I felt as if USA cyber-thriller Mr. Robot had crossed into private-show status, with ratings declining and more intangible metrics like the so-called conversation feeling decidedly muted. But while I wasn’t discussing the latest twists over the water cooler, I found myself getting more out of Mr. Robot than I had since it first broke out as a surprise summer hit in 2015. While much of its audience’s eyes were turned elsewhere, Mr. Robot successfully recovered from an uneven second season, reclaiming its title as one of the best hourlong dramas on TV.
My only significant criticism of this chapter in the Alderson saga is more of a backhanded compliment: It’s everything I wished the second season could have been. Following the revelation that vigilante hacker Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) is actually the alter ego of genius-level hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), taking the shape of Elliot’s deceased father, Season 2 squandered the opportunity to dig into the familial and personal dysfunction that would lead to such a coping mechanism. Instead, the show became a tiresome tug-of-war between Mr. Robot and his host, waving off questions about what was happening in the world outside Elliot’s warped consciousness. Over 10 hours, the plot barely progressed past the Five/Nine Hack Elliot’s fsociety collective pulled off at the end of Season 1, leaving one major character offscreen entirely and stranding the rest in aimless plotlines.
This isn’t to harp on Season 2’s failings, but to highlight just how welcome Mr. Robot’s improvements have been over the course of Season 3. If confusion was the dominant mood of Season 2, this season prioritized the disclosure of vital information, both between characters and with its own baffled audience. Elliot’s split personality is now common knowledge within the world of the show—to Elliot himself, but also to his sister, Darlene (Carly Chaikin); his coconspirators; and even his therapist. Of course, it’s convenient not to cross-reference who’s in on what with every scene, but more importantly, the new ground rules enable the best work we’ve seen to date from Malek and Slater. For the first time, the audience gets to see Malek channel Mr. Robot’s chilling confidence in addition to Elliot’s jangling neuroses as show pivots between two radically different characters without the convenient visual shorthand of switching actors. Early in the season, Darlene tells Mr. Robot she can easily tell the difference between the two because Elliot would never make so much eye contact.
Slater, meanwhile, gets to shade in Mr. Robot’s panic and vulnerability as well as his megalomania. The character isn’t a malevolent parasite. As Elliot comes to realize, he’s a manifestation of Elliot’s desires, a tool crafted by his subconscious to accomplish what he couldn’t bring his dominant self to do. For the vast majority of the season, the two are working directly against one another, meaning that Elliot is literally of two minds about the state of the world and how severely to lash out against it. Elliot wants to undo the Five/Nine Hack, which was meant to kneecap the sinister conglomerate E Corp but only consolidated its power; Mr. Robot wants to work with the Dark Army, a shadowy group of Chinese mercenary hackers, to finish the job with a potentially fatal terrorist attack. That looming attack, known as “Stage 2,” supplies something else Mr. Robot had been sorely lacking—a concrete goal, equivalent to executing Five/Nine, for every character to work for or against. Elliot is for and Mr. Robot against, a push-pull that culminates in a stunning work of physicality from Malek at the season’s midpoint: Elliot dragging himself down a hallway, only for Mr. Robot to intermittently take over and slam his (their) head against the wall in a sickening burst of violence.
That set piece is a testament to the greatest achievement of Mr. Robot’s Season 3: The show’s psychology and its narrative are no longer at odds. In the end, Stage 2 goes through, and it’s not what either Elliot or Mr. Robot feared/hoped it would be. Instead of performing a targeted strike on a single building in New York, the Dark Army takes out more than 70 facilities across the United States, incurring more casualties than the 9/11 attacks in the process. What follows is an episode (“eps3.6_fredrick+tanya.chk,” the season’s seventh) that marks the series’ emotional nadir. At precisely the point Elliot is most alienated from himself, and in part because of it, the world beyond him is at its most chaotic. Elliot and Mr. Robot were so distracted by their own issues—namely, Elliot’s guilt about his strained relationship to his father prior to his death and the resulting anger he directed against E Corp and into his personal Mr. Hyde—that they failed to recognize and work against a common enemy. The Dark Army isn’t working on behalf of a revolution; its leader Whiterose (BD Wong) simply exploited Mr. Robot’s idealism to entrench her own power. With that revelation, Mr. Robot followed its sometimes surface-level rhetoric about global conspiracies and helpless pawns through its logical progression into total despair, and just as crucially, out the other side into optimism. Only when they’re confronted with what they’ve missed can Elliot and Mr. Robot finally reconcile, both as dual personalities and as father and son—and on the Coney Island Ferris wheel, no less.
Elliot isn’t the only central figure well served by the dystopian world that increasingly reflects his isolation and helplessness. His best friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday), who lost her mother to the same E Corp plant leak that killed Elliot’s father, experiences a full-on psychotic break after helping to pull off Stage 2 under the delusional impression it would bring their parents back to life. The audience experiences Angela’s unraveling at a much greater remove than they do Elliot’s, offering a chilling—and self-aware—perspective on what Mr. Robot’s beloved paranoia looks like from afar. Meanwhile, Darlene became a more fully realized character than she’s ever been, a woman trying to protect her brother while barely keeping it together herself. And the once-MIA Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) was essentially retconned back into the cast with a catch-up episode that would risk distraction from the main plot if it weren’t so necessary to reassembling a proper ensemble.
Even Mr. Robot’s remaining excesses have felt easier to forgive lately. In this sense, I’ve found that its quieter presence in the culture at large is to the show’s advantage. When it no longer feels like the casual viewer is being asked to accept Elliot’s (pretty juvenile) politics as a profound statement about modern society, some of the more eye-roll-inspiring moments are less difficult to accept as aesthetic flourishes rather than self-important chest-puffing. This is, after all, a show closely modeled after Fight Club, with the genre homages and in-your-face ideology to match. In the premiere, the Aldersons visit a hacker hive with “1984” literally spray-painted on the walls; in the finale, Elliot snaps out of a fugue state with “THEY OWN THE FBI” scrawled on his bathroom mirror. (All this is separate from the awkward shoehorning of Trump references into a show still set in 2015.) Best of all, these scenes no longer feel like the sum of what the show has to offer. They’re a topical gloss on a much deeper and more substantive story about family, loss, and yes, computer wizardry.
Going into the just-announced Season 4, the show still has enough mysteries to create an aura of suspense. Viewers don’t know what Whiterose wants so badly that she wrecked the world order to get some unidentified object to the Congo, but they’re certain enough they’ll eventually find out that there’s much more incentive to stick around. Mr. Robot strives for a delicate balance between personal angst and geopolitical turmoil, transparency and opacity. It’s a synthesis so staggeringly ambitious it’s little wonder the series stumbled, but when the show satisfies its goals, Mr. Robot achieves a perfect fusion of mood and theme that’s rarely found elsewhere on TV. The answer to Mr. Robot’s problems wasn’t to eliminate the prevailing sense of shadowy forces at work that hooked so many fans in the first place; it was to separate the enjoyable kind of obfuscation from the frustrating one.