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‘Mr. Robot’ Still Deserves Your Attention

Sam Esmail’s creation doesn’t have the same level of hype it captured during its first season, but it’s still willing to take chances and occasionally makes for must-watch television

USA/Ringer illustration

A few years ago, I went to a friend’s apartment for a Mr. Robot viewing party: an experience filled with plenty of routine TV chatter, though most of it—you should understand if you’re familiar with the opaque show—boiled down to, “So, uhhh, what the fuck do you think is happening?” A viewing party is hardly an exact science to measure hype, but for context, it was the only one I’ve taken part in for a TV show in the past few years besides Game of Thrones. (Those soon became less viewing parties and more roasts of Bran “Memelord” Stark.)

There was a time when Mr. Robot was legit must-watch television. The series turned Rami Malek, playing our alienated hacker protagonist Elliot Alderson, into a bona fide star; it revived the career of former Hollywood bad boy Christian Slater, who portrayed the anarchist Mr. Robot (later revealed to be Elliot’s alternate personality in the image of his dead father—yes, the show gleefully acknowledges the Fight Club-ness of it all); and it made creator-writer-director Sam Esmail one of TV’s most talked-about new auteurs by utilizing a visual language that’s evoked Hitchcock and De Palma. The plot, which concerned Elliot’s efforts to destabilize the largest conglomerate in the world (E-Corp; Elliot calls them Evil Corp) by encrypting their data and erasing billions in debt, perceptively played on modern anxieties about capitalism and income inequality. Elliot also constantly spoke to the audience, referring to us as a collective “friend.”

The fervor and critical adoration yielded an Emmy win for Malek and a Golden Globe for Slater, while Mr. Robot also won for Best Drama Series at the Globes in 2016. The show looked like television’s Next Big Thing, airing on, of all places, USA, the blue skies network that had allowed Burn Notice to cook for seven seasons.

But all the plaudits Mr. Robot received for its first season died quickly with its second, as fans grew tired of Esmail continually toying with viewer perceptions in an ill-fated effort to slowly reveal predictable twists. If a consumer in the era of Peak TV has little patience for a new show to find its footing after a few episodes (this is why it’s important to harass your friends about the magic of Succession!), it stands to reason people will drop something just as quickly for losing some of its mojo. For what it’s worth, I found Mr. Robot’s second season to be occasionally frustrating, but still admirably ambitious: it was the closest TV got to feeling Lynchian in a long time before Showtime blessed us with Twin Peaks: The Return the following year. Still, the consensus won over, as Mr. Robot’s continued to bleed viewers and lose that intangible hype. (As far as I was aware, no more viewing parties were organized.) Just a year after Malek won a Best Actor Emmy, he wasn’t even nominated; same went for the series at both the Golden Globes and the Emmys. Suddenly, television’s Next Big Thing was just another ripple in a huge wave of viewing options.

But as the show currently airs its fourth and final season, those who’ve called it quits on Mr. Robot are missing something special. Mr. Robot has maintained its undeniably unique aesthetic—Esmail still loves “shortsighting” characters on the screen, placing them in extreme corners of the frame—and a gripping narrative that’s repeatedly hinted at a late-stage turn toward the realm of science fiction. Elliot/Mr. Robot are waging a shadow war with Whiterose (played by BD Wong), the transgender leader of the cyber-terrorist organization The Dark Army—by day, she operates as the male Chinese minister of state security—with the hopes of stealing the Dark Army’s money, which is stored in a Cypriot bank.

That’s easier than it sounds; Whiterose has been undermining and anticipating Elliot’s moves for the better part of the series. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been—the fourth season shockingly opens with Elliot’s childhood bestie, Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday), being executed by Dark Army assassins. Perhaps even more jarring, the events of the first five episodes have taken place around Christmas, allowing the series to combine Mac Quayle’s paranoiac, synth-heavy score with … Christmas jingles. (It cannot be overstated how fucking bizarre it is to watch an FBI agent be threatened by an undercover Dark Army operative while surrounded by snow and Christmas decorations.)

In the season’s fifth episode, which aired Sunday night, Esmail delivered one of his most impressive creative feats on the series to date: an episode almost entirely without dialogue, set on Christmas Day. Before the opening title screen, Elliot’s sister/co-conspirator Darlene says, “It’s cool, dude, we don’t have to talk,” and then a line isn’t uttered until right before the end credits hit, when someone says, “It’s time we talk.” (Cheeky!) After the first installment, Esmail has made a habit of deploying one gimmicky episode per season, beginning with Elliot imagining he’s in a sitcom with goddamn Alf in Season 2; an episode in the third season styled to look like one long take; and now, a Season 4 episode that’s effectively dialogue-free.

When doing stuff like this, Esmail—who wrote and directed Sunday’s episode—is walking a thin line between genuine innovation and self-indulgence. (On the macro, Mr. Robot kind of always is.) But the key to these gimmicky devices is that they often don’t feel like gimmicks at all, but rather a natural extension of the storytelling. (It was only on a second viewing that I realized Esmail went for a single take-style last season; the plot of the episode involved E-Corp’s offices getting raided by violent protesters, which was engaging in its own right.) The main action of Sunday’s episode, in which Elliot and Darlene break into a building that’ll get them one step closer to stealing Whiterose’s Cypriot bank money, is so intense and capable of going horribly wrong in a second, you might not immediately notice nobody’s said a word in more than 15 minutes—I mean, why would they?

That is the power a really compelling episode of Mr. Robot holds over you. Hell, I never really know what’s happening when Elliot and Co. start to do their hacking thing, but Rami Malek typing furiously on his laptop looking like an anxious meerkat explaining to the audience he’s gotta get into a server is as adrenaline-inducing as a patented Tom Cruise sprint. Speaking of which: Elliot is ultimately pursued by cops on foot outside of the building, which culminates in a frenetic chase through Central Park that is as taut as it is darkly funny. (We cut from Quayle’s score to hearty Christmas tunes when Elliot takes a detour through an ice skating rink; he eats it hard multiple times.) Mr. Robot’s final season will likely be defined by however this show ends—on my life, I couldn’t tell you exactly where it’s heading—but a dialogue-free experiment that’s almost certainly responsible for scaring the shit out of Monica Lewinsky will have some import on its legacy, too.

Though, sadly, after the show’s steep ratings drop after Season 1, it’s fair to wonder what Mr. Robot will be remembered for—outside of being Malek’s first big break and giving Esmail some much-deserved auteur clout. (Post-Mr. Robot, Esmail will be working on a Battlestar Galactica reboot for NBC’s new streaming service, the unfortunately named Peacock.) Because Mr. Robot exists in a very compressed timeline, it’s only December 2015 in the world of the series—the show’s continued attempts to dunk on Donald Trump feel shoehorned in, even if Esmail’s heart is in the right place. But Elliot’s anxieties—on consumerism, the internet, late capitalism, and the paranoia that corporations use technology to oversee and control our daily lives—have continued to manifest in the real world. Facebook has irrevocably corrupted our lives and the state of modern politics; the biggest corporations continue to get bigger; the world is quite literally burning. Mr. Robot might’ve felt like an eerie, paranoid-laden dystopia when it first aired in 2015, but four years later, it sure as hell seems like we’re living it.

“I play a young man who is, I think like so many of us, profoundly alienated,” Malek said during his 2016 Emmys acceptance speech. “And the unfortunate thing is, I’m not sure how many of us would want to hang out with a guy like Elliot. But I wanna honor the Elliots, right? Cause there’s a little bit of Elliot in all of us, isn’t there?” Three years later, Malek’s words continue to resonate—our inner-Elliots have grown exponentially. It’s hard not to feel jaded and increasingly paranoid about our current world. Perhaps that makes Mr. Robot less palatable viewing: dystopian fiction leaning a little too close to reality. But as Esmail’s terrific and singular series heads toward the finish line, Mr. Robot still deserves our attention—especially from the “friends” who allowed Elliot to confide in them in the first place.