“Mr. Robot” is poised on a knife’s edge.
Its debut season has been so impressive and so adventurous yet assured that I almost fear what comes next. The show attempted to achieve an astounding number of goals, thematically and aesthetically, and it nailed the dismount on an impressively high percentage of those tasks over the course of Season 1.
The twisty finale left me nerve-jangled and amped up, in a good way. They’re tonally quite different shows, but the season-ender brought to mind the “Mad Men” Season 1 finale, which delivered on the promise of that show’s debut season and, as “Mr. Robot’s” wrap-up did, provided many visuals, conversations and speeches worth thinking about for months afterward.
“The Wheel” was far more sentimental than Elliot’s final 2015 adventure, but the episodes shared a sense of invigorating possibility and unpredictability. Both, in their own distinctive ways, explored ideas about family, loss and men who aren’t quite who they say they are. And yet "Mr. Robot" wasn't imitating anything else, not by a long shot. It drew on a very different cinematic language than "Mad Men" -- it's far more "Three Days of the Condor" than Douglas Sirk -- and over the course of 10 taut episodes, it created the kind of distinctive world that made it instantly stand out even in a very crowded TV landscape.
When a finale surprises me -- when events feel this unexpected and yet this inevitable -- it’s hard not to feel like I’ve just downed four too many espressos, and this giddy, tragic, strange hour produced that sensation.
Season 1 of “Mr. Robot” experienced the occasional glitch, but overall, it was just so damn good, and the finale wrapped things up with such a fitting series of indelible images and canny brain-melters that I can’t worry too much about whether creator Sam Esmail will be able to pull off something quite this audacious and coolly entertaining next year. So I’m trying hard not to think about the last time I was this wowed by the heights attained by a debut season and the many ways in which that promising show (“True Detective”) fell off a cliff in Season 2.
I’m going to erase that section of my brain’s code and just reiterate the main reaction I’ve had to this drama: More, please.
The finale was a bit of a doughnut, to be sure: Part of the middle is missing. We still don’t know what happened to Tyrell Wellick (the terrific Martin Wallström) and how, exactly, the massive hack on E Corp was pulled off. It’s reasonable to assume that a combination of efforts from Elliot (who must have entered a different mental state or a different personality for a few days), Wellick and/or the Chinese hacker group touched off the Internet conflagration that caused a series of economic earthquakes.
Is the White Rose (B.D. Wong) playing a double game? Is he working his own agenda but using Evil Corp and fsociety as his pawns? How much did Michael Cristofer’s CEO character know about fsociety’s machinations and is he looking to ride this wave of discontent to his own personal benefit? Will Evil Corp come out of this even stronger?
These are tantalizing questions for next season, but all in all, it made sense for the hour to avoid focusing on people typing on their computers, which rarely makes for distinctive visuals, and instead, zero in on outcomes, breakdowns and aftermaths. In any case, whatever happens when the show returns, I’m pretty sure Cristofer’s character (who plays E Corp CEO Phillip Price, but whom I will call Truxton Spangler because I consider “Mr. Robot” to be a spiritual sequel to the late, lamented “Rubicon”) will be just fine.
How do I know this? The show told me -- and not with words.
As “Mr. Robot” has done with such panache and intelligence this season, the most relevant information was offered visually. After delivering his weirdly bracing truth bombs to a stunned Angela, Spangler swept up to a podium overlooking a well-appointed, tastefully hued circle. The moment, which was infused with warm golds and muted sepia tones, stood in contrast to everything that transpired in the pale, spare offices of AllSafe and on the lower levels of E Corp. The very air in those bland spaces seems soulless; everything has a sickly green hue and characters are pushed to the edge of the frame.
Not so for Spangler, who literally looked down on everyone else as he manipulated death to his own ends. Everything and everyone below that balcony was controlled by him; he stood above it all like a Roman emperor or a Medici prince. Every chair was lined up perfectly. The staging of that moment was right out of “Triumph of the Will,” and the authoritarian overtones of the tableau lead me to believe Spangler will be pulling strings for some time -- until he’s not.
There was a strange hush to many of Angela’s scenes, which was another reminder that few other shows on TV use silence and sound as well as “Mr. Robot.” Her quiet conversations with Spangler reflected the fact that she has ascended to the high, cosseted realms that get to be quiet. She’s ascended, through her own series of power grabs, into the well-appointed rooms where the noise of the rabble is not allowed to penetrate.
The scene in the shoe shop was small but pivotal: That place, too, was silent, white, pure and thus faintly ominous. The suspended hush was appropriate to the moment, because Angela used that moment to assert her status as a new member of the overlord class. She was in the center of the frame, not off on the sidelines. She wants to stay in the rooms where things are clean and quiet and human complications are reduced to ruthless formulations. So the shoe clerk will know his place and bring her the damn Prada pumps.
If you think about it, Angela’s been infected with malware -- malware named Elliot Alderson. His effect on the lives of others is not unlike that of Walter White, who caused endless destruction in his pursuit of doing things he told himself were justified. The difference is that I truly believe Elliot does want to do good things, but he’s unable or unwilling to see the unintended consequence of his actions. Is the chaos he unleashed -- knowingly or unknowingly -- truly better than the fat-cat capitalism that he and fsociety hate so much?
Well, think about the dogs (I will spare you the “Who let the dogs out?” reference). Darlene and fsociety let all those ill-fated pooches out of their cages, but who will feed them? If they’re sick, who’ll take care of them? Is a life on the streets -- running around not unlike masked fsociety sympathizers -- better than a shorter lifespan that involves less suffering? As entertaining as Christian Slater’s angry rant was, dogs still need food and human beings still want access to their savings and their 401(k) plans. Tearing society apart and remaking it sounds great in theory until you realize how much destruction (“World Destruction”) the process leaves behind.
And that brings us to the finale’s most disturbing image: That of the E Corp executive shooting himself on live television. First of all, USA Network was right not to air this image last Wednesday, so soon after a similar tragedy happened on TV in Virginia. Those awful images were just too reminiscent of each other for one to air on the day the other occurred.
Second of all, it’s worth thinking about how the scene was shot as well. We never saw the questioner grilling the executive, we just saw the man’s nervous and increasingly despondent face. It’s hard not to feel a sense of doom when watching a disembodied voice hector a clearly suffering man, even if he’s lying a lot. As Todd VanDerWerff has pointed out, “Mr. Robot” makes terrific use of compositions that push many characters to the edge of the frame, highlighting their alienation and their marginal status.
But in the scene, we saw the camera right in the center of the frame, looming like an unfeeling judge. The unblinking eye saw this man for who he really was; he couldn't escape its glare. The thought of how he looked in that moment unnerved him so much he was pushed past his personal limit, and he took his own life.
No wonder Elliot hides, lurks in the corners and edits his story and himself. Direct experiences with reality can be unrelentingly awful. Seeing things for what they really are -- and being seen for what you really are -- can be a terrifying prospect. Being fully seen, by a loved one or an enemy, involves a loss of control, and that is one thing Elliot (and many other human beings) cannot contemplate.
As fun as it is to fall down “Mr. Robot” rabbit holes and get tangled up in tangents and suppositions and “wake up sheeple”-style conspiracy theories, that’s not what the show is primarily about. Of course, it has fed the message-board hordes quite a lot of red meat and there's no doubt many of them are determined to “solve” the show. But it’s not ultimately about the mythology. Like truly worthwhile stories, it asks a series of questions; it’s not just a delivery system for answers.
Through its dynamic and well-chosen visuals, and its great use of an atmospheric score and outstanding songs, it’s telling the story of a broken man who is editing reality and himself in an effort to survive great pain. The amazing Times Square scene was proof, if we needed it, that Elliot is an unreliable narrator, but without a deeply realized character attached to that phrase, it’s meaningless jargon.
What Elliot does -- manipulating his identity, trying to find out what makes other people tick, editing the base code of his very personality -- is just an an extreme version of what we all do, every day, online and offline. We want people to see us a certain way and we want to produce certain reactions and outcomes, according to our own needs and agendas, and we often use technology to help us do that.
Elliot’s just frighteningly good at those things, and able to do them on a much larger scale, but he has no idea how to control these programs -- or himself -- once he’s hit “execute.” Like him, we want to connect but we don’t want to be hurt, but that’s easier said than done. What we experience via electronic devices and computers and apps is just as real as what happens in “real” life. These moments are just as able to wound, surprise and please us as anything that happens in meatspace.
That’s why we slipped so easily into the role of his co-conspirators. Framing, music, sound design, that strung-out emotional tone: Its artistic choices took “Mr. Robot” to the next level this season, but the use of the audience may have been the show’s most witty and useful device. What’s subjective and objective in this world? What’s real and unreal? It’s appropriate that fsociety’s headquarters were in a Coney Island dive, because the whole show was made up of funhouse mirrors, all of them reflecting shards of Elliot and ourselves at us, from angles that made us see ourselves and this unknowable character in new ways.
Of course, it’s fun to think about “solving” Mr. Robot, but I just want to note that I think it’s more interesting if some elements remain ambiguous. Nailing everything down into a Grand Unified Theory of Elliot kind of sucks the air out of this inspired concoction. On some level, the show is trying to say something about our capacity to do good and be better than what we are and escape our own shells of selfishness and cold calculation. It’s not really a math problem at heart.
It's the show's willingness to explore non-cliched ideas about connection and alienation and how we mediate loneliness -- or fail to -- that makes “Mr. Robot” stand apart. It’s not taking expected and often tiresome stances about technology -- that it’s a chilly and destructive manipulator of individuals and that it ultimately reduces and diminishes relationships and societies, blah blah blah. As Cristofer’s character said, it’s all in how the machines are used by flawed human beings. The core of the show is Elliot’s attempts to connect -- with other people, with his hacking targets, with the audience -- and hoping he can learn from his mistakes. Was hacking the world a mistake or an opportunity? Or both?
Ultimately, the depth and richness of this show’s visual, aural and moral universes makes me more able to forgive some of its patchy elements. On the one hand, I can absolutely believe that hackers could do massive damage to world economies and big corporations, and yet the show never quite explained in a satisfying way how Evil Corp’s troubles would cause so many other dominos to fall all over the globe. Yes, everything is connected now, but there was a lot of handwaving when it came to making it clear why this corporation’s downfall would be so epic.
But that wasn’t the only element of the season that felt undercooked. Carly Chaikin is a talented actress and I hope next season she gets more to do than yell at various people, with occasional forays into being Exposition Sister. I hope next season I’m able to remember the rest of fsociety’s names, because during Season 1, they never managed to become actual characters. The connections between Wellick and Elliot never quite came into focus, even though I absolutely loved every scene featuring Tyrell Wellick and his terrifying wife. Thanks to a cold smile that never reached her eyes, this corporate Lady Macbeth resembled a possessed Hummel figurine in her finale scene with Elliot. Wow.
Wellick, his wife and Cristofer’s character all seem to indicate that you must become a sociopath to make at the highest corporate levels in America. (Shades of “Mad Men’s” Jim Hobart.) Maybe Elliot already is that, twice over. Thanks to the show’s well-handled twist -- Slater’s character is actually a splinter of Elliot himself -- we’re meant to see Mr. Robot and Elliot as two sides of the same coin.
But I find that the idea of Elliot as Wellick’s twin or doppelgänger is somehow even more evocative. Both men are ruthless in pursuit of their goals. Both can be single-minded and utterly unconcerned with the needs of other people. Both have been broken by rejection and pain caused by their families. And both want to bend the world to their will.
The difference between them is, Elliot has done just that. And is it progress for him if he and Wellick did it together?
A few stray thoughts:
- I have to say it again, the jittery/ominous score, the song choices (Jim Carroll!) and the auditory experience of this show are just exceptional. I can’t wait to watch it again to see how deftly they all fit together.
- I won’t soon forget the image of Elliot framed against the striped exterior of that Times Square building -- an image that evoked the American flag.
- Thank goodness Christian Slater got to go Full Slater in that Times Square rant. He’s been terrific all season long, and often restrained in ways that he doesn’t quite get credit for. But his full-on rant was a delight and ignited all kinds of “Pump Up the Volume” memories.
- It’s a standard of the thriller genre that our world is run by tuxedo-clad men sipping Champagne inside plush mansions, but I enjoyed the finale so much and I love Cristofer and B.D. Wong’s charismatic performances so much that I couldn't help but enjoy that last scene, even though I half-expected Dr. No to walk in petting a Persian cat.
- I’m going with the theory that Wellick recorded the fsociety video seen in the finale. Right? Right. Maybe.
- Of the many "Mr. Robot" pieces out this week (and I'm reading them all!), here's a great interview with the show's ace cinematographer. Here's a good interview with creator Sam Esmail.
- Dan Fienberg had some interesting thoughts about “Mr. Robot” and how it compares to another tale of the rebellion of a corporate drone.
- As the season progressed, I was more and more impressed by “Mr. Robot” and its ability to conjure clammy dread while sustaining an unmistakable sense of forward momentum. Yet in the early days, I’d ask myself, “But do I love this show?” It took a while to get there, but yes, I certainly do now. Elliot may be a chilly customer but Rami Malek infuses him with vulnerability and yearning, and without that central performance, none of the other elements would fully work. All of the awards for Rami Malek (who was also great in “The Pacific,” check it out!)
- I hope we see a lot more of Wong, Cristofer, Martin Wallström and Stephanie Corneliussen (Joanna) next season. I would watch a whole spinoff about Joanna Wellick trying to get her son into the right Manhattan pre-school.
- Who was at Elliot’s door? I had a moment where I thought we had entered a time loop and Wellick was arriving at Elliot’s door for the first time and none of what we saw had actually happened (or had it?). And then my brain exploded.
- Ryan McGee and I discussed "Mr Robot" and "BoJack Horseman" on the latest installment of the Talking TV podcast, which here, on iTunes and below.
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