BY SPENCER KORNHABER
As the season finale reminded, USA’s acclaimed new series is many things, but it’s mostly an exploration of manipulation.
Over the 10 episodes of its first season, it became increasingly clear that Mr. Robot is less about hacking computers than about hacking everything—characters, cultures, the audience itself. Whether portraying a tense heist or a psychological breakdown or a corporate climb, the keyword has been “manipulation”: fiddling with reality, and perceptions of it, to get ahead.
Some of the show’s manipulators are better at their jobs than others. Wednesday’s season finale opened with a social-media-enabled adulterer trying to guilt his ex, a therapist, into breaking her client’s right to privacy ... to punish that client for violating other people’s right to privacy. He did not, in the end, persuade her, though the scene itself apparently went through some postproduction tweaks to include a reference to the very-recent Ashley Madison leak. Later, an executive for the data-compromised conglomerate E-Corp aborted his mission—lying to the public about an unfixable crisis—with a gunshot to his head, on live TV.
But then there are the experts, the savvy operators. In the finale, the vigilantes of fsociety covered up their massive cybercrime by fiddling with the physical world—holding a public party to smudge fingerprints at their HQ, repurposing a puppy oven as a hard-drive disposal. E-Corp CEO Philip Price, meanwhile, appeared to be running some sort of scheme to infect the mind of enemy-turned-employee Angela. He frankly told her of his own ruthlessness, and changed the subject when she said he must be interested in her for reasons other than her youthful spunk. The epilogue (you did watch after the credits, right?) hinted that he might use her as leverage against hacker-leader Elliot, provided that’s who he’s fingered as the person behind fsociety (though he might have been talking about the fired exec Tyrell Wellick, or someone else entirely).
Elliot himself appears to have been hacked, with some combination of mental illness, drugs, and desire having bifurcated his conscience: There’s the hoodie-wearing junkie, and there’s the fearless political radical played by an avatar of his dead father. In the show’s ninth episode, that radical, Mr. Robot, indicated that Elliot’s confusion came about by deliberate overmedication from his therapist. But that might be a lie, a self-deception that allows Elliot to undertake dark, difficult tasks under moral cover of amnesia. In the finale, Mr. Robot tried to hack Elliot further, forcing him to face the fact that he’s got a revolutionary living in his head.
What does that revolutionary want? To reveal that all of modern society is a manipulation. With a preacher’s fervor, amid possibly hallucinated throngs of people in Uncle Moneybag masks, he ranted out a grab bag of anti-capitalist talking points—which are also, theoretically, the facts theoretically enabling E-Corp’s power:
Look at it: a world built on fantasy. Synthetic emotions in the form of pills. Psychological warfare in the form of advertisements. Mind-altering chemicals in the form of food. Brain-washing seminars in the form of media. Controlled, isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. Real? You want to talk about reality? We haven't lived in anything close to it since the turn of the century. Took out the batteries, snacked on a bag of GMOs while we tossed the remnants in the ever-expanding dumpster of the human condition. We live in branded houses, trademarked by corporations, built on bipolar numbers jumping up and down on digital displays into the greatest slumber mankind has ever seen. You have to dig pretty deep, kiddo, before you can find anything real. We live in a kingdom of bullshit, a kingdom you've lived in for far too long. So don't tell me about not being real. I'm no less real than the fucking patty in your Big Mac.
Perhaps Mr. Robot’s most potent hacker of all is the showrunner, Sam Esmail. As a piece of TV, the finale was mostly brilliant, packed with images likely now seared into viewers’ longterm memory banks: the cold, unblinking eye of the TV camera facing the suicidal E-Corp exec; the strange, faux-casual mannerisms of Elliot and Joanna Wellick as they sized each other up; Elliot, choking himself in a cyber cafe during a delusional fit; Elliot, choked by Mr. Robot up against the NYPD’s American flag lights in Times Square. Even more powerful was the use of music, whether it was Alabama Shakes’s airy “Sound and Color” accompanying Elliot’s new worldview or Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money” playing on the hackers’ dance floor.
The vivid filmmaking style of Esmail and his team is not merely impressive; it’s of a piece with the rest of the show’s themes about misdirection and mood-massaging. A favorite trick of Esmail’s is to let small, possibly vital info drips be overpowered in the audience’s mind by a jolt of wide-screen awesomeness. Take the opening of the finale, when Lenny says that Elliot has proxy servers in Estonia, and “short of that country falling apart, we’re never going to get any real evidence” of his crimes. In the very next scene, a news broadcast indicates Estonia is indeed on the verge of collapse because of the fsociety hack. I missed that fact the first time I watched, because I was too caught up in the goosebump-inducing joy of hearing Time Zone’s bouncily anarchic single “World Destruction” fading in over footage of global protests. But the truth is, we may have been given a vital clue about next season: The big hack could incriminate Elliot in a much smaller one, which could in turn incriminate him in the big one.
Much of the chatter surrounding the first season of the show centered around Mr. Robot’s identity. Now that that question’s been answered—with a winking musical tribute to Fight Club, no less—the show can turn its focus to the big, meaty conflicts set up by this finale. A post-financial-apocalpyse drama, showing the messy and glorious effects of a global reset, is likely to come. So is high-camp corporate conspiracy, telegraphed by the epilogue that showed the hacker known as Whiterose sipping Champagne with what appeared to be the world’s puppetmasters. Elliot, now somewhat aware of what’s happening in his brain, could become a Snowden type—hounded by the people he undermined, becoming famous and messianic in the process. The missing Tyrell might be dead, or he might be the person behind all the chaos, the one arriving at the door in the season cliffhanger. The only certain thing is that the show will keep messing with viewers, as surely as characters mess with one another, as surely as people everywhere mess with people everywhere.