BY MERRILL BARR
During the season finale of Mr. Robot, there comes a point where the audience begins knowing all their questions are going to be answered. It’s a moment that comes as Edward begins instructing his son on what to do now that he’s pulled off the greatest act of wealth re-distribution the world has ever seen. In this moment, the audience knows all the solutions to the equation are going to come. They know the mystery of what happened to Elliot over the weekend will be brought to light because story dictates that it must… except it doesn’t. None of it does. In fact, just as the audience is about to see everything they know they will, the screen cuts to black and, just like that, the first season of 2015’s best new show comes to a close in a fashion that displays just how compelling its take on viewer expectation truly was.
It’s been debated a lot over the last few weeks as to just what lead to the breakout success (at least in terms of zeitgeist chatter) of USA’s latest. Some attribute it to the acting work of its two lead actors, Rami Malek and Christian Slater. Some attribute it to the show’s unparalleled visual style. Some attribute it to the masterful writing being put on display by creator/showrunner Sam Esmail. However, while all those reasons are valid, one element seemingly flying under the radar is the fact that Mr. Robot took the audience’s expectation and presumed understanding of story structure and played it against them.
There were few that didn’t believe Mr. Robot was a figment of Elliot’s imagination. Viewers were spotting the Fight Club references very quickly ever since the pilot episode of the show dropped a month before its premiere. However, what they may not be so willing to accept is the idea that the show had always planned for this to happen. The idea of the twist is something that’s been rather ruined in the modern era. Just knowing that there’s a twist ruins a twist, as they say. So how do you build a story around a twist everyone can see coming? By using it as your red herring. Mr. Robot uses the audience’s perceived sense of prowess in knowing, not thinking, knowing where things are going in order to distract from the reality of the situation: Mr. Robot is a show that plays by no one’s rules.
Mr. Robot banked on the audience believing the big reveal of the title character being a non-existent entity that wouldn’t be revealed until five years from now in order to turn a traditional narrative into something extraordinary. Mr. Robot is not a show about a man going insane. It’s a show about realizing that rules can be broken. The comparison isn’t Fight Club, it’s The Matrix. Just as Neo does in the 1999 blockbuster, Elliot begins to realize the “rules” by which he lives by can always be changed – the example this week being the fact that he skips three days of time with no memory of it. Days begin and end not when he goes to bed and wakes up in the morning. They begin and end when his subconscious deems them to.
Just as Elliot must learn this about his world, so must Mr. Robot’s audience. There’s no rule that says the big moment of the season must come in its finale. Mr. Robot made its first big reveal, that Mr. Robot was Elliot’s father, in episode 8. It then made its second reveal in episode 9 that the man was truly nothing more than a figment of Elliot’s imagination. By the time the finale rolled around, there was nothing else to predict, and that made the show narratively unstoppable.
We open three days in the future – after the fsociety hack has already taken place – because we can. We open three days in the future because there’s no reason not to. Rather than play by normal rules that would dictate the big moment, that of the hack being initiated, take place in the final scene of the episode (cutting to black just as Elliot hit’s “enter” on a particular command), Mr. Robot just skips that part in order to take us to the fallout, which is where the show must now live – it’s a lot like Star Wars in that way too. That was also a franchise that began not at the beginning of the story, but in the middle, after the fallout’s already occurred. Now we find ourselves asking not, “will fsociety succeed,” and, “is Mr. Robot real or imaginary,” but rather, “where’s Tyrell,” and, “can this new anarchist world sustain?” And that’s a much better place to be heading into season 2.
Society’s mission is to show the world at large that it doesn’t have to play by corporate rules simply because they have all the money, and that mission is mirrored by the show’s narrative structure to us. Mr. Robot has now shown us that there’s no one way to tell a story a television; that there’s no “set standard.” However, unlike some other shows from this year that tried to do that, Mr. Robot never loses sight of the fact that it still has to tella story, and now that, that story has finished its first act, all we can do is sit quietly (or not so quietly if the show were to have its way) and wait for the next chapter that, from this point forward, can only be described as unpredictable.