BY SHANE RYAN
Last week, the day before the season one finale was scheduled to air (it was later delayed), I wrote about how Mr. Robot defied expectations by slow-playing an obvious twist. Robot was a figment of Elliot’s imagination. They didn’t take great pains to disguise the fact, but they didn’t actually reveal it until the ninth episode. On paper, that sounds like a formula for frustrating television—just tell us what we already know, dammit!—but in practice, the pacing was perfect. It defied conventional wisdom by crafting a drama that was so satisfying, it didn’t matter when we knew the truth about Mr. Robot, or that we essentially knew it all along. It hooked us anyway.
In last night’s season finale, they did it again. Amazingly, the climax we’ve been waiting an entire season to witness—the attack on Evil Corp and Steel Mountain that precipitates a financial revolution—wasn’t shown. Let me repeat that for emphasis: They skipped the payoff. When other shows fail to honor a season-long trajectory, fans flip out. Remember The Killing, and how they concluded the first season without solving…the killing? Critics went apeshit, and viewers were worse. In some ways, that single failure buried the show, or at least put a serious cap on its ceiling.
And yet here, somehow, it didn’t matter—Mr. Robot obeys its own logic, and against the odds, the finale was a beautiful piece of television, and a satisfying conclusion to one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory. Sam Esmail, the creator, takes creative artistic risks that most shows wouldn’t dream about, and so far, they’ve all paid off. He’s an auteur at the top of his game, and paradoxical choices like jumping to the aftermath of the hack, or not showing a main character for the final hour after he dominated the end of the previous episode, wind up looking organic and perfect. That’s the magic of Mr. Robot, and it’s hard to conceive of a finale accomplishing the dual goals of concluding one storyline while whetting our appetites for another quite so fluidly.
The primary focus of this episode was not on the fallout from the Evil Corp hacks, though we saw plenty of the burgeoning revolution, but rather on Elliot’s own journey. He more or less blacked himself out during the unseen hack, allowing the ruthless and competent Mr. Robot to take over and execute the plan. When it’s done, he awakes as if from a bad dream, seeing the consequences of what he’s wrought. There’s a Memento quality to the start, as he races around trying to figure out exactly what happened, eventually preparing to confess his crimes to raise Mr. Robot from the depths of his subconscious. From there, we learn what drives him—how his lonely nights after his father’s death led him to create the split personality as a way of finding comfort, and how this fake universe has expanded to include his mother and even a childhood version of himself.
Notably, his sister Darlene isn’t among the ghosts he summons—she’s still alive, but the childhood version of Elliot, by his very appearance, is not. Nevertheless, these are his spirit guides, and they torment and save him at the same time. You don’t get the sense that they’re actually good for him, but like ruthless dictators in a foreign country, you fear the unpredictable chaos that comes when they’re finally ousted from power. For Elliot, it’s very much a case of “the devils you know,” and for all their collective insanity, they do provide a level of stability that allows him to function in a state above helpless heartbreak.
And so he reconciles himself to their presence by the end, and that stability returns—he watches the revolution he’s created with something like satisfaction. It also returns stability to the viewer, because at times in this finale, Esmail and his writers flirted with the idea that reality itself was a type of simulation. When the crowds disappeared in Times Square, leaving Elliot alone in the neon metropolis, we had to wonder whether the rug was really about to be pulled from under our feet. Would the revelation be a cheap equivalent of a season-long dream sequence, or something more profound, assailing the very nature of our existence? Instead, we got the answer we were expecting, and that I believe makes the most sense: Everything is real except Mr. Robot and the family. Elliot’s hacking is real, the other hackers are real, the Dark Army is real, the revolution is real.
Also real, unfortunately, is Angela, who continues to behave as if she learned about human emotions in a confusing pamphlet where the instructions were translated, poorly, from Japanese. She took a job with Evil Corp—why? She’s cozying up with the CEO—why? She abuses a shoe salesman when he calls her out on her employment—why? Bottom line: I don’t understand this character, I have never understood this character, and I don’t like this character. The acting, the writing, and the motivations behind Angela have been poorly executed from the start, and the only silver lining to her appearance last night was the absence of her boyfriend Ollie, who is somehow worse.
She’s present for the scene that led to the finale being delayed a week—a man committing suicide on camera, which was too close to the Roanoake shootings of last Tuesday for comfort—but the symbolism of the blood on her shoes, which may as well be on her hands at this point, wasn’t enough to make me care.
Aside from that quibble, the non-Elliot portion of the plot came off quite compelling, and there are clearly some traps being laid for season two. For one thing, we saw his therapist defend him in an encounter with the serial adulterer who wants to pursue some kind of legal or mercenary action against Elliot (and who, hilariously, was exposed in the Ashley Madison leaks anyway after capitulating to Elliot’s demands). Then there’s the creepy CEO of Evil Corp, Phillip Price, played with disturbing relish by Michael Cristofer, who seems to know who hacked his company, and maintains an eerie calm—Nero fiddling while Rome burns, as a mysterious character points out at the final moment.
That character, of course, is White Rose of the Dark Army, who met with Elliot in episode eight and played a critical role in helping him destroy Evil Corp. The fact that he’s now consorting with Price means that this is not some isolated Chinese hacker, but a player on an international stage with a good amount of influence, and a reason—one we don’t yet know—for wanting to stage an international revolution. The most we know is that he has a concern with mines in the Congo, a vague indication of what’s to come.
I didn’t think anything could top the moving conclusion of episode nine, when Tyrell and Elliot stood together in the arcade, on the verge of destroying much of the world’s wealth, but this scene came close: White Rose subtly pushing Price for information, wanting to know whether he truly understands who crossed him, and Price giving very little away—does he really have the culprit in his crosshairs, and does he know the conspiracy extends to White Rose, or this is more confident blustering with nothing beneath it?
The elegant room, and the music of the harp, introduce the kind of world we haven’t yet seen in the gritty New York environs that dominated the first season of Mr. Robot. It hints at the expansion of the universe we’ll see in season two, and it was compelling in the truest sense of the word—it compels you forward, building anticipation, even as it brings an excellent first season to a close.