Warning: This story contains spoilers for S2 and S3 of Mr. Robot.
Early in last night’s S3 finale, Elliot has engineered his way into an FBI mole’s apartment and must search for something. If he can find what the Dark Army has on this guy, he/Mr. Robot thinks, then maybe they can leverage that and take down the Dark Army. Drawers frantically open, paper and pictures toss about, and then…. Irving, the hacker collective’s fixer, calmly appears out of nowhere to flip through books on the FBI agent’s shelf.
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“I just finished this book. I got it on tape. I didn’t care much for the ending. Story can have a mediocre beginning, middle, and often times it does. But it’s always gotta have a ‘wow’ ending—otherwise, what’s the point?” he tells Elliot. “And whatever scheme you’re trying to come up with, it’s not going to change the inevitable.”
I don’t think it intended to, but Irving and the Mr. Robot writers’ room kinda sorta conversed with the audience in this moment. Sam Esmail and co. took a lot of grief and potentially alienated a section of viewers last year with a methodical S2 that hinged on a second annual major twist. But as S3 wrapped up last night, I found myself reinvested in the show like it was 2015 all over again. The team punctuated S3 with the wow this underrated season deserved, and the whole of these past 10 episodes reinvigorated confidence that Mr. Robot always had a similarly riveting endgame in mind. In retrospect, S2 was just necessary to get there.
Single story > single season
Even as the show took TV critics by storm and earned Emmy nominations with its first season, Esmail always maintained Mr. Robot started out as a screenplay and simply transitioned to television. Accordingly, he said the show should run four or five seasons from the get-go (USA recently committed to a fourth season). On a recent episode of The Watch podcast, the creator mentioned how watching Breaking Bad convinced him this kind of single cohesive story told over multiple years could work.
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“I do remember seeing Breaking Bad and thinking to myself, ‘oh man, that’s one story,’” Esmail said. “Even prestige TV prior to that like The Sopranos or The Wire, any of those other shows had season-long arcs. They were procedural in a seasonal way. But Breaking Bad was one story from beginning to end. And, of course, they had different objectives each season, but it felt like a cohesive thing. That inspired me.”
In this line of thinking, the revelation that Elliot spent time in jail last year would merely be a small twist in the first half of a film… as opposed to a much debated plot twist midway through a hyped television season. And the true halfway point of Mr. Robot would’ve come sometime during S3, which ends by finally putting Elliot in direct odds with big bads White Rose and the Dark Army. Both the events of this season—some surprisingly violent ends, major shifts for both f-society and the FBI—and the setup going forward feel satisfying.
The issue, of course, is that some viewers will never get to this point. In an era with so many entertainment options and so many ways to catch up on something critical consensus deems “good,” the incentive to continue on with a show that loses your interest is minimal. And with something like Mr. Robot (for many, it built up a single season of good will) as opposed to an entity like Game of Thrones (multiple seasons of such investment before hitting a “clunker”), an audience’s amount of patience is simply lower.
Game of Thrones has become a CW showEsmail’s commentary on The Watch can be illuminating here, too. He places this past season (S7) of Game of Thrones within his top television of 2017 despite hosts Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan each dismissing it as a sort of set-piece-moving collection of episodes. But if a television show strives to have a singular story ala films or print fiction, Esmail argues, those kinds of passages become necessary for building the overall narrative:
If we’re in this atmosphere where shows need to tell a singular story, you’re going to have seasons that are steps to set up the next thing. Just because you don’t have every pay off or every thing coming to a conclusion by the end of the season, it’s not a mistake. S5 was bemoaned, but I thought it was great. It set up S6 and everyone went ape-shit over S6, but S6 wouldn’t have worked without S5. Go back and revisit S5, it’s a great season of television… What you’re going to do is love the final season, and you’ll realize this season was obviously necessary to get to that. We need to appreciate the different stages of storytelling you have to go through to tell a single story. There has to be a way to appreciate when a show changes gears and see the forest through the trees a little bit.
Frenetic and fantastic
Obviously, whether dealing with the trees proves worth the time investment is impossible to know in the moment. While S2 of Mr. Robot left more questions than it answered and offered some frustrating plot points (in addition to the Elliot prison sentence, remember Tyrell Wellick was nonexistent after being arguably the second most important character in S1), S3 largely stayed riveting.
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Creatively, Esmail and the team seemed to hit another level. Episode five’s production high-wire act saw an engaging heist story (again with Angela stepping up to the plate and executing a hack) done entirely in a one-shot aesthetic. And the show found new ways both visually and narratively to incorporate Elliot’s lack of control over the Mr. Robot persona. The team used glitch sounds and stunted pictures in various ways. They had Mr. Robot tossing his body into harm’s way to protect the plan or later communicating with Elliot via their psychiatrist, bathroom mirror soap, and computer text (the call back to their early Ferris wheel conversations in the finale was particularly nice). Like Stranger Things’ use of Mike and Eleven, Mr. Robot seemingly kept its most dynamic interaction—Elliot and Mr. Robot—to a minimum for most of the season, but the fact that this didn’t derail everything speaks to the strength of the story and supporting cast in S3.
New characters like Bobby Cannavale’s Irving brought a level of comedic relief initially before morphing into hyper-violent Lynchian-type villains later on (based on sequences like Angela’s interactions with the house manager at the Price estate or her chat with White Rose in earlier seasons, it shouldn’t shock anyone to learn Esmail is a big Twin Peaks fan. He even interviewed that series’ co-creator Mark Frost for The Talkhouse this fall). Old favorites like Leon somehow delivered more of what made them delightful (Knight Rider > Frasier) while finding additional ways to surprise. His unflinching loyalty to the Dark Army late season—with Trenton and Mobley, in the barn, and at Elliot’s apartment—made him terrifying. Add in the typical level of technical detail and the continued layering of the 5/9 attacks’ impact throughout the show (Elliot spends an entire episode seemingly dealing with depression and suicide ideation; we see military-enforced curfews and fires in the streets in the background of many episodes), and the television-making here seems to rival anything else currently airing.
Maybe S3 wasn’t perfect. Did we need an entire hour of Wellick’s backstory journey, or could that have been interspersed with more present-day story? Have the Trump digs felt natural (a finale revelation that the Dark Army helped a Russian propaganda machine) or distracting (White Rose asking a right-wing talk show host to really pump up Trump in the run-up to 2016)? The answers will differ from viewer to viewer, but it’s clear S3 hews closer to the highs of that first Mr. Robot run than it does to the up-and-down nature of the second.
When taken into context with Esmail’s grand vision, it appears the series is about to hit its third act at full speed. Dom’s life has changed dramatically, Angela no longer believes in a sci-fi dream, and Elliot has a new bullseye for his superhero-like hacking abilities (plus a recommitted sidekick within him). Accordingly, the hype and anticipation for S4 should surpass where fandom stood heading into this run of episodes, but it’s easier to feel confident in what’s to come after a plethora of hair-on-your-arms late season moments like that last Elliot monologue.
“One good thing came out of all this—they showed themselves, the top one percent of the one percent, the ones in control, the ones who play God without permission,” he says. “And I’m going to take them down; all of them.”