In the spring of 2015, USA Network aired the pilot of groundbreaking original Mr. Robot. The series concerned a hacker named Elliot Alderson, created by a relatively unknown writer-director Sam Esmail with an equally obscure lead actor playing the central role called Rami Malek.
Esmail had precisely one movie credit to his name prior to the premiere of Mr. Robot, a quirky but forgettable film called Comet (2014), but the network decided to take a chance on Esmail’s ambitious series. They wanted to know whether it would succeed or fail with audiences, as Mr. Robot was definitely the kind of show to get people talking…
Rarely in TV history has there been a series that discarded so many rules of drama writing. From breaking the fourth wall to providing an entire season told through the unreliable perspective of the troubled protagonist, to a daring episode containing just two lines of dialogue, in the five years since its debut Mr. Robot has defied the convention and norms of TV.
While the nature of the show and the particularly strange manner of storytelling that is favoured by its creator, Mr. Robot was never intended to be one that would win over the masses…
Although there are many aspects of Mr. Robot that have a global flavour, there are generally only two settings for the story that unfolds: New York City and Elliot’s own mind. One of the challenges for viewers is that you don’t always know which one you’re seeing!
On the surface, Mr. Robot is about the ongoing efforts of a rebel hacker who sets out to reap his own version of justice (and a bit of revenge) on a massive international conglomerate that he believes is responsible for ruining his life. The company, E-Corp, is often referenced early in the series as ‘Evil Corp’ and can be thought of as Amazon meets Walmart meets Wells Fargo.
E-Corp isn’t only the largest company in the world, it also has its fingers in every aspect of modern life. In an age where data is the very lifeblood of global economies, E-Corp rules the roost. In a plotline born of real-life protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, an anarchist group called F-Society plots a scheme to cripple E-Corp and return untold billions of wealth to common people around the globe.
Elliot’s role in this plot isn’t immediately clear and much of the first season involved not only unravelling the mysteries around the F-Society’s planned “hack” but also Elliot’s own self-awareness of his history and his identity. It’s hard to say more without giving away twists that should be left to be enjoyed in their purest form by those who have not yet watched Mr. Robot. But rest assured, the first season is a wild ride that is worth every nail-biting moment.
Fast forward to the fourth and final season of Mr. Robot and you’ll find a story less concerned with the impacts of corporate greed and unchecked digital power. The series has matured into a full-blooded drama about the modern human condition—tackling tricky topics like opioid abuse, gender identity, and even sexual abuse. It’s probably not where most audiences thought Mr. Robot was going when it debuted, but this evolution is the product of bold storytelling decision by Esmail and award-worthy performances by the cast.
Note: if you’d like a more comprehensive recap of events leading up to Mr Robot’s final season, check out this video from creator Sam Esmail.
The final season of Mr. Robot has been marked with the type of fearless storytelling choices that could only be made by a creator who’s abandoned all concerns for ratings. In a rebellious tone worthy of his fictional F-Society group, Esmail has delivered a final run of episodes that lack anything resembling marketability.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the final season is that Mr. Robot speeds along like a train that’s long left the station. Although there are 13 hours of viewing this time, as compared to the normal 10 from previous seasons, the final season moves with a frantic urgency that rarely lets up. There’s simply no way for a newcomer to jump into the series at this point, as events unfold at an unapologetic pace only the most avid and astute of series fans could follow. In his quest to build something truly unique, Esmail has left behind scores of casual fans and done so in a way one could interpret as arrogant.
How is the network supposed to advertise a season with episodes that include such brash violence and frank dialogue? Undoubtedly, Mr. Robot is hitting close to home with many viewers with its honest take on the impacts of sexual abuse, mental illness, suicide and drug use. There is nothing glamorous or sexy about Elliot’s final chapter. It’s the essence of dark and gritty television.
Although some might be tempted to compare the final season of Mr. Robotto the last season of AMC’s Breaking Bad, I’d contend the former offers a harder pill to swallow. There was always an easier sense of detachment in following the escapades of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman than there is with Elliot Alderson. Some of this could be the intimacy and universality of some of the topics tackled, but a major factor has to be the repeated violations of the standards “fourth wall” rule.
Again, this has been a trademark of Mr. Robot since the beginning, as we first had Elliot speak directly to us (sharing his intimate thoughts and monologue on the world around him.) But in this final season, every effort’s made to not only have us as knowing spectators but as active participants. Although thankfully, there’s no cheesy interactive feature offered for each episode, we’re talked to now by characters not just as an audience some on-screen personalities are aware of but as “friends” who should somehow be doing more. It’s a starting moment when Mr. Robot addresses us in accusatory tones beckoning why we’re not doing more to help Elliot.
The bold move violates our sense of security as silent voyeurs into Elliot’s life. Instead, the final season repeatedly tries to clutch us with a sense of emotional attachment and even responsibility. It’s a fascinating bit of theatre with mixed results. Again, it’s the kind of bold storytelling decision that most series will never make.
In a tried and true bit of writing advice known to scribes everywhere for more than a century, when in doubt a writer should “kill all your darlings.” From Faulkner to King, novelists have had fun with this saying for generations. With the final season of Mr. Robot, Esmail took this one to heart and the final eight episodes are nothing less than a slaughterhouse. Fans of the series may grieve to see the loss of some of their personal favourites, but as Esmail demonstrated as early as the first season… nobody is safe, and nothing is sacred.
Even with all the elements of international intrigue, corruption and crime, the greatest journey of the final season of Mr. Robot remain in the mind of Elliot. The dramatic events transpiring in the outside world pale at times in comparison to the stakes raised by the constant cat-and-mouse game being played within Elliot’s fractured psyche.
It can be a confusing mess to sort and at times, the plotline becomes overly complex. But Esmail knows his audience or at least doesn’t mind alienating the potential casual viewer. His goal is not just to keep the viewer guessing, but to take you on one trippy ride along the way. To that end, Mr. Robot finishes up as something akin to David Lynch’s groundbreaking Twin Peaks series.
The final two episodes, aired back-to-back, bring home the final twists in the maze that has become Elliot’s mind. While it initially appears the finale will focus on whether he can escape the nuclear power plant in Washington Township (New Jersey) before a meltdown, we’re unexpectedly transported inside Elliot’s mind where we race with him to find a way out before its too late. (Another kind of meltdown seems imminent).
Whether the finale works or not will be the subject of intense debate amongst its faithful audience. It’s unapologetically confusing as we journey with Elliott through two realities and try to discern which is real (or if either of them is real). What’s clear is that our hero, narrator, and “friend” (to borrow his favourite descriptor for us) is broken. How he comes out on the other is a complicated question with no easy answer.
In the show’s final moments, Esmail fittingly leaves us asking more questions than answers being provided. Undoubtedly intentionally set up for us to discuss, debate, and interpret to our own pleasure, Mr. Robot succeeds in redefining scripted TV drama to something much more than a mere spectator sport.
Cast & Crew
writer: Sam Esmail.
directors: Sam Esmail, Kyle Bradstreet, Courtney Looney, Amelia Gray, Robbie Pickering.
starring: Rami Malek, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Martin Wallström, Christian Slater & Michael Cristofer.