September 22, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Mr. Robot”


“Go big or go home” isn’t a sentiment that’s usually associated with the second year of a successful TV series.  More often, it’s “Do the same thing again,” possibly appended with “… only bigger.”  But Sam Esmail, the creator of MR. ROBOT (and this season, also the director of all its episodes), knows no fear, and in Season 2 he deconstructed his own show, playing with structure, narrative, pacing, and even coherence.  The result was constantly surprising, often dazzling, and–alas–something of a failure.  It was the kind of failure, though, that made one anxious to see what’s next.

Season 1 of Mr. Robot was excitingly unlike anything else on television, but despite its stylistic eccentricities and its narrative tricks, it lived for the most part within a recognized genre.  It was largely a heist story, in which the scruffy rebels of fSociety worked to hack what was literally referred to as EvilCorp.  For all the time spent on the inner workings of Elliot Alderson’s (new Emmy winner Rami Malek) brain, every episode charted the progress achieved or obstacles encountered by fSociety.  Esmail had a lot of other things on his mind, but he also supplied plenty of conventional thriller tension.

There was almost none of that in Season 2, and that in itself was a big risk, because it gave both viewers and Esmail himself nothing to lean on.  Without a genre to guide his story, Esmail seemed to lose focus.  Some of that was probably intentional–the season made it clear that fSociety’s hack had caused more harm than improvement to the lives of ordinary people, and that ECorp was recovering just fine–but in the end, the narrative scattered in so many undeveloped directions that almost nothing about it was satisfying.

Each of the central characters spent the season mostly isolated from the others.  Elliot, we eventually learned (some guessed it much earlier), spent half the season in a prison he imagined as life at his mother’s house, actually jailed for a Season 1 hack that didn’t involve ECorp, and trying to work out his relationship with alternate personality Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), his Tyler Durden in the form of his dead father.  His sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) dealt with the increasingly splintered fSociety.  Elliot’s best friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) wavered all season between fighting ECorp from within and being seduced by its temptations, and after last week’s thoroughly weird suggestion that she might have magic powers, was apparently enlisted by WhiteRose (B.D. Wong), who identifies as a woman but serves as a man in the Chinese government, and WhiteRose’s Dark Army.  Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) mostly appeared to be dead, per Mr Robot, but turned out in the last few minutes of the penultimate hour to be alive, and also apparently serving the Dark Army.  Even Wellick’s nutso wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) was a recurring presence, with a storyline that was mostly a red herring.  The only character seeking connections was new regular Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer), the FBI agent on the trail of fSociety.

As the remaining episodes dwindled, it started to become increasingly clear that while each of these set-ups was potentially fascinating, Esmail either couldn’t or wouldn’t bring them together, with last week’s David Lynch cover band hour almost an admission of defeat.  Tonight’s season finale, written as well as directed by Esmail, found itself in a smaller version of what happened with Lost, needing to address too many mysteries all at once, all but guaranteeing that their solutions wouldn’t satisfy.

So a lot happened.  We found out that the mysterious “Stage 2” of the plan that Elliot had made with Wellick, which Elliot didn’t remember because he’d planned it while in his Mr. Robot persona, would blow up a New York warehouse that contained the paper versions of all the documents fSociety had destroyed in its hack, killing innocents along the way, and also confirming that WhiteRose was out to destroy ECorp despite China’s interest-free $3 trillion loan to the company last week.  When Elliot tried to stop it from happening, not wholly convinced Wellick was real, he found out via a bullet that it was so.  (But a scene at the end made it clear that Elliot didn’t die, and that Angela and Wellick were working together in the service of the Dark Army.)  Darlene, interrogated by Dom, may or may not have confessed after she discovered that Dom already knew Elliot was the mastermind of the hack.  Joanna decided to frame ECorp exec Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell) for the murder of his wife, after she taunted him into beating the crap out of her.  We did not, however, learn anything more about whatever WhiteRose was doing with the ECorp division that had been responsible for the deaths in Elliot, Darlene and Angela’s families.  (Esmail did find time to indulge himself with a longwinded USA Network gag that pulled a viewer all the way out of the story.)

It was a busy 55 minutes, but none of it felt truly climactic.  Perhaps this was because Esmail has always maintained that he has the multi-year arc of the story firmly in his mind, and we need to think of Season 2 as pages 101-200 of a 500-page novel, rather than something that should be satisfying in its own right.  Certainly it felt like Season 2 would have benefited from a binge-watch, rather than having its fragmented episodes doled out once per week.  But it’s hard to deny that as presented, it was largely lacking.

That’s not to say that individual sequences weren’t spectacularly shot, edited, performed and scored, and even full episodes were amazing at times.  The hour that included Angela’s hack of the FBI was superb, and Gummer constantly brought the show back to life.  Doubleday, with much more to do this season, was also a breakout.  Esmail is a huge talent, and even an unsuccessful Mr. Robot season is more thrilling than most of the Prestige TV that’s around.

But Season 1 was flat-out great, and Season 2 wasn’t.  Nor were the ratings, but USA has already renewed the show for Season 3, and given the Emmy nominations and win, the show isn’t going anywhere unless the numbers truly crash.  In the end, Mr. Robot remains unmissable TV, even when it misses.

[PS:  after the finale, USA aired an “advance screening” of the pilot for its series Falling Water, which actually premieres on October 13.  We’ll have more to say about it when it arrives, but it’s a somewhat impenetrable sci-fi thriller about a cop, the head of security for a Wall Street firm, and a professional trendspotter whose disturbing dreams overlap.  A first look suggests that despite an intriguing premise, it’s burdened with flat dialogue and performances that are merely OK.]


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."