September 3, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Mr. Robot”


Great TV dramas tend to arrive on our screens fully-formed.  (The same isn’t true of comedies, which sometimes take an entire season to find their voices.)  By the end of the first hours of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The West Wing, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Shield, Lost–it was clear that we were in the hands of series creators who knew exactly how they were going to tell the stories in their heads.  That was true of this summer’s signature TV event MR. ROBOT as well, which was confidently marked with creator Sam Esmail’s hand from beginning to end.  (Incredibly, this is Esmail’s first TV show, and he’d only directed one micro-budgeted feature before.)  The various networks, in this case USA, have in all these cases been smart enough (and in the case of previously conservative USA, brave enough) to stand back and let their auteurs do their stuff with minimal interference.

What’s made Mr. Robot special, even in the universe of elite dramas, is that it’s intimately engaged in the zeitgeist of this exact moment in time.  Even though tonight’s season finale was written and shot weeks ago, the characters turned on TVs and watched footage of world economic crises fueled by the crash of foreign markets that could have come straight from the past week on CNN.  One of the plotlines was so close to the Ashley Madison hack that a line of dialogue had to be (slightly clumsily) dubbed into the episode in post-production so that it could be referenced specifically.  A sequence of a corporate executive graphically committing suicide on live TV so echoed the shootings in Virginia last week that USA postponed airing the finale.

On a larger scale, Esmail’s show has had its finger on the particular feeling of technological and existential dislocation that infects us now.  Movies from the 1970s like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor famously delved into the subgenre of paranoid thrillers, but that Watergate-fueled mood was nothing compared to the fact that we actually know, on a level we prefer not to consciously acknowledge, that every aspect of our lives, ever-increasingly experienced online, may be observed, recorded, judged–and possibly interfered with–from anyone from advertisers to employers to the government.  We have a curious and unprecedented associative disorder regarding this lack of privacy, volunteering to share our lives on social media while feeling vaguely oppressed, and certain that escape from Big Internet is all but impossible.  Those who can manipulate technology are both heroes and potential monsters.

Part of the genius of Mr. Robot has been that Esmail addresses this alienation not just in the storylines of the show but in its style and structure.  Our protagonist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is the most unreliable of narrators, a stranger in his own life who, as we’ve discovered over the past few episodes, didn’t realize that his hacking colleague Darlene (Carly Chaikin) was actually his sister, or that Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the head of the hacking crew fsociety, was really a fantasy of his own consciousness in the guise of his dead father.  Esmail and his fellow directors shoot, edit and score scenes in ways designed to make viewers uncertain and even uncomfortable, and after a full season we’re still not sure we fully understand the objective reality of Elliot’s universe.

Esmail, who wrote and directed the season finale, kept viewers off-balance from the start, beginning the finale with a sequence that called back a minor subplot from weeks ago, in which Elliot had hacked his shrink’s adulterous lover.  Then the episode jumped several days from where we’d last seen Elliot, and it turned out that the grand hack of E (for Evil) Corp, which appeared to be the climactic event the entire season was moving toward, had taken place during the time-jump off screen.  One of the show’s principal characters, the enigmatic and psychotic Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) went entirely unseen for the hour, having apparently vanished off the face of the earth since we last saw him with Elliot.  (Assuming he was real to begin with.)  However, we did get a scene between Elliot and Tyrell’s wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), possibly the most unsettling character on all of TV.  The finale left Elliot entirely at a loss, alone in his apartment with a knock on his door that could have had anyone on the other side of it.  Then Esmail added a post-credit coda that shuffled the deck once again, bringing in the supposed rebel hacker White Rose (B.D. Wong) as an apparent collaborator with Evil Corp’s Philip Price (the delicious Michael Cristofer, who manages to be avuncular and sinister at once), with a final reference to the burning of Rome that hinted at what Season 2 may be about.

Mr. Robot has been gripping and fascinating from the start, but it’s also a triumph of filmmaking.  Rami Malek is giving the most exciting performance we’ve seen since Tatiana Maslany burst on the scene in Orphan Black, and all the actors mentioned, along with Portia Doubleday as Elliot’s oldest friend Angela (now uncomfortably working for E Corp), Gloria Reuben as Elliot’s psychiatrist, Bruce Altman as another Evil Corp functionary, and many others, have been remarkable.  The cinematography and production design are extraordinary and daring, completely out of TV’s usual comfort zone.  The musical choices have been adept (Stanley Kubrick is one of Esmail’s acknowledged influences, and the finale featured a reference-within-a-reference, as a selection from Eyes Wide Shut played in an electronic arrangement that recalled A Clockwork Orange–all of that separate from shots of a TV camera designed to resemble HAL from 2001).

While no one will mistake Mr. Robot‘s ratings for Fear the Walking Dead‘s, the show has been quite successful for USA, its 2d-highest rated scripted series after Suits.  More important for the network, it’s provided the identity-changing breakout that USA has been struggling to find for several seasons, an emphatic slam of the door to the image of Monk, Psych and Burn Notice.  USA renewed the show for Season 2 before the pilot even aired, and barring a collapse next year, it might as well order Season 3 as well.  (Esmail has said he has 5 seasons of plot already in mind.)  There’s so much excellent TV right now that it’s harder than ever to be truly distinctive, but Mr. Robot is proof that there’s excellence and then there’s greatness.  It’s not at all clear how long Esmail will be able to stay on the fiendishly high tightrope he’s constructed for himself, but for now it’s exhilarating to watch him stroll.

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."