Your Labor Day Binge-Watch: ‘Mr. Robot,’ Summer TV’s Ultimate Bait-and-Switch


Mr. Robot spent its entire first season building up to a single hack. It’s why the USA show’s protagonist, Elliott Alderson (Rami Malek), jeopardized the livelihood of his well-meaning boss, Gideon (Michael Gill); it’s why he jeopardized his own freedom by breaking into an ultra-fortified data facility. It’s even why he powered through the grisly murder of his girlfriend, Shayla (Frankie Shaw), an event with so little lasting impact it attracted some criticism from Mr. Robot‘s mostly adoring critical fanbase — though in retrospect, that non-impact reads as a testimony to Elliott’s deteriorating mental state. And then, after nine episodes of buildup to the hack, Wednesday’s finale fast-forwarded right past it.

The most frequent descriptor applied to Mr. Robot, created for USA by filmmaker Sam Esmail, is “hacker drama,” and for the most part, it’s an accurate one. Elliott is part of, or possibly in charge of, a collective called fsociety that aims to incite global anarchy by infiltrating a massive conglomerate called E Corp (except both Elliott and the audience, which remains firmly inside Elliott’s head even when Elliott isn’t onscreen, consistently hear the name as “Evil Corp”). By taking out both its main data facility and its backups across the globe, fsociety aims to immobilize Evil Corp by erasing all of its information, and taking out the entire global financial system as we know it, including debt, along with it.

Over the course of its ten-episode first season, however, Mr. Robot‘s focus gradually began to shift. Elliott’s mental state was always in the foreground: devices like the E-Corp-to-Evil-Corp switch emphasized subjectivity and unreliability, while early voiceovers framed his interest in hacking as an expression of near-debilitating social anxiety. Even the show’s cinematography, as analyzed by critics like Deadspin’s Rob Harvilla and Vulture’s Sean T. Collins, was designed to infuse the audience with Elliott’s alienation and paranoia, isolating characters in extreme corners of shots filled with empty space.

Gradually, however, the urgency of Elliott’s unraveling gradually overpowered that of fsociety’s greater mission. Much of this was personified in the show’s title character (Christian Slater), Elliott’s fsociety recruiter and avatar of the show’s most obvious influence. Anyone who’s seen Fight Club — i.e. the show’s entire presumed viewership — could see the parallels between Mr. Robot, who urged Elliott on even as his interactions with other characters remained minimal, and Tyler Durden. The “twist” that preoccupied much of this season’s final episodes therefore wasn’t so much of a shock as the natural conclusion of an extended homage.

Spoiler alert, though again, the show pretty much spoils itself:

Mr. Robot isn’t a person, but a figment of Elliott’s personality who takes the form of his dead father, poisoned by Evil Corp’s pollution when Elliott was still a child. Given the sheer amount of foreshadowing, however, what truly surprises about Mr. Robot is what comes after that reveal.

In a finale delayed by a week due to one (horrifying) scene’s similarity to last week’s on-air shooting in Roanoke, Virginia, Elliott’s personal crisis eclipses the hack entirely. Having just revealed his plan to Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), Evil Corp executive and star of his own homage-within-an-homage, this time to American Psycho, Elliott blacks out… and wakes up in a post-revolution world.

While Darlene (Carly Chaikin), the sister he’d completely forgotten was his sister, covers their tracks and celebrates accordingly, Elliott is left to wander New York in a daze. His first question upon waking up in Wellick’s black SUV, with Wellick nowhere to be found, is “Who am I?” — a question he’s no closer to answering than he was in the pilot, thanks to the demons Elliott is finally forced to confront in a barren Times Square that, to New Yorkers, may be Mr. Robot‘s creepiest image to date.

Even though Mr. Robot is a heavily serialized show and will likely remain so, the finale allows the season’s main source of suspense to almost literally fade into background noise. Instead, Elliott’s supposed endgame — the collapse of Evil Corp, and the world along with it — proves in its success a futile attempt to channel rage, pain, and delusion that outs itself in other ways. Without a goal to support it, Elliott’s carefully constructed reality begins to truly fall apart: he pins himself-as-Mr.-Robot against a wall, watches himself-as-Mr.-Robot get punched in the face, finds himself-not-as-Mr.-Robot with a black eye, talking to his dead parents and a younger version of himself.

Mr. Robot ultimately inhabits the deeply personal experience of mental illness as much as it does the lofty rhetoric of hacking-as-social-engineering. As of the finale, in fact, it’s used hacking as a means of exploring that personal experience rather than an end in itself, signaling its priorities by passing over the climactic hack in favor of its emotional fallout. And while most viewers saw the Christian Slater reveal coming, Mr. Robot‘s doubling down on one man’s psychological breakdown proved more surprising.

The first season of Mr. Robot is available in full on Hulu to USA subscribers.