When Mr. Robot debuted in the summer of 2015, none of its individual components were clearly new. The cyberpunk drama’s then-unknown creator, Sam Esmail, readily copped to the influences of paranoid Seventies thrillers like The Parallax View. Late in that first season, the show even played a piano version of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” as a tip of the cap to Fight Club, from which Esmail liberally borrowed the idea that his title character, played by Christian Slater, was actually an alternate personality of hacker hero Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). But the combination of those elements, coupled with the idiosyncratic visual language Esmail preferred, plus the intensely committed performance of Malek, made the series feel like the start of something thrillingly different. It launched a thousand thinkpieces, won Malek an Emmy for drama lead actor (beating far more established performers like Kevin Spacey, Matthew Rhys, Kyle Chandler, and Bob Odenkirk), and even inspired USA to ditch its decade-old “Characters Welcome” branding for the awkward new catchphrase “We the Bold.”
After nearly two years off the air — during which time Malek won an Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody and Esmail made a terrific Amazon show, Homecoming, with Julia Roberts — Mr. Robot finally returns this weekend for its fourth and final season. And as I watched the five episodes USA sent for review, two thoughts consumed me. The first involved my traditional struggle at keeping track of the show’s labyrinthine plot — in which Elliot and sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) wage cyber war against both an evil corporation and a Chinese crime lord known as Whiterose (BD Wong) — which was compounded by the longer-than-usual gap in time.
The second was that, for a show that was once A Very Big Deal in the world of television, Mr. Robot has left a surprisingly small footprint.
The “We the Bold” rebranding never really took root(*), and where the “Characters Welcome” era of USA led to one cheerful imitator of Monk and Burn Notice after another, it’s hard to pick out any shows directly inspired by Mr. Robot in the network’s current lineup — or in the broader world of television. (Other than Homecoming, which doesn’t quite count due to Esmail being a creative force behind both.) Malek was never even nominated for another Emmy after that first win. Though he’s a star today, and Esmail has an ever-growing library of shows he’s producing, Mr. Robot itself now feels like a beautifully-made anomaly, rather than the phenomenon it appeared to be that first summer.
(*) One upcoming episode flashes back to 1982 to detail Whiterose’s origin story, and there’s a long sequence in a hotel room where the TV is playing a vintage promo for USA, which at the time described itself as “The Great American Network.”
The series’ entire arc has taken place over a very compressed timeline, meaning that it’s only December of 2015 when the final season begins. So what was once as au courant as TV gets quickly turned into a period piece, even as the actions of Elliot, Whiterose, and E Corp boss Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) have radically diverged the show’s reality from the tail end of the Obama era. (Esmail tried last season to tie the series to current events by suggesting that Whiterose was encouraging Donald Trump’s presidential campaign; it played as clumsily as it sounds.) In one of this season’s episodes, an exasperated Darlene tells Elliot, “Nothing’s ever going to change with you, is it?” The world has changed a lot since 2015; Mr. Robot mostly hasn’t.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Esmail, who took over as the series’ sole director beginning with Season Two, has one of TV’s best and most distinct visual senses. It goes well beyond the way he violates basic rules of cinematic grammar to put Elliot and other characters near the edge of the frame, or his fondness for long, interrupted shots. (The latter has become increasingly common in Peak TV, anyway.) It’s the way that Esmail and his longtime director of photography Tod Campbell seem to approach every scene with the goal to make it look as unsettling and new as possible. Elliot used to address us in the audience as his “friend” — at the start of the season, Mr. Robot is the one talking to us, while Elliot focuses on the endgame with Whiterose — but he and the show don’t want us to feel comfortable. The season’s fifth episode(*) includes an extended foot chase through Central Park; the landmarks are all recognizable, yet it felt like I was seeing them all for the first time.
(*) That episode is also a good example of how the show’s stylistic gimmickry can feel seamless rather than self-indulgent, as it wasn’t until later that I realized it’s almost entirely dialogue-free. In the moment, what Elliot and Darlene are doing is so tense that of course they wouldn’t be chit-chatting, but the approach also doesn’t scream, “WE ARE DOING A SILENT EPISODE! KNEEL BEFORE OUR MIXTURE OF CUTTING-EDGE AND RETRO TECHNIQUES!”
Mr. Robot has always been so much fun to watch, and the actors so good, that it’s long masked how relatively thin the larger arc is. Season One proved less about Elliot and the hacker collective fsociety attacking E Corp than it was about Elliot coming to grips with Mr. Robot’s true nature and his own mental illness. Season Two spent an extended stretch of time pretending that Elliot had moved back in with his mother, when he was really in jail and imagining this other reality as a coping mechanism. Season Three didn’t bother with a major twist — nor does one seem in the offing for Season Four based on what I’ve seen so far. But it’s also not clear what the stakes are anymore, which characters actually matter versus which ones stick around because the performer (say, Grace Gummer as a lonely FBI agent who has been forced to work as a mole for Whiterose) is too strong to ditch, and where any of this is going. Whiterose is shipping some secret invention to her new stronghold in the Congo, and there are hints that the series might be pivoting hard into science fiction at the end. But the show has been teasing that for so long — with this last hiatus stretching things out more than usual — that until Esmail chooses to turn over that card, it’s too vague an idea to have much impact.
So instead of worrying about where any of this was going, I chose to again enjoy Mr. Robot for its component elements: how Malek still seems to be running on an alternate electrical current from the rest of television, how Cristofer and Wong wrap their tongues so entrancingly around the monologues the writers give them, how much Gummer has made me care for Dom even as she feels only sometimes connected to the rest of the series. Even at this late date, the show can introduce a new character like Jake Busey as Freddie, a slick Manhattan lawyer who has something Elliot and Mr. Robot want, and make him feel as important and weird as everyone else. (Though this ability isn’t limitless. Elliot Villar returns as drug dealer Vera, a prominent Season One villain whom the story quickly outgrew, and he seems an unnecessary distraction all these years later.)
In Mr. Robot‘s first season, Elliot used to make grand pronouncements about the dire state of the world. Those speeches occasionally still come from the mouths of others this year (Price has a humdinger along those lines), but for the most part, Elliot and the series as a whole are focused less on the big picture than on untangling the current mess the hero finds himself in. Elliot and his alter ego never really kicked off another TV revolution. But for those who’ve stuck with the series this long, it still offers more conventional pleasures.
The final season of Mr. Robot premieres October 6th on USA.