Sepinwall on 'Mr. Robot' Series Finale: Goodbye, Friend - Rolling Stone
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‘Mr. Robot’ Series Finale: Goodbye, Friend

The groundbreaking hacktivist drama bids farewell by telling a much smaller story than when it started—and that’s exactly what it needed to do

Rami Malek in the Mr. Robot series finale

Rami Malek in the 'Mr. Robot' series finale.

Elizabeth Fisher/USA Network

This post contains full spoilers for the Mr. Robot series finale.

The Mr. Robot finale was a big, beautiful mirror. It forced the series’ main character to reflect on exactly who and what he was — which was not, it turned out, Elliot Alderson, but an unnamed, angry alternate personality who had hijacked the real Elliot’s body for the last year. And it reflected back upon the run of the series, reminding us that for all of Elliot’s insistence on saving the world, Sam Esmail had always been most interested in what was going on inside his hero’s troubled mind.

Esmail, writing and directing both halves of the two-part finale (which did away with the filename nomenclature and was simply called “Series Finale”), pulled out all the stylistic stops. After four seasons of patience, for instance, he finally put Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” on the soundtrack, to accompany the main title sequence of the first hour. Guessing exactly when and how the words “Mr. Robot” would appear on screen had long been one of he ancillary joys of watching the show; our final glimpse of them appeared over the corpse of what turned out to be the actual Elliot. (He wasn’t so much dead as incapacitated in the weird fantasy world Hoodie Elliot had created for him.)

In the previous installment, Elliot had seemingly deactivated Whiterose’s machine,  which she claimed could rewrite reality to make a better world. Yet we spent that episode’s closing scenes in a version of New York — and with a happier and more well-adjusted version of Elliot — where the machine seemed to have worked. The finale begins with Elliot speaking to us for the first time all season, admitting he had been so consumed with the hack against Whiterose that he had forgotten about us altogether. And as he journeys through this funhouse mirror version of his own life — where, among other things, Price is just his avuncular future father-in-law, while Dom is a local beat cop — we see that this new world isn’t quite right. Darlene doesn’t exist at all, there are frequent earthquakes, and the other Elliot has been dreaming of our guy. Mr. Robot keeps popping up to insist that none of this is right, but our Elliot doesn’t want to believe him, because in this world, Angela is alive and ready to marry him.

To get to the wedding — and dispose of the body of the other Elliot — our hero winds up at a very familiar parking lot. It’s the one he woke up in during the first season finale, after the Five/Nine hack. At the time, that finale seemed surprisingly structured. That entire season seemed to be building to a big story about the hack, and instead it happened off-camera, while Elliot was unconscious and Mr. Robot was steering the ship. And the finale itself dealt almost entirely with the struggle for control between these two personalities, Elliot’s feelings about his late father (who inspired Mr. Robot), and other deeply personal issues. It was Esmail signaling early on that he would let Elliot talk to us, but that his take on the story was very different from his protagonist’s. Elliot was outward-facing, focused on overthrowing the broken system that we all live in; introspection always made him uncomfortable. But again and again, Esmail was much more interested in examining what made Elliot tick(*) than he was in Elliot’s socio-political arguments.

(*) Even the mostly-maligned Season Two twist — where Elliot seemed to spend half the season staying with his mother, when he was really in jail — was about Esmail priming us for the idea that Elliot was constantly rewriting his own reality, and we were only sometimes aware of it.

The mental prison (as Mr. Robot describes it) grows more and more surreal throughout the second hour. Angela and Elliot’s wedding guests are all wearing Fsociety masks, and at one point the Coney Island boardwalk turns into a scene out of Being John Malkovich, where everyone suddenly has Mr. Robot’s face and only says “Kiddo.” Esmail, as always, has never been shy at winking at his influences, and in that movie, poor Malkovich spends close to a year a prisoner in his own body while John Cusack’s Craig runs the show — for far less noble purposes than this alternate Elliot (Alltiot?) has for controlling the real Elliot.

Eventually, we land in Krista’s office so she — or, the version of her that lives in Elliot’s head — can explain what’s really going on. Like the episode earlier this season where Krista and Vera helped Elliot figure out that his father had molested him, there is a lot of exposition dumped in a short period of time. And like both that episode and the Season One installment revealing that Mr. Robot was a Tyler Durden-esque figure inside Elliot’s head, it was spelling things out that were pretty clear to most of the audience by that point. But Esmail has long insisted that he cares much less about surprising the audience than surprising Elliot. It’s nice to see all those old clips detailing all the breadcrumbs Esmail laid out for us over the years about this not being the real Elliot, but what makes the scene so powerful are the performances by Rami Malek and Gloria Reuben (who delivers a masterclass in how to convey so much information while making it feel emotionally resonant).

It’s an odd thing to come to the end of the series and realize we’ve spent maybe 20 minutes with the “real” version of the character we’ve been watching all this time. (And it’s unclear how much the Elliot with the slick hair is being himself, versus the fantasy version of himself Altiot created for him… Like a lot of things about Mr. Robot, it’ll give you a headache if you let it.) But in spending so much time with this version, along with the protection Mr. Robot alter ego, we’ve come to understand the degree to which Elliot was broken, and see the extreme lengths the usurper would go to in order to make the world a safer place for him. Where the Five/Nine hack seemed to make the world worse, this season’s concluding episodes suggested that the hack of Whiterose and the Deus Group had actually made things slightly better for everyone — better enough to convince our man to relinquish control to the real Elliot, and maybe let him and Darlene form a real relationship again.

Evil(Corp) is vanquished, the world is saved several times over, but Mr. Robot mainly cares about saving Elliot and Darlene Alderson. And the series finale does that splendidly. It’s ultimately a smaller story than the show seemed to be telling when it started, but that’s what happens when you have a narrator as unreliable — albeit rivetingly so — as Elliot.

Goodbye, friend. Hello, Elliot.

 

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