The second season of Mr. Robot shudders to a close, as maddeningly opaque as it’s ever been.
You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.
This isn’t the recap I expected to write, or wanted to write. I hoped I would be able to come back in here, even in the cold light of day, and defend Mr. Robot’s baffling two-part finale as a microcosm of its baffling second season, and try to explain what it all means, but… I’m struggling.
That’s not to say I didn’t like “Python,” which, in its own medicated way, gave us enough narrative meat to chew on that I eventually forgot how annoyed I was at the big twist in “h4ndshake,” the season’s 7th episode. You know the one. The bit where Esmail oh-so-cleverly revealed that Elliot had been in prison all along, the very thing I asked the television gods to not let happen. “I hope to check in at the season finale to say we never should have doubted it,” I wrote then. Hmph.
Okay, let’s refocus first on the good. Rami Malek won a well-deserved Emmy! He got a chance in last night’s Part 2 to showcase a different side of Elliot; now that he and Mr. Robot seem to be trading off at will, his first interaction in Wellick’s car eschews his usual mumbles for speed and clarity. He regurgitates some of Robot’s nonsense, and a distraught Wellick can only answer with a bit of William Carlos Williams poetry. What does it all mean? I don’t know, but it feels like it means something, which is almost good enough.
Mr. Robot is at its best when its moves in a dream state, either detaching the viewer from the action on screen (like in the superb single-take diner shootout in “h1dden-pr0cess,” which kept the camera so far back it played as inside a dollhouse), or diving deep into the psyche of the characters. Last night also gave us a long take of Elliot interrogating his subconscious self, the camera pushing in on our hacker as he gets worked up, only for Mr. Robot to appear in a different corner of the room and we spin around again. But like Elliot keeps asking, “What is all this for?” And while I’ve staunchly defended Sam Esmail’s right to play things close to the vest, it’s one thing to be mysteriously opaque — it’s another to keep answering questions with more questions, like Lost at its most frustrating. And that’s not the only time I’ll mention Lost today.
Wait, what is Phase 2?
It’s hard to imagine a more underwhelming climax than to learn that the much-discussed “Phase 2” is nothing more than…blowing up a building. And it took me a rewind (and some discussion with Chase Branch) to even get a handle on what the plan was, so bear with me: in order to ensure that Evil Corp can never recover from the 5/9 hack, Tyrell Wellick and Whiterose have allied to destroy the physical backup records — basically a parallel to last season’s Stone Mountain gambit.
The only part that doesn’t feel overly familiar is that it’s all been happening independently of our main characters; I’m not sure how Wellick, who is the most wanted man in America, has managed to stroll around NYC all this time without even a hoodie for protection, and I’m certainly not sure what he himself is getting out of all this. (Has he forgotten all about his wife? The show nearly has. Her subplot with Scott felt like the filler it was.) Whiterose, though her larger plan remains forever shrouded, seems to want to keep Price off balance and possibly usurp him at the head of whatever secret Illuminati organization is pulling the world’s strings.
But what does Elliot want? As strange as it seems, it’s hard to really point to anything that has been achieved that came directly from his conscious mind; it was Mr. Robot that formed fSociety, Mr. Robot that orchestrated the hack, and Mr. Robot that has been in contact with Wellick. Elliot is so screwed up that he had convinced himself of what had actually been my pet theory since last season (and another one I hoped would turn out to be wrong): that Tyrell Wellick was no more real than Mr. Robot. There were good reasons to think this, starting with how overly familiar Mrs. Wellick seems to have been with Elliot in their brief interactions. Ultimately, once Elliot seizes control and tries to call off Phase 2, he calls Wellick out as a figment of his imagination, daring Wellick to shoot him like Robot has done many times. But unfortunately for Elliot, he’s wrong, and the bullet in his gut is very real. Mr. Robot sympathizes as he flickers in and out of reality: “I couldn’t let anyone stop this…including us.”
Now, we’re not supposed to think for a moment that Elliot would actually die. All this does is shut the door on some fan speculation, and once again take away Elliot’s agency. He may be one of the most passive protagonists in recent memory, but thank God that Esmail didn’t feel the urge to open that final trap door. And is it weird that during that whole sequence I was practically shouting “Get back to Angela”?
Is fSociety dead?
I guess so! Cisco, as we generally expected since the show has done very little to make us care about him, didn’t survive the diner attack, leaving Darlene to stew as Dom and Santiago debate their next move. Esmail gives the latter an almost too-meta line of interrogation: “This isn’t Burn Notice. There are no blue skies. Characters like you are not welcome here.” We get it, it’s USA, ha ha, wow. “Trust me, I am no leader,” retorts Darlene, perhaps hoping to skate by as just an unwitting pawn in Cisco’s grand scheme. But denials, pleading the 5th, and pulling a Sarah Lynn (“Suck a d–k!”) won’t work on Dom, who has a mountain of evidence…and her Big Board. She’s known all along, of course. Even about Elliot. The only problem is that Tyrell Wellick is the man in the middle of her web, and we shouldn’t expect Darlene to correct her on that score. But it’s a crushing defeat regardless, especially adding in the knowledge that Romero’s death was just an accidental stray bullet and not a Dark Army assassination. She thinks she’s not special, but the almost awed stares from the FBI bullpen say otherwise.
Dom and Darlene have been bright spots this season (really, all the women have), and while Grace Gummer and Carly Chaikin deserve a lot of credit, it’s also nice to not have to constantly wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real. Wellick’s photo on the wall confirmed his physical existence before the shot he fired, and the surprise that she’s been onto fSociety in a much deeper way than we’ve been shown was a welcome one. The episode title, “Python,” could have easily referred to the commonly used programming language by that name; instead, it characterizes Agent DiPerro’s investigative approach: patience. She’s sure she’s right on the verge of cracking it now. But like us, she doesn’t have the full picture. She may not even know what shape it is.
Meanwhile, in the post-credits scene, a long crane shot in a sunny Fry’s parking lot far away from New York City returns us to Mobley and Trenton (the latter sans hijab), discussing a possible magic fix that could “put everything back the way it was.” I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that for a second — not as possible in this universe, and certainly not as a good idea for the story. They may not get to enact it, though, as who should arrive but Leon, asking them the time before the final cut to black. Is he there to kill them? Indoctrinate them into the Dark Army? Whatever the answer, Esmail has some work to do to make us care. In an hour of anticlimaxes, that may have been the biggest one.
Seriously, though: What’s the deal with Angela?
Last season ended with uncertainty about how brainwashed our girl had become by Price; this season did very little to answer that question, and the finale started the cycle all over again with Whiterose and the Dark Army. After spending almost all of Part 2 off screen, she reappears after Elliot gets shot, calming down a distraught Wellick: “I should be the first person he sees when he wakes up.” (Wait, did she know this would happen?) “I love him,” cries Tyrell. (Wait, where did THAT come from?) “I do, too,” Angela replies, which is the one shining point of light remaining in this dreary world; as she hangs up and leaves the room, the city’s power finally goes out for good.
There are a lot — a lot — of dots to connect here, and if the fallout from last season’s hack is any indication, Esmail and company may not bother to do so. But while the cumulative weight of Mr. Robot Season 2 doesn’t match what came before, there’s still one move the show could make: lean hard into the weirdness. I’m talking about the scene in “Python, Part 1,” where Angela fell into a leftover Dharma Initiative station; the scene where the little girl forced her to play a text-based RPG with invasive personal questions; the scene where Whiterose gave her 28 minutes to either get on board with whatever the Dark Army is doing, or get erased.
Whatever he told her, whatever she agreed to, it placed her in some position of security (and, it seems, authority). But it’s probably unwise to get too invested in the notion of Whiterose pulling back the curtain to alter the show’s reality, revealing some kind of Matrix-ian Architect or secret society of Time Lords; like Elliot himself, the more we learn, the more there is to potentially disappoint. But for now, for one more calendar year, if you’re weary of Elliot’s mind games or Evil Corp’s arrogance or Joanna Wellick’s slinky inscrutability and need something to hold onto, I’m choosing the Land of Ecodelia. Mr. Robot doesn’t need to be more clever than its audience to succeed, because it can’t be. Reddit has ruined that forever for the post-Lost generation. It just needs to show us something we haven’t seen before.
Season Grade: B