David and Chase discuss Mr. Robot’s return to form.
Just as much as there’s a part of you in me…there’s a part of me in you.
DAVID: I ended my review of Mr. Robot’s second season by saying the show “doesn’t need to be more clever than its audience to succeed…It just needs to show us something we haven’t seen before.” So did it succeed this year, Chase? What’s your verdict?
CHASE: I’m happy to say that Mr. Robot is one of the best dramas on TV again. The first season remains one of the best that I’ve ever seen, but Season 2 suffered from some incredible growing pains as the show grew self-indulgent and too twisty for its own good. It also showed us the limits of doubling down on Elliot as an unreliable narrator, and, having found the edge, Season 3 turned around and delved back into the character moments that once made Mr. Robot great. Plus, Sam Esmail used his audience’s Reddit theorizing against them in an impressive way, which is wonderful.
DAVID: I agree. Esmail doubled-down on character this season, instead of trying to pull the rug out from under us again. There was still some labyrinthine plotting (I couldn’t really tell you what the Whiterose/Price conflict is about, for example), but it was great to just focus on Elliot, Darlene, and Angela again. And last night’s finale, “shutdown_r,” was — aside from Bobby Cannavale going full Patrick Bateman on the inept Santiago — surprisingly warm? Hopeful? It was narratively and emotionally satisfying in a way Mr. Robot hasn’t really attempted until this season. I’m also thinking of the eighth episode where he temporarily adopts Trenton’s kid brother — it felt like a different show, but it’s a reflection of the emotions that have been churning under the surface all along.
CHASE: This is the type of thing that, say, The Walking Dead has never understood. Your show doesn’t have to be universally cheerful. Maybe you do want to explore that heart of darkness and the inequalities in society. What your show can’t be is dour, and Robot let enough light in this season to make the show not a slog to sit through. And let’s not forget the fifth hour, the “oner.” Its delights were all technical, but what a tricky, impressive piece of filmmaking.
DAVID: “runtime_err0r” was one of my favorite hours of TV all year, and it’s not just because of the gimmick. It was genuinely propulsive, creative filmmaking. Esmail has already helped bring into the mainstream a chillier style that breaks all the rules of composition (though he’d be the first to admit he’s just taking inspiration from directors like David Fincher), so it was very cool to see him push himself as an active director, utilizing choreography and geography like he did for those incredible, sustained 45 minutes. Every season he’s been experimenting, and asking more of his actors, too. But I want to talk some specifics about the finale — namely, the tease into hard sci-fi that never quite came to fruition this season. What do you make of it? Is Angela just delusional, or does Esmail have one more trick up his sleeve?
CHASE: I loved it. Esmail knows that his fanbase is actively theorizing around the internet. They figured out that Mr. Robot only exists in Elliot’s mind, and that Season 2 Elliot was actually in jail. Esmail’s stated desire has been for his twists be “natural,” and almost obvious in retrospect. Thus, as he continued to drop breadcrumbs this season (Elliot openly wondering if the damage of the 5/9 attack is reversible, a visit to the movie theater to see Back to the Future, Angela rewinding active news footage to make everyone “safe” again), the end result seemed obvious: Time travel. Whatever the Dark Army was working on in the Congo must be related to an ability to revisit the past.
Lost had previously explored that space in a prestige drama, and Esmail’s film debut Comet has elements of it too, so the stage seemed set. But then he didn’t deliver, instead having Philip Price reveal to Angela that she’d been a pawn in Whiterose’s game the whole time, and no time machine was coming to save the day. And Sam Esmail gets to have his cake and eat it too with Angela standing in for a theory-obsessed audience. We went down the rabbit hole with her believing in and expecting something that defies the laws of physics. Mr. Robot may reset the past, but that will come via Elliot restoring the 5/9 data records, not a time machine. I thought it worked beautifully.
DAVID: Right. I was hoping for something a little more off-the-wall, but when it played out in those final 10 minutes, I was surprisingly satisfied with the subtler approach (the M83 song helped, as Esmail’s music choices tend to). The Price reveal is fascinating, because Michael Cristofer is so good that the twist isn’t milked for an ounce of sentimentality; it humanizes Price, but doesn’t quite make him likable, or less deserving of Elliot’s revenge.
And when he tells Angela that her only move is to “accept you’ve been conned,” it lights up in neon another of Esmail’s themes: steering directly into our world, into 2017. The Dark Army is responsible for the DNC hack? For the rise of Trump? When Price is telling Angela that she can’t go back, he’s saying she can’t make the world great again. She’s a puppet, like Wellick (“no puppet, you’re the puppet,” he shouts at Mr. Robot). But it all got a little…obvious. And I’ll tell you why, for me, this was the season’s one glaring flaw: it plays into the fantasy of the shadowy outside conspiracy on which we can fix all our blame. In our world, there’s no Dark Army pulling the strings, just a group of idiots for whom justice is still possible. So Esmail’s alternate reality rang hollow. Did it feel that way for you, or did you think it was clever?
CHASE: I think the Trump inclusions are just a natural extension of Mr. Robot taking place in the “real” world. The show had Obama news clips in Season 1, so this is just part of that timeline. I don’t think the show has any intention of saying “look at the Dark Trump conspiracy.” They created the Dark Army as a world-manipulating force. What were they supposed to do? Say that the Dark Army is so inept they let Trump get elected against their wishes? Just complete drop being a show that runs in the real world? I think you’re reading politics in where you don’t need to. Besides, the lighting and set design of Robot’s Mar-a-Lago ballroom is beautiful.
DAVID: Heh, point very well taken.
CHASE: Let’s look at our characters. I think we both agree that Bobby Cannavale was a great addition. His brief appearances always brought a jolt of electricity to the show. I’d love to see more of him, but not so much that the character stops being mysterious and becomes ponderous (where you at, Whiterose?). Rami Malek is always brilliant, but who else was a standout for you this season?
DAVID: I loved Grace Gummer. She didn’t have much to do at first, but I like the direction they’re taking her character — the idealist in an impossible situation. Dom’s a steely professional, but cracking on the inside, and Gummer plays that beautifully. I’m looking forward to getting more of her next season. I hope Cannavale is back, too. Carly Chaikin had a great year. Portia Doubleday and Martin Wallström were sidelined, but both had their moments — Angela’s breakdown post-“runtime_err0r,” and Wellick learning about the death of his wife.
CHASE: You’re talking to the world’s #1 Grace Gummer fan. Interesting fact: “Dom” DiPierro could have been stood for Dominic instead of Dominique, but they loved Gummer’s performance and changed the character gender. She was a nice counterbalance to Darlene and Angela losing their agency for much of the season. Gotta have some strong women!
DAVID: To start wrapping this up, I’m thinking a lot about the series’s endgame. That this season concluded with newfound warmth (by Mr. Robot standards) doesn’t bode well for the characters’ future, but narratively, it also feels like we’re turning toward the finish. Elliot has reached a detente, even the makings of a friendship, with his alter ego. Their last conversation of the subway bench reminded me, of all things, of Harry Potter — the idea that “neither can live while the other survives,” so they better figure out how to live together. But how much longer do we want to spend in this world? How far can Esmail push his story before the implausibilities stack too high? And why is he bringing back Shayla’s killer, Vera, of all people?
CHASE: What a beautiful, resonant moment for Elliot and Mr. Robot. I too think we’re turning towards the end of the series. I would not be shocked if they announced tomorrow that Season 4 would be the last. The show’s functionality going forward depends on the Whiterose storyline. She and Elliot are eventually going to have to face off directly. She’s spent too much time operating as a shadowy, elliptically-speaking figure pulling puppet strings from the sidelines. This finale showed that Mr. Robot works best when it puts all of its characters in the same room. I’m hoping Esmail gathers them all and then shakes up the metaphorical ant farm. As far as Vera, who knows? I think it’s a mistake if EVERYTHING, even Elliot’s personal experiences, have been part of a grander plan, but that seems to be what the post-credit scene hints at. We’ve been praising the character beats here, Sam. Let your characters be characters and not plot devices!
DAVID: Yep. The series may be out of the zeitgeist, but he’s regained our trust. I was ambivalent about the show’s return; I’ll be back with bells on next fall.