We were prepared for apocalypse. Mind-blowing epiphany. Cosmic calamity. A tumble down the rabbit-hole, maybe even a trip through a wormhole.
Instead, the season 2 finale of Mr. Robot gave us the anti-apocalypse.
Oh, sure, there were revelations. But we, the observant and over-thinking viewer, already knew them, strongly suspected them, or ridiculously theorized them. Such things happen when you become deeply enmeshed with imaginary TV friends — and when TV seasons take a little too long resolving the previous season’s business. So it was slightly anti-climactic, too. The emotional peak of Darlene’s season? Finally learning that her brother, the fearless yet f’d up leader of fsociety, was in league with the enemy, Tyrell Wellick. Meanwhile, Joanna Wellick learned that Scott Knowles, not her husband, had been gaslighting her all season long. Not a surprise, although it does keep some of Tyrell Wellick’s mystery alive. Where’s he been?
Hanging out at “Mt. Olympus” for some of the time, it would seem. That was the wannabe god’s romantic frame for the dingy, dirty, take-out reeky flat that’s been his office perch for the past few months, plotting to throw lightening bolts at the world in hopes of changing it forever. But the finale did not let him hurl, and in fact, told a story about trying to stop him. Behold Stage 2 of The Dark Army’s master plan! It wasn’t about hacking the fabric of the space-time continuum – it was about shredding documents. It was an elaborate scheme, hatched (and forgotten) by Elliot, to blowing up a building storing the back-up paper records of E Corp.’s brick-and-mortar assets, thereby cementing the effects of the Five/Nine jubilee.
But the explosion didn’t happen. (Not on camera, at least.) Elliot chickened out and tried to pull the plug, but Tyrell — completely baffled, even heartbroken by his mentor-partner-prophet’s bizarre turnabout — stopped him by shooting him. In doing so, Tyrell did to Elliot for real what Elliot thought he did to Tyrell last season. Neat. But after waiting all season to get clairty on Elliot’s missing days after the Five/Nine hack, we still don’t know if he really shot Tyrell or everything that happened. Frustrating! But we might need to get used to it. Mr. Robot, his agent of self-deception and blnkered thinking, made it clear he was doling out secrets as needed for fear of self-sabotage. Funny how our brains work like that, and how clever Mr. Robot is at dramatizing that. Tyrell’s feelings of betrayal were poignant and nurtured the episode’s interest in leader-follower relationships, how they’re fraught with issues trust, faith, doubt, anger, second-guessing, subversion, rebellion, guilt, forgiveness and grace, and they’re even more fraught when both leader and follower are, well, kinda crazy, when the blind are leading the blind. The finale served us metaphors for religion and believer, government and citizenry, and Mr. Robot and its fans. Like a lot of the season, “pyth0n-pt2.p7z” was about showrunning and all the questions that come with it. Do you have a master plan? Do you know where you’re going? Or are you just making this up as you go along? Where are my answers? Screw you and your art, Sam Esmail! Just satsify me and confirm my theories, dammit! THIS IS ALL ABOUT ME, NOT YOU!
Ever the sensitive soul, Tyrell’s violence against his partner left him shaken. They had a shared destiny! They had such great grok! Elliot, why have you forsaken me? “I love him,” he wept to Angela, who is now a fully activated agent in this shady cult of power-suited society effers. She flew to Elliot’s side, so she could be the first face he saw when he regained consciousness, effectively telling us that Elliot isn’t dead — a curious subversion of the cliffhanger cliché of the gunned-down hero. As Angela winged away to play her favorite role, caretaker to men, the lights went out in her apartment and across the city — a massive blackout to fulfill the foreshadowing of all those rolling brownouts.
Such was the ironic enlightenment of “pyth0n_pt2.p7z.” We were expecting an electrifying, transcendent corker. Instead, the snaky little devil deconstructed our more fanciful expectations of the show. The finale was a pretty little “Nope” machine. Was there a Back To The Future II time travel/alt-reality twist? Nope. Was Dom pals with Elliot and Darlene when they were all kids? Nope. (But Dom does share a passion for The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie.) Was Tyrell a figment of Elliot’s imagination, a ghost, or a quantum double from an alternate reality? Nope, nope, and nope. Just a deluded, despairing dude with daddy issues, just like Elliot. Oh, and would Mr. Robot go wildly meta and reveal that Elliot and company were, in truth, just characters in a TV show? Nope. Esmail torpedoed that one in the episode’s most meta moment, when Dom’s boss went off on Darlene (and set her up for Dom’s good cop manipulation) with a ridiculous bit of bad cop bullying. “[You] are not on some TV show. This isn’t Burn Notice. There are no blue skies for you out there. Characters like you are not welcome here.” (Of course, this crack-up was also foreshadowing for the episode’s post-credits scene; more on Mimageobley and Trenton in a second.)
The finale putting us on (burn) notice, and maybe itself, too: Mr. Robot is not about our theories. It’s about characters. It’s a psychological, existential, and politically-minded paranoid thriller about incoherent, alienated people searching for coherency and connection, set in a fallen alt-world in desperate need of redemption and grounded in reality. Surrealism, meta, and far-out ideas are meant for thematic, metaphorical, and subtextual purposes only. No Stranger Things wackadoodle is intended. It was the culmination of a “F—God!” season that equated religion with a “a poorly written sci-fi franchise.” In debunking genre-stretching notions, Mr. Robot said, nope, we’re not going to be that franchise. Maybe. Hopefully.
The two-part finale was a one-two punch. Part one was the proper thematic and aesthetic conclusion to a season about stressed-out, blurryfaced people whose identity crisis run amok was reflected in the risky, audacious, genre-blurring, aggressively meta, mind-game storytelling. It leveraged the success of season 1 to take shots at exploring and testing the range of creative expression at the risk of being messy and chaotic. Part two was a return to order. It knocked down many (but not all, I think) nutty ideas and settled, to some degree, the show’s formal identity crisis by being a sure-footed paranoid thriller — the kind of storytelling that the show does best (see: this season’s stand-out episode, “h1dden_pro0cess.axx”), the kind of show that Mr. Robot was all of last year. The two faces of the finale might also be a metaphor for Elliot’s series stakes and character arc, an Altered States saga of a mad mind with mad ambition learning hubris, finding some catharsis and healing, and acquiring grace for his limits and falleness.
Seen from this perspective, I have a new theory about the Back to the Future II soundtrack songs in Part One. Focusing on the time travel and alt-timeline angles is to be distracted by the wrong things. The premise of the film is that Marty’s life in the future had gone all kinds of wrong due to mistakes and meddling, and the key to fixing it was addressing things in the past. That’s clearly Elliot, too. They also could have represented a confession that season 2 was a little too gonzo for its own good. Frequently fun and always inspired, but confusing and convoluted, too — all things that can be fairly said of Back to the Future II. Some thought the songs were foreshadowing a quantum leap twist, the way season 1 used “Where Is My Mind” by The Pixies to speak to the show’s Fight Club-esque twist. But maybe what it was foreshadowing was a throwback season finale — and maybe even a throwback season 3. A way of saying: We need to take a step back to take a step forward.
RELATED: Breaking down the Mr. Robot finale
Which brings us to the finale’s post-credits scene. It echoed last season’s post-credits scene, which also took the form of an epic, unbroken camera shot that traveled great distance and pushed in on a conversation between two peripheral but important characters. Here, we got Mobley and Trenton drinking Big Gulps under mostly blue skies outside a Fry’s Electronics in California (?), not Phillip Price and Whiterose drinking cocktails inside a mansion. We found them living a Burn Notice life. “Frederick” and “Tanya” were living with new identities and working at the aforementioned Fry’s. The store had a peculiar, temple-esqye facade with a duel snake motif. It was a two-faced Janus, the god of doors, time, and transitions. One head was looking one way, one head was looking the other way — one looking to the past, one looking the future. Back to the Future, yo! But hey, snakes. Can we trust it?
Trenton revealed that she had made a game-changing discovery. “If what I discovered is real, do you know that means? It means we could potentially undo this whole thing and put everything back the way it was.” Once again, we were being goaded to think: time travel. Even more so after Dark Army assassin Leon showed up and asked: “Do you have the time?” (Uh oh. Frederick and Tanya, ya burnt!)
I’d be shocked if Trenton has found proof of a time machine locked away somewhere, and it could be an acknowledgment that the show has some adjustments to make if it wants to keep its audience or win some back. The song chosen for this sequence: “We’ve Got Tonight” sung by Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton. I know it’s late/I know you’re weary/I know your plans/Don’t include me… The refrain: We’ve got tonight, babe/Why don’t you stay?
Of course, it’s possible I’m reading Mr. Robot’s all wrong. The finale used Kraftwerk’s “Hall of Mirrors” to comment on Elliot. The verses: “The young man stepped into the hall of mirrors/Where he discovered a reflection of himself/Sometimes he saw his real face/And sometimes his stranger at his place/He fell in love with an image of himself/And suddenly the picture was distorted/He made up the person he wanted to be/And changed into a new personality/The artist is living in the mirror/With the echoes of himself.” The refrain: “Even the greatest stars lives their lives in the looking glass.”
This song is so on the nose, you wonder if it inspired the whole damn show. How long has Sam Esmail been waiting to play that tune? It’s interesting, then, that he chose to play it here, in an episode that shatters our theories of Mr. Robot and our conception of what kind of story it is. The verses don’t just speak to Elliot, they speak to us and our relationship to TV shows, how we can get lost in them, and how our theories of TV shows, reasonable or crazy, say more and reveal more about us than they say or reveal about a TV show. But the verses also surely speak to Esmail, too, and his relationship to Mr. Robot, how it’s a personal work born of so many inspirations. And not just Fight Club.
To be clear, I think Mr. Robot is always going to be lively with mystery and wink. It wouldn’t be Mr. Robot if it wasn’t. And honestly, I haven’t retired all of my crazy theories yet. I still think there’s something to be discovered at the Washington Township power plant, mythological ground zero for the Mr. Robot universe. (Super-collider! It’s a super-collider, I know it is!) Still, perhaps this show would be best with a just a teensy more structure. Remember the famous line from Back to the Future? “Roads? Where’s we’re going, we don’t need roads.” Mr. Robot might need roads. They can be a wild and looping, like the tracks of a Coney Island roller coaster. But it needs the rails.
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