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.
NEXT: Bits and megabytes from my Commodore 64 live journal[pagebreak]
Bits and Megabytes:
ELLIOT AND TYRELL
+The finale’s opening scene revisited the mysterious moment from season 1 when Tyrell met with Mr. Robot sans Elliot. Did this scene mean that Tyrell was hallucinating Mr. Robot, too? Nope. We got a new version of the same scene, only with Elliot in place of Mr. Robot. Rami Malek’s soft impression of Christian Slater was impressive. The distinct persona he adopts when Mr. Robot takes over Elliot — commanding, confident, slightly scary — is cult leader compelling. You get how the members of fsociety or anyone could fall for him. I think we can conclude that Tyrell’s lunatic God talk was the result of ideas that Elliot-as-Mr. Robot put into his head like some insidious, incepting Mesmer — or rather, a con man working an exploit. Tyrell is mentally unbalanced. He also aspires to be a “master of the universe” like Phillip Price. Elliot recognized this and fogged Tyrell’s brain with hyperhuman, overman blue sky dreaming. Thus Spoke the Mock Zarathustra.
+Allusions to “blue sky” and heaven — one a canvas for projected daydreams; the other a realm of wish-fulfillment — were abundant in this episode. But so were cloudy skies and clouded minds. In one image, they all came together: Tyrell on Coney Island, roller coaster in the background, his eyes a luminous blue, stormy skies above him, seduced and confused by Elliot’s crypto-talk, wanting to believe, begging for clarity.
+The poem Tyrell’s bad dad adopted as a mantra: “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. It’s a classic of Imagism, a kind of poetry that meditates on the “luminous details” of objects. An interesting choice for a season that attempted to create meaning with ambitious visual storytelling — and a show in which obsessive fans like me fixate on details in hopes of finding meaning. “Red Wheel Barrow” was the title of Elliot’s prison journal, which we now see was his way (or Mr. Robot’s way) of nagging him (with a luminous detail!) to get back on mission. The menu that contained the cipher which Mr. Robot cracked last week — another metaphor for fan puzzling — was from a place called “Red Wheelbarrow BBQ.”
+Tyrell took Elliot to their secret lab in a building in what appeared to be lower Manhattan. They rode up in a freight elevator operated by a Dark Army guy in a white hazmat or PPPS biocontainment suit… chowing on a sandwich from Red Wheelbarrow BBQ.
+As they rose in the elevator, Elliot ruminated on perception and reality. The combination of the suited-up Dark Army goon and Elliot’s narration teased the idea that Elliot was about to gain illuminated eyes and see through the illusory nature of his reality like Neo gleaning The Matrix. Elliot’s reverie was a set-up for the mistake that nearly cost him his life: believing that he couldn’t trust his eyes, believing that Tyrell was a hallucination, believing that the gun Tyrell held in his hand wasn’t real. Nope. Elliot’s game of shoot-me chicken with Tyrell was a full-circle moment for the season, as we remember that the premiere had Elliot playing a similar game of shoot-me chicken with Mr. Robot. There, the bullets weren’t real and did Elliot no harm. Not here. As John Locke said at the end of Lost’s second season when he made the mistake of thinking The Hatch wasn’t real: “Oops.”
+The finale paid off one of the season’s implicit quasi-sci-fi references, if only to blow it up. Elliot came off like a lunatic in his showdown with Tyrell. “He doesn’t exist,” he told Mr. Robot. ”I’m the only one who exists. It’s time to finally take back control. Real control.” Well, remember the name of Ray’s black market website? “Midland City.” That’s a location in the far-out and often very meta fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. In Breakfast of Champions, a businessman reads a science fiction story that tells the reader that they are the only person in the world with free will and everyone else is a robot. He believes it to be true and goes nuts. The novel builds to a metafictional apocalypse. Vonnegut, the book’s self-aware narrator, informs his fictional alter-ego, the sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, that he’s a fictional character. The novel ends with an illustration of Vonnegut crying. Vonnegut returned to Midland City in Dead-Eye Dick — and destroyed it with a neutron bomb.
+Was Mr. Robot foreshadowing the true nature of Stage Two — blowing up a building containing E Corp.’s paper records — in the episode earlier this season when Elliot dreamed his dream of what happily ever looks like for him? If you recall, that vision ended with Elliot sitting at a table in the middle of a downtown Manhattan street with all his friends, family, and enemies (and us!) cheering as they watched E Corp. HQ crumble to the ground. (In my recap of that episode, I wondered if the Mr. Robot part of Elliot dreamed that dream as part of his long play effort way to move Elliot out of his prison funk and out of prison altogether.)
NEXT: I am the moth.[pagebreak]
JOANNA, SCOTT AND DEREK
+The most disturbing story in the finale was the Joanna-Scott Knowles stuff. Joanna confronted him on messing with her reality. Scott copped to it, revealing that his wife was pregnant when Tyrell murdered her, making her loss doubly catastrophic for him. He explained that he wanted to hurt Joanna by making her feel hope, just so he could crush it, just as Tyrell crushed all hope in his life. He then apologized to Joanna, which might be one of the worst things a man can do to Joanna, because there’s nothing Joanna hates more than a weak-ass man. Anyway, my guess is that Joanna went to Scott’s house intending to do what she did: goading Scott into attacking her. Her insults were outrageously grotesque and abominable, and I won’t repeat them here, but I will say that I won’t be forgetting “F— her and her fetus corpse” anytime soon.
+Joanna might not have known exactly how she was going to do to Scott, but I assume she had the general idea, she knew she had the talent and ability to do it, and she had no doubt she could pull it off once the missing pieces revealed themselves to her. In this way, Joanna’s scheme mirrored Dom’s manipulation of Darlene, an act of informed, skilled, and gutsy improvisation led by vision. And in this cunning, queasy way, Mr. Robot gave us one more allegory for TV showrunning in a season full of them.
+Joanna then used her own powers of persuasion to compel her weak-willed, weak-minded, macho-posturing bartender/deejay boyfriend — life role model: Tom Cruise in Cocktail — to tell the police a lie that would finger Scott for the murder of his wife. She scripted his confession, performed it for him, and asked him to perform it back. Basically, Joanna played director, guiding an actor through a performance. And after some initial reservation, Derek bought into it, completely. Three thoughts: 1. Is this what it’s like to be directed by Sam Esmail? 2. Joanna should moonlight as Whitrerose’s hypnotist. 3. Joanna turned Derek into a “crisis actor,” making this scene an echo of the premiere scene when the conspiracy nutjob seduced Gideon in the bar, then accused him of being a “crisis actor” and murdered him.
DOM AND DARLENE
+According to Agent DiPerro, “python” refers to a long-play, long-con “patient predator” strategy of waiting and baiting a bad guy to make one false move. She claimed that the FBI was running one to smoke out Tyrell. She also told Darlene that the mystery that catalyzed the season and caused the fsociety to freak out and fall apart – Romero’s apparent murder – wasn’t actually a murder at all. He’d been accidentally shot by a stray bullet fired by a neighbor. Did you guys believe all of her? Was she bluffing and fluffing her story as part of her smaller “python” play on Darlene?
+I did enjoy the duel between Dom and Darlene, particularly the latter’s refusal to be snookered by the former’s attempts to bond with her, cultivate false intimacy with her. I also equally enjoyed Dom’s amused response to Darlene’s tough-talking, foul-mouthed “s— a dick” attitude. Their war pivoted on the matter of proof. Dom thought she could get Darlene to spill by flooding her with physical evidence linking her to fsociety — the Monopoly Man mask, the video camera, a VCR. Darlene parried by proving that she could come up with any number of narratives to counter Dom’s narrative of her guilt or subvert it with reasonable doubt. Dom then played her trump card: a bullet casing from the gun Darlene swiped from Xander Jones found in the Fun Society HQ. This, finally, made Darlene nervous, because she didn’t quite understand it, but probably suspected it might mean trouble for Elliot. But this begs a question:
+If Tyrell is alive… how do we explain the shell-casing then? Did Elliot shoot Tyrell or not?
+Dom seemed to break Darlene with a risky, two-part gambit: guessing at Darlene’s exploits and working them; and sharing a secret. Dom began by being transparent about herself, albeit the purpose of playing Darlene. She told her that the only reason she was so invested in the case was because she had no life. She enticed her with the promise of revelation, one that would make her feel special, a very important character in a very grand story. Darlene pushed back: She knew she was no great shakes. But Dom insisted she could prove otherwise. “If you’re open to changing your mind, I’d like to show you something,” she said. The scene echoed two Whiterose scenes from earlier this season: Dom’s hang-out with Minister Zhang in China, when Zhang showed Dom the secret closet of dresses; and the Whiterose-Angela black room rendition sequence, when Whiterose bent Angela to her will by insinuating that her life was a conspiracy and rocking her mind (or brainwashing her) with an unspecified revelation — the snake-tempting Eve with forbidden knowledge, causing her to fall. Dom did the same with Darlene. She brought her into the inner sanctum of their investigation. There was a grease board charting the fsociety conspiracy and even more filled with notes. To my eyes, it looked a lot like the writers room of a TV show. (If my mind worked better at this late hour, I’d explore the idea that Dom was a metaphor for showrunning.) What Darlene saw got under her skin. The conspiracy board overwhelmed her. It suggested to her that the FBI knew everything, including something she didn’t know: Elliot’s alliance with Tyrell. Fear of betrayal by the people she loves the most is her exploit. And Elliot lying to her about an alliance with Tyrell would qualify as betrayal. Dom knew it or guessed it — she could recognize an emotionally fragile Jersey girl when she sees one; she is one! – and she worked it.
+The song during Darlene’s slow-mo perp walk through FBI HQ was a cover of the Aimee Mann song “The Moth.” What do you think it says about Darlene? About Dom? About the relationship between fan and show and vise versa?
The moth don’t care when he sees the flame
He might get burned but he’s in the game
And once he’s in he can’t go back
He’ll beat his wings till he burns them black
The moth don’t care if the flame is real
‘Cause flame and moth got a sweetheart deal
And nothing fuels a good flirtation
Like need and anger and desperation
So come on, let’s go, ready or not
‘Cause there’s a flame I know, hotter than hot
And with a fuse that’s so thoroughly shot, away.
Mr. Robot, you’re my flame, and I’m your moth. Can’t wait for the game to resume again next year.
And thank you, dear readers, for reading and rolling with my crazy (and my typos) this season. See you again next season?