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‘Mr. Robot’ Finale: It’s All In Your Head. Or Is It?

CREDIT: USA
CREDIT: USA

This story discusses the plot of the season finale of Mr. Robot. Spoilers abound.Mr. Robot, USA’s unlikely breakout hit of the summer, aired its finale Wednesday night, a week after it was originally scheduled to air. The episode was postponed after the shooting of two journalists on live TV in Roanoke, Virginia, due to “a graphic scene similar in nature” to the on-camera killings.

That’s been the headline on Mr. Robot for a week now, and if all you want to know is what exactly went down in the scene that prompted the delay, you can. But focus on those few minutes at the expense of the rest of this unnerving, fantastic debut season at your peril. The reason this show skyrocketed to critical smash status over just ten weeks isn’t because of the major news it made. The excellence of Mr. Robot isn’t about big; it’s about small. This is a show with astonishing attention to detail.

For the uninitiated, Mr. Robot follows Elliot (Rami Malek), a gifted hacker with crippling social anxiety and a battery of other mental issues. By day, he’s been working at AllSafe, a data security company, alongside childhood best friend Angela (Portia Doubleday). Their biggest client is E Corp — a fever-dream conglomerate of Google, Amazon, Apple, and all the biggest banks on Earth — which, in Elliot’s mind, registers only as “Evil Corp.” Early on, Elliot thinks he’s been recruited by Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to work with fsociety, a scrappy hacking collective based out of an abandoned fun house in Coney Island; by the end of the season, we (“we” includes Elliot) discover that the leader of vigilante crew, Mr. Robot is Elliot, a piece of Elliot’s split personality that looks like Elliot’s dead father. Elliot’s mind is, to say the least, an unstable place, where entire lives can vanish and resurface: he forgets his sister, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), his dad, even — often — himself.

Mr. Robot offers no escapist pleasures. If anything, it does the reverse: It plunges us further into the world in which we already live, pointing out the practicalities behind all our paranoias. This isn’t America-as-allegory. The revolution, Elliot is surprised to find, looks like “people in expensive clothing running around.” There’s no Hunger Games dystopia, no Scandal-style grandeur as the powerful sprint up and down hallways, speed-talking about rescuing the Republic. The plot twists in Mr. Robot are shocking, but the language — visual and verbal — with which they’re constructed is almost familiar.

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We’re talking about a series so in tune with modern life that a line in the finale about “the Ashley Madison hack” was written months before the infidelity website was actually hacked. The moment was a callback to the series premiere — Ashley Madison was one of the (many) ways one of Elliot’s hacking victims was unfaithful to his wife — but showrunner Sam Esmail had originally cut in editing because he didn’t want to be repetitive. The hack happened during reshoots, and, Esmail decided, he had to put it back in.

But Mr. Robot is so averse to prizing headline-making moments over intricate details of the way these characters think, feel, and hack, that the climax of the season — fsociety’s successful hack of Evil Corp — happened entirely off-screen. When the finale begins, the hack is three days old. The Mr. Robot side of Elliot’s personality was responsible for its execution, but Elliot doesn’t remember it, so we don’t see it. We do, however, finally see what the world sees when Elliot thinks he’s talking to his dead dad: One scene shows Elliot with his own hand clasped around his throat, his body slammed up against a wall. No wonder the guy is a loner; clearly, people are keeping their distance.

Mr. Robot demands undivided attention; you can’t be folding laundry or making lunches or texting while you watch and expect to pick up the thread of the show when you start focusing again. But it also rewards that attention. Questions really do have answers that abide by the internal logic of this universe. Reveals that feel like they come out of nowhere, or feel just like maybe-crazy fan theories — Darlene is Elliot’s sister, Elliot is Mr. Robot — have, upon second glance, been in the works the entire time. Mr. Robot is designed to withhold close inspection.

Esmail has talked before about how deliberate he is in every element of the production, right down to the perfect title cards. (He doesn’t like the usual credit sequences because “they are typically the same every episode,” he told Fast Company. “After a while, I find myself skipping them because they usually don’t give me any new information about the episode I’m about to watch.”)

Every shot is structured so you’ll feel as isolated, disorientated, lost, and alone as Elliott does. Characters are placed in the bottom of the frame, with ominous space looming above them; in conversation, their faces are near the edges, so they appear alone even when they’re talking to someone else. This filmmaking tactic, “shortsighting,” is the opposite of what viewers are used to seeing, as director of photography Tod Campbell told Vulture. “Shortsighting is unnerving. It further accentuates how fucked-up Elliot’s world is. The idea was to convey the loneliness. That’s the internal dialogue I had with myself: How do we tell that story? How do you get Elliot across?”

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Almost all the scenes are dark — certainly all the scenes in Elliot’s apartment are — and feel gloomy in that familiar way. The brightest sources of light we can see are computer screens and Malek’s eyes, usually reflected in, well, some kind of screen. It’s that same eerie, sleep-wrecking glow you get from checking your phone or laptop in bed.

Maybe it’s because we see things through our unreliable narrator, Elliot, but it is hard to watch Mr. Robot and not leave more than a little shaken, a little stunned, at how we all think we’re living in brick houses — passwords, touch IDs, two-step verifications — but everything is really straw and our world is full of wolves.

Go ahead, watch the chaos, such realistic chaos (here’s to USA for using the names of real websites and media organizations, so no off-brand blog jars viewers out of the show) unfold, and try not to ask yourself: Is our international infrastructure so fragile? Are our private lives so easily made public? Is there any way to not be vulnerable that does not require you to be total recluse who stores all your secrets on burned CDs? (Elliot’s filing system, by the way, is a reference to Chelsea Manning, who smuggled military data by showing up at work with a burned CD of Lady Gaga music, erasing it, and downloading the classified files to that same CD. “[I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.”)

It’s interesting to think about how real Mr. Robot feels in light of Wes Craven’s death earlier this week. The ad campaign for Craven’s debut, Last House on the Left, famously instructed moviegoers “to avoid fainting, keep repeating, it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie.” Mr. Robot, with its ripped-from-the-imminent-future headlines plot, leaves you with the haunting sense that what you’re watching isn’t only a television show, but a coming attraction for reality.

Of course, the most talked-about scene in which Mr. Robot eerily predicted the future is the scene for which the finale was postponed. An Evil Corp executive, on live TV, calmly tells an interviewer that his entire life has fallen apart and the public has every right to be worried. Then he removes a gun from his briefcase, wraps his mouth around the barrel, and kills himself.

It was as gruesome as advertised, though artfully done; the blood stays with us, as we stay with Angela, who needs to replace her carnage-splattered shoes. (This brings us the best line Angela’s had all season, to a shoe salesman who is horrified that Angela could possibly be shopping for a replacement pair of high heels hours after watching a man commit suicide: “I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but I’ll try the Pradas next.”) And you could make the case that the most disturbing part of that sequence was not the shooting itself, but the alternate shots: Of the disembodied voice of a reporter, calling in from some distant place, as all we saw was an unblinking camera lens.

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But even though the televised suicide was grisly and, in light of last week’s shooting, especially disturbing, it was not the most graphic part of the show. The most horrifying stuff isn’t what we can see. It almost doesn’t matter who is knocking on Elliot’s door at the end of the episode.

The real violence in Mr. Robot isn’t what happens to other people, outside, on-screen. The real violence is internal, personal. It’s hallucinations clashing with reality; competing moralities waging war within.

It’s not what’s out there. It’s all in your head.