Review: ‘Mr. Robot’ hits some anti-climaxes at the end of season 2

09.21.16 11 months ago 125 Comments

USA

A review of the Mr. Robot season 2 finale coming up just as soon as I go find my manual…

“Ready to look at what we accomplished?” -Wellick

In my review of the first half of “Python,” I suggested the episode might have played better had the whole finale aired on the same night, because the first hour was all teases (plus that surreal interview with Angela and the little girl) for revelations that were presumably coming in the season's concluding installment.

“Python, Part 2” did, in fact, reveal several things: That Darlene survived the Dark Army's assassination attempt (but Cisco did not), that Dom has apparently known for quite some time that Elliot was the true mastermind of the 5/9 hack, that Scott from Evil Corp has been the one sending Joanna all the gifts and messages, that Wellick is really still alive and not just another personality inside Elliot's fractured mind, and that Stage 2 involves turning a downtown building into a bomb to destroy the paper copies of Evil Corp's banking records to finish what the 5/9 hack started.

You can't say that Sam Esmail (who wrote and directed the episode) skimped on information, even if there are still missing pieces to the puzzle, like how and when Dom identified Elliot as her real target, or what Whiterose is doing in Washington Township. There were lots of major questions heading into tonight, and the episode answered most of them.

So why did the whole thing feel so anti-climactic?

A year ago, it felt like the smart play for Esmail to prioritize character over plot in turning the season 1 finale into an Elliot vs. Mr. Robot showdown rather than exploring the hack and its aftermath. The first half of season 2 arguably dove too deep inside Elliot's head, to the point where it was almost a relief to get an episode without our main character a few weeks ago, and the more plot-driven recent episodes have been more satisfying overall than the war for control over Elliot's psyche. But when you're emphasizing plot – and specifically teasing out lots of questions over a long period of time (Wellick's status, most notably), the burden becomes greater to have those payoffs resonate: to feel either so surprising, or so satisfying despite being predictable, as to justify all the build-up. And not a lot of the finale did that. Even with the usual bits of visual and acting wizardry, too many moments in the finale left me saying, “Yes, and… ?”

Let's go point-by-point:

Darlene survived the assassination attempt. This was only vaguely a mystery to begin with, in that I doubt any fans of the show seriously thought she was going to be killed off this soon, and in this way. Definitely the revelation that would have been most helped by airing the two halves of “Python” together, so that it would barely feel like a tease at all.

Dom has known for a while that Elliot is the real head of fsociety. Her conversation with her boss suggests they've had this plan in the works for three month, but Darlene's glance at the conspiracy board(*) proved unsatisfying because we don't have enough detail about how Dom figured it out, nor does it seem to cast any notable light on recent scenes with Dom. It's not like she came across as a stupid person who was really on the ball the whole time; this is just us finding out that she's been on the same page with us for a while now. 

(*) That was also one of several scenes in the episode where characters spent a little too long staring at the fourth wall, where for us the camera sat, and for them was the explanation for something they've wondered about for a long time. Shorten those up a bit, and maybe the moment when we see what they're seeing lands harder?

Scott Knowles has been sending Joanna all the packages. Scott has appeared sporadically throughout the season (and one of those times was a flashback to his first encounter with the Wellicks), and though one of those scenes had him interacting with Joanna and discussing his grief over the loss of his wife, he's been on the margins of the story for so long that it was more surprising to be reminded of his existence at all than to learn that he's the one who sent the music box, the phone, the sonogram picture, etc. Joanna convincing her boyfriend to frame Scott for the murder Tyrell committed at least provided a semi-satisfying payoff to the question of whether she was getting anything out of that relationship besides middling sex, but no matter how fascinatingly weird Stephanie Corneliussen is in the role, Joanna never felt connected enough to the main drama to merit as much time over the course of the year. (Proving that with ancillary characters, it can be damned if you do, damned if you don't.)

Tyrell is very much real, alive, and capable of putting a bullet into our hero's stomach. Given how infrequently we saw Tyrell this year, and almost always in a flashback or dream sequence, this was definitely the season 2 story with the highest ratio of tease-to-substance, which put more weight on the finale than anything else – and proved more weight than the simple binary of “Is he real or isn't he?” could ultimately hold. Because the show already did the Mr. Robot as Tyler Durden revelation late in season 1, there was no way that telling us Wellick was also an alternate personality would have the same impact, which seemed to point to the answer Esmail chose. But because the actual Wellick was absent nearly all season, and we got only the vaguest of explanations for why he has joined forces with Mr. Robot and Whiterose, his being there and firing the gun at Elliot also didn't hit nearly as hard as it needed to, given all the anticipation.

(Also, Elliot is the only completely unkillable character the show has. The episode didn't try to tease us with the possibility of his death – Angela's phone call at the end suggests he's already been treated and will be waking up eventually – but Elliot's indispensability renders even shooting him perhaps more trouble than it's worth.)

Stage 2 involves blowing up the building with Evil Corp's paper records. It's a logical follow-up to erasing all the digital backups, though everything we've seen this season suggests that the 5/9 hack made life worse for ordinary people, not better, while doing little to push Price or anyone else at Evil Corp out of power. The Mr. Robot alter can be single-minded enough to not care, but it feels a bit repetitive for the show to try it, and less-than-thrilling for that to be the other big plot revelation, as opposed to Whiterose's larger plan in Washington Township and how she converted Angela so thoroughly to the cause. Angela surprisingly turned out to be the most compelling figure of the second season, yet most of her biggest character shifts were the result of things she learned off-camera, and she barely appeared at all in this concluding episode.

Over the last few months, I've heard this season compared to the second seasons of both True Detective and Fargo, two shows that grew more ambitious with a year under their belts, with very different results. Some have found Mr. Robot this year to be another example of a newish creator being given too much creative freedom and not knowing what to do with it, while others have found the looseness and strangeness of year 2 even more satisfying than what Esmail and company did last summer. I fall somewhere in between, trending more towards Fargo than True Detective. Limits are useful, and I think a lot of this season's issues could have been solved by simply tightening things up, not only within each episode, but perhaps by sticking to 10 episodes rather than expanding to 12. (A lot of Elliot's prison sentence could have been condensed without losing much, and other stories would have benefited from taking place over a shorter time period for the viewer.) Yet at least once a week, Mr. Robot would give me a moment, a sequence, or a collection of scenes that knocked me off my chair at their audacity and execution.

Some shows are built to be one of Whiterose's precision timepieces, each component working in perfect harmony with one another, week after week, season after season. Others are inherently messy, and will have no choice but to try things that don't really work in search of the ones that work spectacularly well. Mr. Robot season 1 had its flaws and it had its moments to shine, and both aspects seemed more magnified in this longer, weirder season. Like Lost, the most satisfying and most frustrating aspects of Mr. Robot are coming from the same basic impulse to try things that no one's quite done before in TV, and that means I'm going to be patient even at the end of a season finale I found largely underwhelming. 

Some other thoughts:

* Like last year, the finale featured an additional scene after the credits that was also done in one long take: this time moving through the parking lot of an electronics store somewhere far away from New York (palm trees, warm weather), where Mobley and Trenton are working under assumed identities, even as Trenton has figured out a way to undo the 5/9 hack and return the world to its pre-Mr. Robot status. That the scene ends with Leon appearing in the parking lot, though, isn't a good sign for the last two fsociety members healthy and free, though – unless Leon is just coming to the store because he heard they were having a clearance sale on Seinfeld DVDs.

* The Back to the Future soundtrack cuts did not continue (though I do hold out hope of Elliot developing an alter named Calvin Klein before season 3 is out), and this week's musical choices were more eclectic, including Kraftwerk's “The Hall of Mirrors,” Les Deux Love Orchestra's “The Moth & The Flame,” and Kenny Rogers & Sheena Easton's cover of “We've Got Tonight.”

* Elliot's running conversation with us has always given the series something of a meta feel, but there is meta, and then there is an FBI assistant director character on a USA drama telling a suspect, “This isn't Burn Notice. There are no blue skies out there for you. Characters like you are not welcome here.” Even Abed from Community would have found that distractingly self-indulgent.

* While we don't yet know how Mobley and Trenton got out of town into their new gigs as members of the Nerd Herd from Chuck, Dom offers some closure to Romero's death by explaining that the Dark Army had nothing to do with it, and he was just killed by a stray bullet from a neighbor's gun.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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