Review: ‘Mr. Robot’ wraps up season 1 with triumph, tragedy, and brilliance

Senior Television Writer
09.02.15 86 Comments

USA

“Mr. Robot” just concluded its first season. I spoke with creator Sam Esmail about it at length, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as we use a dead puppy oven…

“Come on!!!! I need to know what happened!” -Elliot

What a fascinating, off-kilter, 100% “Mr. Robot” way to end this season.

Everything about this show has always been off: the way characters so often are marginalized in the corner of a frame, or how we're so much inside Elliot's head that we feel like we're losing time right along with him. So it feels right – even if it may be frustrating for some – that the finale skips right past whatever Elliot and Tyrell did at the arcade, keeps Tyrell missing in action entirely, and just jumps us into the strange new world where fsociety has seemingly won and plunged the world into financial chaos.

This is a show that exists largely inside Elliot's damaged mind – even when we're getting the perspective of other characters and Elliot isn't present, they're broken in their own ways, and they also refer to it as Evil Corp – and has been focusing primarily on his story. He discovered two weeks ago that Darlene was his sister, and last week that he was Mr. Robot (and vice versa), but it felt much more important for him to emotionally come to terms with this news, and the realization that he was the one who turned the government into such anarchy, than it would be to focus more on the plot. 

And it's not like the plot vanishes. We see some of the impact of fsociety's successful hack, particularly in the chaos in and around Evil Corp. I don't know that the series properly sold us on Angela taking a job there, but it's useful to have her as our eyes and ears in the place, and to so quickly have her catching the attention of Phillip Price, who seems much more confident in front of her than he does in the ominous post-credits scene at the Lodge of Evil where we find out he's in business with Whiterose(*). Wiping out $400 billion of Evil Corp's wealth has hurt the company, but fsociety can only do so much to the 1 percent of the 1 percent like Price, and this unexpected alliance sets us up nicely for whatever's happening next season.

(*) Not only is Whiterose somehow playing both sides of the fsociety/Evil Corp game, but seems equally comfortable presenting in masculine or feminine guise. Just a fascinating character, and a great role for B.D. Wong.

But despite memorable moments for Michael Cristofer, Stephanie Corneliussen, all the members of fsociety, and even the actor playing the suicidal Evil Corp exec, this episode, like the season, belonged to Rami Malek. You just can't get away with building an hour around a character demanding many answers and only getting a few without an actor this compelling, and this sympathetic even playing a guy who willfully (sort of) plunged the world into such a big mess (even if it's one that's beneficial to the people who just got their debts erased). Watching Elliot rage at the absent Mr. Robot, and then suffer the physical consequences of letting Robot take the driver's seat in his body(**), was just riveting. A lot of that was just clarifying things we already knew, like the camcorder footage of Elliot falling off the boardwalk railing, or even how Elliot and Mr. Robot switched places at the cyber cafe once Elliot got punched in the face, but it was important for Elliot to fully grasp how this works so he can understand that he is the one doing all of this, even if he's only sometimes in control of what he's doing.

(**) “Mr. Robot” and “United States of Tara” are very different shows, and the latter made its main character's dissociative identity disorder the main subject from the jump, so there was no need to hide it or play visual games. Still, I'd like some kind of YouTube mash-up where Toni Collette's head is only half in frame in any given “Tara” scene. 

Elliot lashes out because he's broken, but also because he feels the world is broken. And though he seems dismayed at all that he did in his Mr. Robot persona, there's also a sense throughout the finale that the world is becoming more Elliot-like than ever before – that now everyone is starting to feel the same sense of alienation, loneliness and straight-up confusion that has kept our hero in its grip. This was perhaps Mr. Robot's goal, but it wasn't Elliot. As he told Krista a few weeks ago, he doesn't want to be like this. And he certainly doesn't want the world to become more like him. Darlene and the others celebrate a big victory, even as they seem troubled about how it went down, but you can see that Elliot doesn't think he saved the world. And we see in the Whiterose/Price scene that the big bad money men are still out there, still living high on the hog, even if one or two of them may seem more troubled than before.

Through these 10 episodes, “Mr. Robot” gradually infected me, too, and this was a powerful emotional note to end on, even as it left so many things – like whether Tyrell or someone else is at Elliot's door in the closing moments – up in the air for next year. I can't wait to see whatever comes next.

Some other thoughts:

* I'm honestly not sure whether I should be more scared of Price or Joanna. We've already seen how hardcore she is, but listening to Price cheerfully tell Angela how the world is better off without the suicidal executive was pretty damn chilling in its own right. As always, Truxton Spangler is the goddamn best.

* In the Esmail interview, he talks about not wanting people to default to assuming everything is imaginary, or that every weird character is just another personality of Elliot's. I'd seen some speculation about Tyrell somehow also being an alter, but that doesn't fit anything we've seen previously, nor the reactions of Tyrell's assistant and Joanna to meeting Elliot. Two different people. Whether both are still alive when next season begins remains to be seen.

* Even beyond the unfortunate similarities between the Roanoke shootings and the on-camera suicide of the Evil Corp executive that led USA to push the finale back a week, it's amazing how often this show has wound up mirroring, and at times presaging, events from the real world. It was funny, for instance, to hear Krista's ex-boyfriend Michael Lenny – in a line added in post-production – refer to the Ashley Madison leak. Add that to the finale originally being scheduled to air days after another big stock market dip, and the parallels between fact and fiction become unsettling.

* Some fine musical choices this week, including Time Zone's “World Destruction” (memorably used in “The Sopranos” season 4 premiere), The Jim Carroll Band's “People Who Died” (also featured on the “E.T.” soundtrack, of all places, in the scene where the boys play Dungeons & Dragons) while fsociety frees the puppies, and Alabama Shakes' “Sound & Color” playing as Elliot rides the train home.

* At first, I wondered why fsociety was throwing a party at the arcade, but using it as a way to obscure any fingerprint or DNA evidence was pretty clever.

* Two weeks ago, I moderated a discussion between Malek and Christian Slater for the Screen Actors Guild. As the guy on stage with them, I couldn't take notes, but Vulture wrote up one of the more memorable passages where Malek described the process of acting in scenes that Elliot is also narrating. Also: it is very disconcerting at first to see how outgoing and exuberant Malek is out of character (and after years of watching him play other very serious roles).

So go read the Esmail interview and then tell me, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

Check out the clip below which includes the final scene of “Mr. Robot” season 1. MAJOR SPOILERS INCLUDED.

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