‘Mr. Robot’ Sets The Season-Ending Plot In Motion With ‘Stage 3’

A review of tonight’s Mr. Robot coming up just as soon as Alexa plays songs by John Prine…

While talking about this mostly resurgent season on this week’s podcast, Brian surprised me by pointing out that season three didn’t seem to be based on some big twist like the first two years were. I’d been enjoying so much of what Esmail and company have been laying down over the last few months that it never really occurred to me to start digging for clues, other than noting the constant references to time travel and parallel universes.

Esmail has said that both Mr. Robot’s true identity in season one and Elliot’s incarceration in season two weren’t meant as gotcha moments, and the former in particular was heavily hinted at going all the way back to the pilot. What’s happening this season feels a bit different, in that we know a surprise is coming, via all of Angela’s talk about Whiterose’s master plan, but we don’t know exactly what it is, and whether it will all turn out to be the con job Elliot insists, or if all the Back to the Future riffs means the show is about to make a sharp turn into hard sci-fi.

But in keeping large chunks of the plot a secret once again from both us and Elliot, Esmail has put the story of this season in a distant third place behind the show’s other two core elements: digging deeper inside the mind of Elliot (and to a lesser degree getting to know Angela, Darlene, etc.), and whatever crazy idea Esmail and company want to show us this week. When the show does plot-heavy episodes where we (both the audience and Elliot) are aware of what’s going on — or think we are — they can still work like gangbusters, as we saw with the two-parter about Elliot trying to prevent the bombing. When we get piece-mover hours where everyone’s dancing to a tune that only Whiterose can hear, though, it can be frustrating, and my interest will wane quickly.

“Stage 3” mostly avoids that problem. We’re so close to the end of the season that certain aspects of the plot simply have to become clearer — and when they’re not, the intensity of various characters’ circumstances have become so big that full knowledge doesn’t matter as much. We see Elliot finally make a big move against the Dark Army, and Whiterose in turn gives Grant permission to kill Elliot. Darlene seduces Dom in a failed attempt to steal her ID badge, and is forced to tell Dom and Santiago about Trenton’s plan to undo the hack, which in turn only ratchets up Dom’s suspicions about her boss. Mr. Robot makes a peace offering of sorts to Elliot by warning him against trusting the FBI, but his partner for the moment turns out to be Tyrell(*), who has been named the figurehead CTO of ECorp as part of Whiterose’s deal with Price. And Angela either goes full bag lady, or has been playacting the entire time while waiting for the next stage of Whiterose’s plan to commence.

(*) Tyrell becomes part of the season’s most distractingly blatant Trump dig yet, as he literally says, “No puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet” to Mr. Robot.

There’s a lot going on, much of it with a full-circle feeling: Elliot and Darlene back at the arcade, a street vendor trying to sell CDs to Angela, and Tyrell finally getting the job he was angling for at the start of the series. Angela suggests this is all proof that things are going back to how they were, while the rapid pace of the action, and the hellscape that is New York in the background of any street scene, suggests instead that everything is moving forward, and trending ever downward.

Will we get clarity on anything in the finale? History suggests not, since the season one finale let the hack play out in the background as it focused on Elliot vs. Mr. Robot, while the season two finale raised more questions than it answered — and some of those new questions have yet to be answered close to an entire season later.

It would be nice to have a clear sense of where things are going, but I’m not holding my breath three years in. Season three suggests Mr. Robot has a much better grasp of its strengths and weaknesses, but some weaknesses are just baked in, especially on a show that likes to surprise the audience a time or twelve.

What did everybody else think of “Stage 3,” and what are your hopes for the finale?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.