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‘Mr. Robot’ Season 2, Episode 9 Recap: One Twist Too Many

With just a few episodes left, it's time for Mr. Robot to stop giving us new questions and start giving us answers.

Mr. Robot's first season finale ended, characteristically, on a cliffhanger: Elliot opening the door to his apartment and greeting a mysterious knocker. But we never actually found out who turned up on Elliot's doorstep until this week's episode, as Elliot finally fills in the gaps from the 86 days he spent in jail.

The knocker, it turns out, was a cop sent to arrest Elliot for a couple of the more minor crimes he has committed: hacking the computer and stealing the dog of his therapist's skeevy boyfriend. A plea bargain could have spared Elliot such a long jail sentence—but in the courtroom, he simply confessed to everything, landing an 18-month term. In an extended montage, we watch as Elliot changes into a bright orange prison jumpsuit, meets Leon for the first time, and settles into the cell that will become his new home. "That's how it happened," Elliot explains in monologue to us as the extended flashback ends. "That's all you missed. That’s everything."

But is it? Just 86 days after he first walked into the jail, Elliot walks right back out—a free man with more than 450 unserved days left on his sentence. A guard credits the 5/9 hack for Elliot’s release, claiming that the lingering aftereffects have led to an unprecedented wave of nonviolent offenders being freed from prison early. Elliot, for his part, thinks the Dark Army is somehow responsible for his release—and while the details are still pretty muddy, he seems to be right.

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This is the storytelling rhythm of Mr. Robot: an endless series of questions that only lead to further questions. When the show is working, the pattern is riveting, turning us all into mini-Elliots as we obsessively scrutinize for answers. When the show isn't working… well, we get an episode like the one we got this week, which plays a frustrating game of three-card monte by trying to pass its narrative muddiness off as suspense.

Mr. Robot's commitment to ever-escalating twists can mean, at times, that the twists themselves are essentially meaningless. Last week's episode ended on a particularly burn-it-all-down cliffhanger when Darlene—having discovered that Cisco had been reporting her whereabouts and actions to the Dark Army—cracked him across the face with a baseball bat. Coming just hours after Darlene murdered Susan Jacobs, it's a moment that felt like it represented a key turning point in the narrative. Even if Cisco wasn't dead, the attack was a real-world consequence of the fundamental schism between fsociety and the Dark Army—two reluctant allies who have spent much of the season on the brink of civil war. And even if that professional relationship could be fixed, there should clearly be long-term consequences for Darlene and Cisco's personal relationship; Darlene has every reason to be furious that Cisco exploited their intimacy by sending the Dark Army pictures of her sleeping in his bed, and Cisco has every reason to be wary of a person who hacked his computer and bludgeoned him into unconsciousness.

Except… apparently none of that matters? When Darlene and Cisco see each other again in this week's episode, they weightlessly bicker over the incident for a minute before sweeping it right under the rug. Cisco gives up the identity of his sole connection to the Dark Army—so Elliot can hack his phone—and before long, they're all a team again, with Cisco selflessly volunteering to go back to Susan Jacobs' office to retrieve an incriminating videotape Darlene left behind.

This is the kind of limp resolution that breaks a spell—the TV equivalent of suddenly noticing the man behind the curtain. Last week's episode ended on that ominous note because Mr. Robot can't resist a good cliffhanger (and, I suspect, because Sam Esmail knew the shot of Darlene slamming a baseball bat into the camera—which placed the audience directly into Cisco's point of view—would be a punchy and awesome-looking way to end an episode). But you can't treat every cliffhanger with life-or-death importance when the actual consequences can turn out to be so weightless. Play that card one too many times, and the audience will just feel like they're being toyed with—and the last thing Mr. Robot needs is another reason to distrust its central narrative.

When the show is working, the pattern is riveting. When it isn't, we get an episode like this week's.

There are still plenty of loose ends that should probably be tied up before the season ends: the identity of Romero's murderer, the whereabouts of Mobley and Trenton, the lingering doubts over whether Tyrell Wellick is really dead, and the new revelation that Elliot (presumably as Mr. Robot) is unknowingly the mastermind behind the Dark Army's mysterious "stage 2." (There’s also the matter of the strange electrical brownouts peppered throughout this episode, which seem to hint at a possible non-technogical future for Mr. Robot's narrative.) All of that is more that enough narrative to propel Mr. Robot's second season through its final three episodes—which is why it's perplexing that tonight's episode ends with no fewer than three brand-new cliffhangers. When Cisco returns to Susan Jacobs' apartment to recover the videotape, he sees something on the couch that makes him stop in his tracks, but we don't see what it is. Meanwhile, Darlene—in a (presumably deliberate) echo of the season one finale—opens Cisco's apartment door to a mysterious knocker, whose identity is left unrevealed.

Both of those cliffhangers fall back on one of Mr. Robot's favorite devices: drumming up suspense by providing the characters with more information than we have, and asking us to judge the stakes by gauging their reactions. It's one of those things that feels clever until it gets overused, when it suddenly tilts into being annoying. Despite Elliot's promises, Mr. Robot never lets the audience know everything. But there are ways to pull off a cliffhanger without being withholding or obtuse. Just look at the very end of this week's episode, when Elliot returns to his apartment and discovers Tyrell Wellick's SUV parked outside.

It's easy to imagine the groan-worthy way Mr. Robot could have handled this final cliffhanger—like, say, cutting to black just as the unseen passenger begins to roll the tinted window down. And that might have been enough to fuel a week's worth of Reddit chatter: Is Tyrell Wellick really alive after all?

Instead, Mr. Robot makes the smarter choice: openly revealing that Elliot's latest unexpected visitor is Joanna Wellick, speaking with Elliot for the first time since their enigmatic conversation in the Season One finale. Showing us the car's passenger is a creative decision that allows Mr. Robot to generate suspense without keeping us in the dark. It's the smart choice. Now, the question isn't is banal or easily answered as "Who's in the car?" It's "What does Joanna Wellick want from Elliot—and what will she do to get it?"

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