With the season finale just one week away, Mr. Robot has a lot left to answer.
In the middle of this week's Mr. Robot episode—as Elliot re-realizes that he can't actually trust Mr. Robot at all—he falls back on his second most reliable ally: the audience. While Elliot wracks his brain for the reason Mr. Robot was so eager to push him back toward his old apartment, he asks us to weigh in. "Can you help?" Elliot monologues as the camera slowly pans around the dark, cluttered apartment. "Can you look? Do you see anything?" And for a moment, Mr. Robot suddenly becomes a much grimmer riff on Where's Waldo?, as we're invited to look for the one clue that will unlock this often-puzzling second season.
It's a cute idea, and I'm sure it'll play like gangbusters to Mr. Robot's most devoted fans. I can already imagine the screen-capped, Zapruder-style breakdowns we’ll be seeing on Reddit tomorrow, and I'm genuinely interested to see what the internet's Mr. Robot hive mind will find.
But even as I leaned forward and squinted at the screen, obliging the show's latest metafictional gambit, I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Is this really the most interesting thing for Mr. Robot to be doing when its season finale is just one week away?
Or, to put it another way: What actually happened in this week's episode? Price reiterated his Bond villain-esque plan to take over the world. Darlene and Cisco dropped some guy off at an emergency room, then went out for tapas. Elliot turned a Pringles can into an antenna.
Okay, I'm being a little glib. But only because I'm a little frustrated. This has been an unusually sluggish season of television, dense with atmosphere and rich with style—so much so that the actual narrative has routinely felt like a lesser priority. Instead, we've gotten a Möbius strip of a narrative, routinely doubling back on itself to offer digressive flashbacks, stylistic experiments, and inscrutable hallucinations. (This week, it was Darlene's extended monologue about a brief kidnapping she endured as a child: beautifully written, expertly delivered, and totally unrelated to the ongoing action in anything but theme.)
So with next week's two-part finale on the horizon, here's where we stand. Several major characters from the first season—Trenton, Mobley, and Tyrell Wellick—are still missing. Mr. Robot has been dragging out the truth behind Tyrell's disappearance since the season one finale—so much so that I'm not sure I actually care about the answer anymore—but this week's episode gives us the tiniest carrot after Elliot tracks the mysterious caller to a house on the Upper West Side. And then… the story cuts away, again, as Joanna Wellick's all-purpose driver/bodyguard/hitman leaves Elliot's apartment to confront the caller in person. ("Trust me. He wouldn't be calling from that house," he snarls.)
I don't think Mr. Robot can untangle the knot it's been weaving. If it's going to address every lingering thread in the time we have left, it's going to need to use a sword.
If the caller can't be Tyrell, whose house is it? Joanna's bartender boyfriend? The FBI? Whiterose? Mr. Robot? In lieu of answering that question, Mr. Robot gives us another cliffhanger, as Dom "The World's Greatest Detective" DiPierro manages to stumble upon the restaurant where Darlene and Cisco are hanging out. The camera sits stationary, keeping our point-of-view across the street and dozens of feet away, as we squint through the front window of the restaurant to see Dom confront the fsociety hackers. And then a motorcyclist pulls up, dropping off a machine gun-toting shooter who unloads a hailstorm of bullets through the window as everybody inside the restaurant scrambles to the ground. Dom definitely survives; Darlene and Cisco's fate isn't as clear, though it looked to me like they dropped in time.
The restaurant shooting—presumably orchestrated by the Dark Army—is beautifully, thrillingly staged, as Mr. Robot pretty much always is. But it's also a bit too familiar; every beat is more or less the same as it was when the exact same thing happened to Dom in China back in episode five—right down to the shooter committing suicide when it appears he'll be arrested.
Like a good magic trick, a good scene loses its impact as soon as repetition sets in, and Mr. Robot's favorite gambits are beginning to feel awfully familiar. And it certainly doesn't help that Mr. Robot has also trained us to be skeptical of pretty much everything we see, which makes it that much harder to feel emotionally invested in anything. I spent the entirety of Elliot and Angela's conversation in the subway—which was clearly intended to serve as the emotional climax of the episode, if not the season—wondering whether or not any of this was actually happening. Was the total emptiness of the subway car yet another side effect caused by the lingering impact of the 5/9 hack, or was Elliot just imagining weird stuff on the subway again? Was Elliot and Angela's kiss the desperate culmination of a bond that began when they were both children, or another fantasy about the intimacy Elliot will never really have, like that time he imagined her in a wedding dress? And after Elliot got off the train, were the two figures who approached Angela with E-Corp, or the government—or were they just another manifestation of Elliot’s anxieties about what his actions might mean for his friends?
In this case, the simplest answer is probably the correct one: Angela is in deep shit. In fact, everyone seems to be in deep shit right now, and even with two hours for next week's finale, I don't think Mr. Robot can possibly untangle the massive Gordian Knot it's been weaving all season. If the series is going to address every lingering thread in the time we have left, it's going to need to use a sword.
So in the interest of engaging with Mr. Robot in the way it clearly wants to be engaged with, I'll make my big prediction for the season finale: The brownouts we've been seeing over the past couple episodes will result in a full-scale blackout—planned by Elliot-as-Mr. Robot, and engineered by the Dark Army—which will plunge both our heroes and our villains into a world in which all their technological knowhow is suddenly useless. E-Corp's information will be permanently irretrievable; all the FBI's carefully compiled evidence against the 5/9 hackers will be wiped clean; and the surviving members of fsociety will be left standing in the rubble of the new world order they created, without any of the tools that allowed them to create it. It would be a very, very different series when it returned for its third season next year—but would that be such a bad thing?