Very few series have endings that matter. Sure, something mediocre might be your personal favorite but when it goes, it goes. Not everybody notices. But all really great shows and most very creative shows and pretty much every show with a complex mystery — those endings matter.
And so it is that Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot on USA kicks off its fourth and final season on Oct. 6, and it’s very much going to matter. This is a series that came out of nowhere in the summer of 2015 and truly defied the odds it probably had no business beating — it was not only heavily using voiceover, which so few credible series can pull off, but it was going to be all about hacking and thus filled with scenes of someone typing furiously at a computer, which to that point had been the death knell for believable drama. Ah, but Esmail knew about coding, and thus hacking, and so Mr. Robot felt real in that area. It wasn’t just typing. And all of a sudden the voiceover that was being used was essential, adding layers to the complex coding. It sped up adrenaline. It created drama out of typing.
Mr. Robot also had, as a way to make all of that voiceover work, one Rami Malek. And viewers didn’t know it in the first few episodes, but it also had the brilliance of Esmail. He was not only rewriting the script for what a TV show could look like — breaking all kinds of “rules” along the way in a cinematically adventurous and sometimes destabilizing fashion that mirrored its protagonist’s mental health issues — but was also quite good with the actual script, teasing out complex twists and even knowing, once you figured out the main one, that you’d be pretty damned pleased with yourself. Except that’s the thing — he knew you’d figure it out and didn’t care. He wanted you to feel like you figured out the puzzle, that you could relax then. It was a con. There were more mind-blowing Easter eggs and bigger twists to come. Almost nobody saw them coming.
And so a phenomenon was born with Mr. Robot as the out-of-nowhere summer hit on a channel known for “blue sky” series that didn’t take much thought and from someone who hadn’t done television and was creative enough to throw long-held visual styles into the rubbish bin. The buzz was great by the end of that season and was at full roar by the time the second came around.
Not surprisingly, with the bar so high and the concept so precarious, there was going to be trouble, but the show was riding such a high at the end of that first season: Esmail’s intriguing conceit was that the show’s hero and narrator, Elliot (Malek), who was suffering from dissociative identity disorder and was a drug addict — in other words, the ultimate unreliable narrator — was seeing and interacting with another character, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the leader of a group called “fsociety,” who turned out not to be real (the initial trick that viewers picked up on eventually), but was also his dead father (they didn’t know that), and thus Elliot was both himself and his alter ego, Mr. Robot.
Several other juicy tidbits later (including working with the Chinese-based Dark Army) and the first season of Mr. Robot ended with something that felt inconceivable: The actual hack of the banking industry that Elliot and fsociety and the Dark Army were working on actually went through, with billions of consumer debt vanishing with no way to trace it and reconstruct it, crashing worldwide markets and creating total chaos. Normally a TV series that sets up such an elaborate storyline milks it for, at the very least, another nearly full season. So part of what was amazing about Mr. Robot in that instance was that it felt literally like the end — where could it possibly go next? It was thrilling.
Of course, that was a dangerous tactic. Mr. Robot couldn’t uphold expectations in that second season, even though it was very good (and history will be much kinder to it — there are signs that’s starting to happen now). You could argue, though, that the drama of season two was more about the fallout from season one and less about being more of the same, more of what got everyone so excited in the first place.
And for anyone paying attention, that should have been Esmail’s true tell on Mr. Robot. It wasn’t about the hack. It was about something bigger. The little bread crumbs of season two turned into a much faster-paced, deeply cynical, engaging third season, where layer after layer of plot twists (including reversing the catastrophic hack of season one) were peeled off. The third season was much better and more complicated; actual consequences were doled out because Esmail knew all along where the end was going to be and, getting closer to it, needed to stop being coy and start being cruel. Characters died. That’s how good drama often happens. But what happened to this series entering its final run is that Esmail raised the odds on himself. He left viewers to consider something akin to, “Okay, so what does all of this really mean?”
And now he has to pay it off.
Esmail has said he’s never wavered from the ending. He knew it when he pitched the show, and when the show ends it will be that exact ending he imagined (he doesn’t write all the episodes but does direct them all this season again). But it’s also clear entering this fourth and final season that Mr. Robot is about something bigger than the concept of the show initially and maybe even bigger than Elliot, since the dual character of Zhi Zhang, China’s Minister of State Security, and Whiterose, the female leader of the Dark Army (both played by BD Wong), has become so prominent through the seasons. Last season revealed that everything that came before it involving Elliot, Mr. Robot and fsociety (and E Corp, etc.) was just a ruse or long con for Whiterose to have her secret project in the Congo.
The first five episodes offer no chance for spoilers along those lines — it’s Elliot and company mostly trying to thwart what’s coming, with no hints at all about what’s coming. Credit Esmail with being damned sneaky enough in the past to create serious doubt as to anyone’s best guesses — and they have ranged from mining cryptocurrency in the Congo to hacking time itself, a concept Whiterose has uttered out loud, which could mean something that — dare it even be written — creates an alternative universe or brings the dead back to life?
And the question then becomes, uh, is that what you wanted? Is Mr. Robot really about dimensions of time and/or life altering, death-cheating abilities? Wasn’t it about hacking democracy, debt relief for the masses that screws capitalist companies and the 1 percent? Alt-universes and regenerating people — is that really where this is going? That would seem a little crazier than what this mostly grounded series has, to this point, been about. Such an ending would be, arguably, out of character.
How about something more human and cynical — that Whiterose, with so much power and precision in her planning that everyone seems unable to stop her, could ultimately just be wrong and delusional and broken and her actions were merely reflective of mad leaders and wanting more than you have so that you can never be happy. Honestly, who knows? I don’t buy into the unexplained phenomena aspect, that the project Whiterose is shipping to the Congo to complete will be more sci-fi than the zeros and ones that came before it. Evidence from all three seasons could suggest that, but this series has always been about the feint, the dodge, the missed ulterior message.
Mr. Robot started out being about a hacked democracy and one year later that came true (also, on the day that USA picked up Mr. Robot, the Sony hack happened). The series has been ahead of its time on a number of fronts. Maybe it will be again and that thing that it will presage is … unknown.
There are 13 episodes in this fourth season and five have been released for review. They vary in quality. Some are excellent, some strain credibility to the breaking point (a familiar trait in later seasons, but not so damaging as to seriously dent the show’s reputation), some feel uniquely contemplative and odd, others seem alive with forward momentum. It’s a strong start, but it’s very clearly the end that will matter.
At this point, however, the fact that a show in its fourth season still matters enough to raise your excitement level about how it all ends is a real achievement.