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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mr. Robot ends with hope, heartache, peace—and one final twist

Illustration for article titled iMr. Robot/i ends with hope, heartache, peace—and one final twist
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“One of the commonest and most generally accepted delusions is that every man can be qualified in some particular way—said to be kind, wicked, stupid, energetic, apathetic, and so on. People are not like that. We may say of a man that he is more often kind than cruel, more often wise than stupid, more often energetic than apathetic or vice versa; but it could never be true to say of one man that he is kind or wise, and of another that he is wicked or stupid. Yet we are always classifying mankind in this way. And it is wrong. Human beings are like rivers; the water is one and the same in all of them but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others; here it is broad, there still, or clear, or cold, or muddy or warm. It is the same with men. Every man bears within him the germs of every human quality, and now manifests one, now another, and frequently is quite unlike himself, while still remaining the same man.”—Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection

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I am not who I am; I am who I am not. It’s the primary condition of humanity, from philosophies biblical to psychoanalytical, that defines us not as gods (sorry, Tyrell Wellick) but as imperfect creations, our selves built upon an ideal version we can never fully attain, and therefore never really are who we say. Leave it to Mr. Robot—this sharp, soulful, tense, and often unexpectedly funny, series—to make that quite literally true, since the very beginning. Our friend, Elliot Alderson, was never really Elliot. He was only a piece of him, the piece needed to make him feel safe in the world by taking down the evil that surrounded him. The part of Elliot that dug in, refused to budge, and made the world change around him. The part that then, in turn, changed Elliot, too. In just about any moment in life, we’re never fully there; there’s always a part of us that plays catch up later on, or another side of our identity that isn’t being used. But they work in tandem: the us at our jobs, the us with our families, the us when we’re alone. But being the part that changes the whole for the better? To quote not-entirely-Elliot, who wouldn’t be proud of that?

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It would be easy to feel a little bit cheated by the reveal in the second half of Mr. Robot’s series finale, had this kind of twist not been baked into the DNA of the show from the start. Normally, the “you’ve been a different persona the whole time!” is a kind of lazy psychodrama, something the twin brother from Adaptation might’ve cooked up in place of a Jacob’s Ladder-esque “you’ve been dead the whole time” scenario. But this is where Sam Esmail’s commitment to story really shines: Having constructed the entire narrative arc from beginning to end before the first episode ever aired, the creator of Mr. Robot was able to lay the groundwork for precisely this conclusion, a means of getting to the reveal of “our” Elliot as merely the dominant personality for the duration of this story, while the “original” Elliot was safely stowed in a comforting time-loop inside Elliot’s head.

The obsession with masks, the endless ruminations on whether we can ever truly know ourselves, the continual second-guessing as to the nature of not only reality, but the role of the viewer themselves in this whole endeavor...it’s actually the most fitting ending for a series predicated on such elusive (and allusive) questions of identity. If this is a show about what it means to try and create meaning for our lives in such a cold and hostile world, then the finale is about the realization that “we” are never really who we think we are—and that’s okay. With a little hope and a lot of luck, we’re the best parts of ourselves. Or at least we try to be.

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But even parts of a whole need anchors to ground them, animate them, and connect them to the world around us. For our Elliot (and for the so-called “real” Elliot, it seems), that anchor was Darlene. From the start of the first half of the finale, when Elliot comes to on the ground of the land where the power plant used to be, there are plenty of strange changes to reality, but the most striking one of all is the way Darlene has been scrubbed from existence. Sure, Elliot’s mother and father are alive and well, the loving parents the real Elliot never got to experience in our world. And Elliot is the CEO of AllSafe, landing the big E Corp (sorry, F Corp) account in between casual chats with friends and lunches with his dad. And our protagonist is even marrying his longtime love Angela, enduring hastily mixed whisky sours from Phillip Price while Angela’s mother gushes about how her daughter has finally found a good guy with whom to settle down.

Yet underlying the entire reality is a fundamental absence—Darlene. She’s missing from the family photos, and she’s the one he ultimately hears calling to him through the fog of this unreality, beckoning him back to the real world. We eventually receive confirmation from fake-Krysta that Darlene is indeed Elliot’s connection to reality (hence the need to remove her from the fantasy world, to prevent original Elliot from being jolted out of it), but thanks to the way their relationship has been fomented throughout the entirety of the show—but especially this season—we already knew that. “What do you think? Do you buy any of this?” Elliot asks us early on, before we learn this has nothing to do with Whiterose’s machine, but the answer is already a resounding no. No Darlene, no better world.

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The most shocking element of the false reality we go through in this two-part finale is the realization of just how desperate and eager to believe our Elliot turns out to be—so much so, he’s willing to murder his well-balanced alter-ego just to have a prayer of maybe getting Angela back. “I think you should look away, too” he tells us as he chokes the life out of himself, a truly dark moment that brings the weakest and most base of our Elliot’s desires to the forefront. “I can’t lose her again,” he reasons, and while we feel for him in the moment, it confirms the essential wrongness of this world, even before Mr. Robot explains it. Earthquakes or no, Elliot’s “I had no other choice” rings hollow because even he knows he did have one; thus, he conjures Dom as a cop to catch him, Krysta as the therapist to call him out, a bunch of mask-wearing wedding attendees to bear witness to a non-existent marriage, all so he can finally confront his own actions and his true self. We even get the Being John Malkovich-like sight of Elliot on the Coney Island boardwalk, surrounded by everyone wearing Robot’s face, the better to force him into a confrontation with, well, himself.

It’s not a coincidence that Elliot doesn’t accept his truth until he’s back in the real world, either, lying in a hospital bed with Darlene by his side. The show has made a recurring theme—sometimes to the point of farce—out of Elliot’s ability to lie to himself, and evade his own demons. Those specters of the past have slowly been exorcised over the course of the final season, as Elliot re-entered his childhood in order to accept and process the trauma of abuse, the pain of his false memories, and the lingering guilt brought on by his own sense of helplessness. So the biggest truth of all—that he’s only a part of Elliot, one created to make the world safe for him—is understandably his biggest roadblock. It’s why he can reject both Mr. Robot’s explanations and the fake-Krysta’s soothing assurances that he was doing the right thing. “It’s my life. Always will be,” he insists, right before the ceiling falls in on him. And then he’s in the real world, staring Darlene in the face, and he realizes that she’s the one he can’t lie to. She brings out the best in him, even when he doesn’t want to admit it. So he confesses, and to his shock, she reveals that she sort of knew all along. “You’re not the Elliot I grew up with, at least,” she says, and explains her own subterfuge: She went along with it for the same reason our Elliot came about in the first place: love. She finally had her brother, the sibling she could be close to and share life with, so even if there was something off about it, she was willing to go along with it, because it was a chance for her to have the Elliot she never did. And it was fine—right until it wasn’t. But as the final shot confirms, Darlene isn’t going anywhere; she’s here for her brother, from now on.

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Gone are the off-center framing shots with a ton of negative space that have defined the look of the series. If “eXit” was Esmail’s homage to early Wes Anderson, replete with slow-motion walks to pop songs and diorama framing, then this is his wholly apropos Bergman-meets-Kubrick ending, all close-ups on faces entering a state of enlightenment or painful realization, capturing the fullest expression of emotions right up until the closing gloss on 2001’s stargate sequence, as Elliot enters the movie theater of his mind, sits alongside his constructed family, and lets the experiences of his “life” wash over him. It’s a fusion of the show’s most indelible episode styles, combining the dreamscape haze of Elliot’s season-one morphine withdrawal (which gets a callback here) with the stagey intensity of this year’s “Proxy Authentication Required,” as plenty of references to other seasons and storylines get aesthetic nods along the way. As Esmail’s language and onscreen displays of emotion have gotten more earnest and heartfelt along the way, his direction has changed to match the more outsize feelings getting worked out in his narrative, form meeting function in elegant manner. (And a lot more pop-music needle drops—possibly more than the first three seasons combined.)

I’ve been saying it the last few episodes, but it’s proven very true in this finale: This wasn’t a story about hacking, or revolution, or giant sci-fi machines that may or may not have been capable of transporting people to alternate dimensions. (Very sorry, people who have been patiently waiting to see whether or not Whiterose’s machine was the real deal—we’ll never know.) This was the small, intimate story of a troubled man trying his best to get back to some semblance of meaning in his life. As with many alienated souls today, he thought he could find that meaning in the very isolation that unmoored him from the world—turning his resentment into rebellion, fomenting a struggle from the ground up against a society doing its best to grind him down and keep him there. Elliot Alderson became the avatar for fantasies of radical action dreamt of by many of us; but unlike us, he actually made them come true. And then, it proper poetical fashion, he discovered the hollowness contained therein. Not just the ways that the wealthy would turn any revolution to their advantage—forcing Elliot to walk back the 5/9 hack in the process—but how you can’t make a virtue of alienation and anger, no matter how hard you try, how many buildings you topple. Ultimately, even the justice exacted against the one percent of the one percent, the leveling of the playing field and the punishment for those who took so much and left so little for the rest of us, wasn’t the true measure of achievement. No, for that Elliot needed to find the most valuable thing he could: other people. People who would care about him, and who he cared for in turn. It was the only solace he could find—and eventually, the only truth as well, bringing him full circle to the end of his journey, outwardly staring up at Darlene while our Elliot inwardly took his place alongside the other aspects of Elliot’s self. We bore witness, and in the end we took our place as well. We were part of Elliot, just as he was part of us. Hello, Elliot—hello, friend.

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Stray observations

  • In a finale full of small, pained moments, perhaps the harshest one of all was Elliot telling Robot on the subway that all he ever wanted from him was to be left alone. It hurt because of the element of truth, even if it wasn’t really true. The older, angrier part of Elliot really did want that back in the day, and Robot knew it.
  • I understand a certain percentage of people are probably going to be a bit put out by the lack of answers to the big Whiterose Mystery Machine, but for my money, the only cliffhanger left unaddressed that’s going to remain a bit galling as time goes by is the answer to What Happened To Tyrell Wellick In The Woods?
  • Fsociety? Just “a dumb name I came up with,” original Elliot explains. You know, “anarchist” stuff. As far as lampshades go, that’s a nice one for hanging.
  • Elliot spends a lot of time looking right at us in the finale—asking us questions, reassuring himself that we’re there. He must be making up for lost time.
  • Elliot, as usual, jumps to the darkest conclusion, even when a more hopeful one is staring him in the face. “Am I his monster?” No, you poor guy!
  • Mr. Robot series finale music cues: At long last, we get the song everybody was awaiting for four long seasons: “Mr. Roboto.” But we also get Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” Perfume Genius’ “Queen,” and the outro from M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
  • Not-Krysta calls us “the voyeurs who think they aren’t a part of this despite being here for all of it,” but come on—we’ve known we were a part of it for a long time.
  • This only works if you let go, too.
  • Thanks, everyone, for joining me for the past five years to obsess over one of the best shows of the decade. It’s been incredibly rewarding diving into this series with all of you, and your contributions over the years have made my work better (not to mention a lot more fun to put together). It was a joy to get to review Mr. Robot with one of the best commenter communities on the internet.
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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