Despite some bumps along the way, Mr. Robot’s third season marks a creative resurgence for the series following a muddled, middling sophomore outing that sacrificed quite a lot of its good will. Creator Sam Esmail clearly took the show’s criticism to heart and sought to craft a season that simplified a lot of the action while also expanding its emotional center, tying its disparate characters together through their shared despair over what they’ve done and what’s coming down the pipeline. It’s somewhat ironic that Mr. Robot was roundly ignored by the larger culture in the same year when the real world’s malaise finally caught up with the series’ tone; the anguish and paranoia on the streets finally matches the words espoused by Esmail’s bug-eyed protagonist. Yet, Esmail doesn’t simply bask in pessimism. Instead, he tries to illustrate how idealism can quickly curdle into hopelessness, and how self-interested elites can manipulate and co-opt the actions of lowly heroes, leaving them to pick up the pieces of their shattered states.
“eps3.9_shutdown-r” is a satisfying conclusion to Mr. Robot’s comeback season for a few reasons. First, it effectively ties together the season’s various threads by paring them down to the bare essentials, and it grounds most of the action in one central conflict. (Generally speaking, simple is better for Mr. Robot, at least in terms of plot, and the finale embraces the “good guys versus bad guys” narrative to maximum impact.) Second, it successfully foregrounds the season’s escalating emotional stakes, which in turn provides the narrative with necessary clarity. But mostly, it offers a potentially bright future for the series’ characters, a glimmer of hope amid an otherwise desperate landscape, without sacrificing the hard work it will take to actually achieve such a dream.
After keeping them mostly apart for the majority of the season, Esmail finally brings Elliot and Mr. Robot together to devastating effect. It made story sense to separate the two halves of Elliot’s personality, especially when Mr. Robot became somewhat of a rogue agent, working against Elliot’s interests without realizing Whiterose was manipulating him. But now, the two finally see the Dark Army for what it is: an arm of an ultra-elite organization bent on gaining power through any means necessary. When Elliot finally confronts Mr. Robot on the Ferris wheel, they both learn that they’re functionally impotent without the other, either floundering in depression and passivity or indulging in tunnel vision that only hinders actual progress. It’s a little trite to go to the “id versus ego” well, but Rami Malek and Christian Slater’s dual performances go a long way to bring out the best in Esmail’s script, and it’s a moment that feels earned rather than forced.
Once they’re on the same page, Elliot and Mr. Robot work together to find the location of the FBI mole, Santiago, who has kidnapped Darlene and Dom and brought them to the farm where Tyrell toiled away on Stage 2. But before they can get the jump on the Dark Army, Irving gets the jump on the both of them and brings them to the farm himself. Now, Elliot, Mr. Robot, Darlene, and Dom are presumably waiting to be killed by Irving, Leon, and later, Grant. Is it somewhat contrived to bring all these characters in one location? Sure, but for the climax (or, rather, the anticlimax) to have any impact whatsoever, it has to affect every one of the principals.
All except for Angela, who has been taken by Phillip Price to his estate after she suffers a full-blown mental breakdown that leaves her disheveled, paranoid, and unstable. There was no neat way for Esmail to fold Angela’s story into Elliot’s, and I’m glad he didn’t because it allows him to treat her pain with sensitivity. Price coaxes Angela out of her mental state by telling her what she so desperately wants to deny: Whiterose used her mother’s death to manipulate her into doing her bidding. When Angela asks Price why he wants to help her at all, he tells her that he initially wanted to stop her lawsuit, but once Whiterose got involved, he wanted to save her life because, well, she’s his biological daughter.
Though it’s been clumsily foreshadowed, particularly in last week’s flashback when Price curiously eyed Angela during E Corp’s initial meeting with Allsafe, the reveal still feels a bit far-fetched. It’s all just too convenient, but nevertheless, Michael Cristofer mostly sells the moment because he doesn’t indulge in sentimentality. Price tells Angela that he dated her mother for a while, but he emotionally tortured her by keeping her at a distance, and when she became pregnant, she summarily rejected him. Cristofer delivers the monologue with an emphasis on pragmatism and truth, not emotionality. Philip Price getting all weepy wouldn’t even slightly jibe with the character.
But the scene doesn’t work just because of Cristofer’s performance. It’s also because Price has a vested emotional and professional interest in telling Angela the truth. After all, he knows that Stage 2 occurred because Whiterose was trying to get back at him for toying with the U.N. vote. He understands her pettiness and her delusional quest for power, so it’s genuinely cathartic to hear someone with inside information spell it out once and for all: Her projects “stem from an obsessive, psychotic denial of reality” and, simply put, her ridiculous fantasy has cost thousands of lives. Angela finally gets the message, but doesn’t immediately understand that retribution isn’t the path forward. Price tells her to accept that she’s been conned and learn to live with what she’s done.
Esmail cuts between Angela’s reckoning and the scene in the barn, where Grant plans to kill Elliot and Darlene for meddling in their affairs on orders from Whiterose. Elliot informs Grant that he knows all about the Dark Army’s history because he’s infected their system with malware, and if anything happens to him or Darlene or Dom, the information will be leaked around the world. But despite Elliot’s pleas that he has engineered a hack to help move the Washington Township plant to the Congo, Grant still plans to kill them all anyway. That is until Leon, presumably under orders from Whiterose, kills all the Dark Army agents instead of the hostages. Grant receives a call from Whiterose, who tells him that he never understood Elliot’s value and thus can’t see her plan through to the end. Grant commits suicide, Elliot helps move the plant for the Dark Army, and all are set free.
That’s a lot of information to pack into one scene, especially when it’s crosscut with a gentler scene between an estranged father and daughter, and yet Esmail pulls it off with gusto. Elliot convinces the Dark Army of his worth just as Price reassures Angela of hers, except that the former comes in the form of a threat and the latter in the form of a confession. Esmail tees up the moment for maximum bloodshed, but instead blows it up early with Irving’s brutal ax murder of Santiago (a wholly unnecessary exhibition of bloodlust that briefly turns the show into an episode of The Walking Dead). In turn, he creates a suspenseful anticlimax built around persuasion and manipulation. Elliot only has his principles to fall back on, but Whiterose plays both sides the whole time, engineering a way to save Elliot’s life and to move her plant to the Congo.
Esmail acutely understands that this isn’t a victory, but rather a temporary salvo in a prolonged war. The Dark Army might have briefly shown its face and lost a few members, but they still won this round. Elliot helps them with their plans to save himself and his sister from a grisly fate. Price lays the truth out for Angela, but only she can learn to live with her mistakes. Dom comes out alive, but she’s now forced to become a Dark Army mole to protect her family — the exact same situation as Santiago’s. Meanwhile, there’s a path of death and destruction in their wake. Society is still in chaos. The economy is in tatters. The rich are getting richer and the poor are becoming poorer. The world is still an utter disaster.
Yet Esmail doesn’t end the season on a down note. Instead, he suggests, strangely enough, that things might be looking up. When Elliot gains access to the FBI’s database, he learns Romero didn’t keep the encryption keys, but just caught someone else exporting the key data. That someone else turned out to be Mr. Robot, who, despite his fervor, privately shared Elliot’s doubts and created a fail-safe in case their revolution didn’t go exactly the way they planned. Mr. Robot didn’t push Elliot to take on E Corp the same way Elliot didn’t push Mr. Robot to take cautionary measures. In the end, Elliot jumped all by himself, the same way he jumped out the window when he was a kid, because he’s a part of Mr. Robot just as Mr. Robot is a part of him. They’re both one.
As soon as Elliot decrypts E Corp’s data, the effects of the Five/Nine hack will be reversed, and society can rebuilt. People will have to contend with crushing debt, E Corp will recover and likely return to its old habits, and the Dark Army will still pull the strings from the shows, but Elliot can finally live with himself. He can turn back the clock on a sour world that he created in his own image. He can try to undo some of the suffering he’s caused for so many people. He can finally sleep at night. It might be selfish, but Elliot knows that he can’t fight the Dark Army as long as he can’t exist in his own head. Undoing the Five/Nine hack will bring some necessary relief to a world that desperately needs it. It opens up new paths forward. It means their work wasn’t for nothing. It demonstrated their power and illustrated the limitations of exercising it to a devastating degree. That’s not nothing. That’s called self-reflection.
It might not have been the cleanest journey, as is never the case with Mr. Robot, but Esmail sticks the landing by refocusing on Elliot’s internal struggle. The moment when he opens up the blank CD and finds that he embedded the encryption keys in an old photo of himself and his dad on Halloween dressed as Marty and Doc, the whole episode clicks into focus. Elliot had to get to a place where he could embrace the two sides of his personality, warts and all, for his actions to have any meaning. He had to see himself clearly before he could see the world clearly. Only then could he make the necessary moves to take down those who play God without permission. With one push of the Enter key, a new path will be forged. There’s still work to be done.
• In the final montage, people can be seen watching the ending of 1978’s Superman, in which the hero accelerates around the Earth to reverse time so he can save Lois Lane. The connections between this and Elliot’s attempt to reverse Five/Nine are, shall we say, obvious.
• Music corner: Pan Ron’s “Kom Veacha Tha Sneha Knom” scores Grant’s arrival to the compound, and M83’s “Intro” to their 2011 album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming soundtracks the final scene.
• The post-credits scene features Darlene walking with a prostitute to Elliot’s apartment, conversing about a potentially brighter future. When Darlene arrives at Elliot’s doorstep, a group of men exit a car and head in her direction. The camera reveals that the leader of the pack is Fernando Vera, the boyfriend of Shayla, Elliot’s former next-door neighbor and lover from way back in the first season. This moment didn’t play for me at all, mostly because I had to look up who this guy was, but that’s the tease for next season, folks!