‘Mr. Robot’ continues to be cryptic

Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 4:55pm

NOSELL

USA

 

“Please tell me you’re seeing this, too.”

Rami Malek’s tongue-in-cheek reference during his Emmy Award acceptance speech for “Mr. Robot” was quite prescient, as it turned out. The finale, which technically aired in two parts over two weeks, revealed itself to be just like the rest of this season: intentionally vague, constantly interrogating its own internal reality and, unfortunately, more than a little inaccessible.

One would be hard-pressed to summarize just what, exactly, happened during season two of “Mr. Robot.” Sure, the show’s most prominent merits — atmosphere, performances, characterization — often overshadow its plot, but it’s tough to stay rapt and invested during a show in which even the most crucial narrative threads are teased out in the most opaque ways.

Season two of “Mr. Robot” has provoked a muted response compared to the enthusiastic acclaim engendered by its first; comparisons have been drawn to Damon Lindelof’s (“The Leftovers”) “Lost.” That show, too, was defined by its moody, surreal atmosphere and was heavily interested in asking more questions than it answered. “Mr. Robot,” however, has the additional burden of its background as a show about hacking. This baggage makes the show more “realistic,” but it also means its creator, Sam Esmail (“Comet”), must explain himself a bit further. Hacker culture (a phrase I hope to never use again) is esoteric and uncharted narrative territory for most of pop culture, and packaging the more intriguing bits of exposition in a quick shot of, say, trash bags piling up on a New York street, doesn’t do as much of the heavy-lifting as it should.

Perhaps this criticism is a bit harsh; there is, of course, fun in not knowing every little detail of a show. Being strung along by talented writers who know what they’re doing is one of TV’s greatest pleasures. But the issues with this finale — and, by extension, this season as a whole — are less about minute plot details and more about general narrative payoff. Season two confirmed “Mr. Robot” as a series concerned with character over plot: we see Darlene’s stunned reaction for an uncomfortable length before we’re shown just how much the FBI knows, and it’s Elliot’s face, lit up by a computer screen displaying the plot details we so desperately crave, that the camera lingers on. But it comes off as a bit hypocritical when, after focusing so intensely on the paths these characters have taken this season, the finale’s closing 15 minutes raised an infinite number of questions about the plot: What has Tyrell been up to all season? What secret does Tyrell know about Elliot? What have Whiterose and Price been plotting? How does Angela tie into all of this? We have to care about the CTO guy again? Meanwhile, only one question pertains to our lead character: just how unreliable of a narrator is Elliot? These questions are fascinating and potent, but they arise at the frustrating expense of any sort of satisfying conclusion to the past 12 episodes.

Yet, there’s still much to be intrigued by in “Mr. Robot” ’s idiosyncratic finale. Esmail’s Herculean task of writing and directing every episode of the season produced some admittedly self-indulgent stretches as well as many undeniably brilliant flourishes of creativity. Specifically, Angela and Whiterose’s slow-burning, Lynchian conversation in the first part of the finale is delightfully strange and off-kilter, suggesting a tantalizing larger mythology for the series going forward. Grace Gummer’s (“The Newsroom”) Dom was the season’s most successful new creation, and her interrogation of Darlene was the true highlight of the final episode. And Malek’s performance during his climactic confrontation with Mr. Robot and Tyrell is, as always, incredible.

As a whole, though, it’ll be hard to judge where season two of “Mr. Robot” stands when the show is over. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it’s hard to argue against the cohesion and confidence of season two’s masterful marriage of visuals and audio, even if they are, yes, especially self-serious. But this was also the season in which a number of narrative gambles — like the delayed “big reveal” in the first half of the season — simply didn’t work. Compared to its explosive first season, “Mr. Robot” this year was almost underwhelming. Is that the point, though? Are we now being ushered into an era of “Mr. Robot” in which the plot is almost perfunctory, and Elliot’s head is now the most volatile setting on TV? That’s a bit unnerving, to be honest; the best episode of this season, “Successor,” abandoned Elliot entirely. But the show’s web of plot is expanding just as our principals find the walls closing in on them. One can only hope Esmail finds intriguing and successful ways of exploiting that dichotomy in the coming seasons.