After the stirring simplicity of “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko,” or even the pressing momentum of “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00,” the penultimate episode of Mr. Robot’s third season, with its multiple timelines and narrative feints, has the feeling of a finale—as its title suggests, it does more to set up the next stage in the evolution of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) than it does to move this one toward resolution. It is, in essence, an hour of fresh complications: In addition to the turn against the Dark Army, there’s the revelation that ECorp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) knew about 5/9 and the Cyber Bombings; Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and Dom’s (Grace Gummer) tryst; Angela (Portia Doubleday) going around the bend. It also deepens the creeping suspicion I’ve had, as the season’s worn on, that Mr. Robot’s confidence, at the episodic level, masks a certain doubtfulness in its season-long arc. I can’t tell if it’s fitting or frustrating yet—there’s still next week—but “eps3.8_stage3.torrent” reads to me as a comedown from the series’ midseason height, as if it’s unsure of all that’s preceded it. This is the risk, I suppose, of Season Three’s central themes: When your subject is erasure, deletion, redemption, might not the desire to return short-circuit the need to move forward?
In tonight’s Mr. Robot, after all, past is present, and prologue. Like several other entries this season, it begins with a flashback—this time to the day Price, seemingly smitten with Angela, signs AllSafe to that fateful contract. For her part, poor Angela, piling copies of Lolita into a fire engine red shopping cart and ignoring her father’s phone calls, suggests that Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) being named ECorp’s CTO is “proof” that “we’re going back to the way things should be.” The post, which Price assures him is merely ceremonial, leads Wellick to remark that he’s “a prisoner, just like before.” Darlene, held for questioning in the FBI’s interrogation room after Dom catches her—predictably, as Dom’s an insomniac FBI agent and that safe is loud as fuck—attempting to steal her badge. As if to underscore the point, creator Sam Esmail deploys one of the episode’s most striking stylistic departures, a series of jump cuts, as Elliot paces the floor in some undisclosed location, explaining the need for (digital) backups: “In case our revolution failed.”
The one subplot that appears to be approaching an end is Agent Santiago’s (Omar Metwally) role as the Dark Army’s inside man at the Bureau—as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) scratches into a mirror for Elliot to read, a message Elliot passes on to Darlene, who in turn piques Dom’s suspicions, “THEY OWN THE FBI.” But Santiago is a minor character, and his treason has largely been treated as a narrative convenience, something to slow Dom down: His exposure, in the finale (should it even come), isn’t exactly the coup de grâce one wants from a season-long suspense thriller. Which leads me to ask the same question Mr. Robot does of Wellick, the one that’s been niggling me since we learned of the Cyber Bombings: Was it worth it?
Despite being peppered with references to Back to the Future, and almost obsessed with the impulse to reclaim the past, Mr. Robot nonetheless seems thinner, thematically speaking, than it once was. More than its humorously ham-fisted quotation of Trump (“No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!” Wellick cries), this comes across in Mr. Robot’s description of “Men who fuck over the rest of us for profit, for fun,” or Whiterose’s (BD Wong) claim that “People like Phillip Price do not respect mercy. You only get their attention with force, and a lot of it.” (The glass-rimming’s a bit much, no?) It’s a strange betrayal of the season’s thrust, if “betrayal” is not too strong a word, to resolve the potential complications of Elliot’s “failed revolution” by pinning that failure on Price’s conspiratorial involvement in it, rather than pushing harder on the moral compromises made by those (Elliot, Angela, Darlene) whose motives were pure, if personal. “World catastrophes like this, they aren’t caused by lone wolves like you,” Price tells “Mr. Alderson,” in one of those pat proclamations that always leave me leery of embracing Mr. Robot too much. “They occur because men like me allow them.”
For what its worth, “world catastrophes” are not, in my estimation, Esmail’s strong suit. The series, the season, and indeed “eps3.8_stage3.torrent” tend to soar higher on intimate moments with big implications, from the conversation set to “Where Is My Mind?” to Dom’s late-night talks with Alexa. It remains as true as ever: This week’s highlight, for me, is the camera circling Darlene and Dom in the latter’s apartment, swaying like a soused dancer, or Darlene’s earlier remark that she’s “one hell of a wingwoman.” This is the stuff—personal, emotional, messily human—that makes the series’ politics real, the stuff that generates our impulse to erase, delete, return, redeem, and I only wish Mr. Robot managed to integrate it more fully, more consistently, into its broader narrative. At least, that’s what’s required, now that that the series is once again an effective actioner, for Mr. Robot to reclaim its own past as one of TV’s most formidable dramas. As Price notes at one point, by way of advice, “You can’t force an agenda, Mr. Alderson. You have to inspire one.”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.