Irving appears, unannounced, near the end of the first act of Mr. Robot’s season finale, and because Bobby Cannavale’s Dark Army fixer—or series creator Sam Esmail—is prone to such tangents, he pauses to pull a book from the shelf. Irving’s thoughts on narrative construction are self-conscious (self-congratulatory?) enough, in fact, that even the episode’s most effective surprises start to feel cheap, as if ginned up to underline his (questionable) assertion. “Story could have a mediocre beginning, and a middle, and oftentimes it does. But always gotta have a ‘Wow’ ending. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
As with Mr. Robot’s question last week (“Was it worth it?”), “eps3.9_shutdown-r” wavers on an answer, and so, to be honest, am I. Was it worth it? Perhaps—Season Three features a pair of episodes (“eps3.4runtime-error.r00” and “eps3.7dont-delete-me.ko”) so transporting that the overarching plot becomes almost immaterial: Sometimes the middle matters. What’s the point? On that one I can’t come up with a satisfactory answer, except to say that Mr. Robot’s reset seems to me only a qualified success. The series has repaired the damage done in Season Two by going back to basics, and with the news of its Season Four renewal, I am interested to see where Esmail goes next. But there’s something about the conclusion of the finale that niggles. Despite one last allusion to Back to the Future—the inspiration for Elliot (Rami Malek) and Mr. Robot’s (Christian Slater) long ago Halloween costumes, a digital image of which contains the information needed to reverse the 5/9 hack—it’s striking that either still believes in clean resolutions. “You could make it like 5/9 never happened,” Mr. Robot says at episode’s end, but of course that’s impossible: There is no putting the past back in its box.
In order to bring us to this moment of decision, or indeed to Elliot’s promise to take “the ones in control” down—in order to bring us back to the future he imagined at the start of Season One—Mr. Robot unfurls an intermittently suspenseful, dispiritingly chatty jaunt to the country; the biggest surprise of all may be the fact that the season’s climax is a pair of interwoven conversations. There are a handful of genuinely shocking developments that help get us where we’re going: Santiago (Omar Metwally) sucker punching Dom (Grace Gummer) in the parking garage, as the captive Darlene (Carly Chaikin) watches from the backseat of his car; Irving swinging the ax into Santiago’s chest and installing Dom as the Dark Army’s inside man at the FBI; Leon (Joey Bada$$) shooting up the Dark Army henchmen in the barn so Whiterose (BD Wong) can see her plan through. (I’m starting to wonder if she’s building a machine akin to the one in The Leftovers, though that’s a subject for another review.) What most notable about all this, though, is how hamstrung our heroes are, impotent in the face of more powerful forces. The finale carries them along as if they’re caught in a current, and then, disappointingly, plops them down right where they need to be. I prefer Mr. Robot when it’s a fairer fight.
There’s one other “surprise,” of course, which is that Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) is Angela’s (Portia Doubleday) father—an explanation for his determination to protect her that made me think of Darth Vader and Severus Snape, and which is remarkably clumsy even by Mr. Robot’s standards. In fact, Angela’s unraveling might be the season’s foremost misstep. There was something bracing about her willingness to court the unethical, the immoral, to exact vengeance on ECorp, and about the way it complicated her relationships with Elliot and Darlene. Now she’s a quivering mess, sobbing on a bench on Price’s estate, a far cry from the ruthless operator of “eps2.4m4ster-s1ave.aes.” This is the drawback of bringing the characters together again after tossing them to the four winds: As a matter of narrative construction, to return to Irving’s brief disquisition, it often means sacrificing a strong middle to arrive at an end.
It’s not that there’s nothing promising about next season’s prospects. For one, I’ve been alluding all season to the notion that Elliot and Mr. Robot are most compelling as prickly collaborators, rather than outright opponents, which “eps3.9_shutdown-r” reestablishes on that Coney Island Ferris wheel: “The sick part is, I actually missed you,” as Elliot says. “I’ve been scared of you. The part of me that is you.” For another, I’m eager to see Dom navigate double agent duties, especially if it means more screen time for the underappreciated Gummer. Still, it’s hard not to feel as if Mr. Robot’s urge to “make it like 5/9 never happened” is primarily a function of last season’s chickens coming home to roost—having backed himself into a corner, Esmail’s only option was to blow it all up and start again.
Maybe this is why Season Three left me so ambivalent, unable to find an analytical handhold beneath its gleaming surface: Going back to the beginning is an admirably bold decision, 32 episodes in, and also an unfortunate consequence of being lost in the wilderness. That “eps3.9_shutdown-r” does not amount to a ”’wow’ ending,” particularly in comparison to the sterling run of episodes that came at midseason, shows just how wrongheaded Irving is: Extricating a story from a mediocre middle (in Mr. Robot’s case, most of Season Two) turns out to be no easy task. This is the advantage of television, the serial nature of which means the middle is always expanding, evolving, moving toward an unseen end, and its most formidable challenge, for the consequences of earlier missteps can be long indeed.
When it comes to Mr. Robot entire, I’m tempted to read another moment in the finale as highly self-conscious, if only because it underscores the importance of choices that can’t be rolled back. Riding the subway home after their own walk in the wilderness, Darlene informs Elliot that his memory of being tossed out the window is incorrect—that he is the agent of his own fate, just as Esmail is the agent of Mr. Robot’s. “Elliot, you weren’t pushed,” she says. “You jumped.”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.