It feels unlikely that history will remember USA Network’s Mr. Robot as a show which defines the holidays. After all, the show became one of this decade’s defining series thanks to its mindbending attack on our perceived reality, showing us a cold and brutal world from the point of view of Elliot (Rami Malek), a brilliant but damaged “vigilante hacker.”
But history should rethink that, because when you consider both the Emmy-winning drama as well as the kinds of stories we define as seasonally appropriate viewing, Mr. Robot fits nicely into this mindset. (And that’s not just because the final season, which wrapped up just a few days before the 25th of December, happened to be set during the last weeks of the year 2015.)
The series, created by Sam Esmail, has been best described as a hacker thriller since its earliest days, as we first meet Elliot when he’s working as a low-key computer expert, going out at night to confront the worst people with their secret online lives. However, Elliot’s quest for justice escalates to a desire to take down the mega-corporation E Corp, a journey which leads him to create the hacker army fsociety as well as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), a manifestation of his personality dedicated to protecting him.
Over the course of Elliot’s quest, there’s plenty of collateral damage as his war on E Corp provokes the terrifying Dark Army, the extremely rich and powerful people who run our world behind the scenes. And his own psyche is also a delicate fragile thing, as he struggles to connect with the people who are really in his life, like his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin), as well as Mr. Robot and the other fragments of personality that are roaming about in his head as the result of childhood trauma that’s never been resolved.
This all climaxes in the series finale, in which Elliot thinks he’s been transported to a perfect world thanks to the mysterious machine activated by longtime nemesis Whiterose (B.D. Wong). In this new reality, he was never broken or betrayed by the ones he loves — it’s a world where he can be happy.
But confronting the doppleganger who has been living a content and somewhat fulfilled life makes the whole simulation fall apart, and Elliot instead comes to realize that the personality he’s put forward for so long isn’t really him; he’s been hiding his true self so that “the mastermind” can fight against the world’s injustice. It’s that realization that helps him come to peace with all of his various selves, and when he wakes up in the hospital, Darlene is waiting to say hello to his true self.
There have been happier endings in the history of television, and no one’s bursting into song here (though the transcendent use of M83’s “Outro” gives the final moments of the episode an etherial glow). But it still reflects the sort of ending that feels totally in line with a Christmas classic.
After all, many stories we connect with the holiday season are fundamentally dark at many points. Little Women and Love Actually are all tinged with tragic deaths, and the two great classic Christmas tales—It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol—are entirely about their protagonists confronting their mortality after an existential crisis.
This darkness is an essential part of their power, of course; no way Scrooge is as jubilant at the news that he hasn’t missed Christmas Day unless he’s lived a lifetime of despair over the course of Christmas Eve. And Mr. Robot features a similar descent into darkness during Season 4, which adheres to a clear timeline, with the events of the season established as taking place over a matter of days right around the holiday season.
“405 Method Not Allowed,” the episode which tracks most of Christmas Day, is a classic Mr. Robot narrative experiment, as Esmail decides to go almost completely dialogue-free for the full hour. But it’s not just a gimmick. For a show where isolation and alienation are common themes, Christmastime adds extra power to that message; the lonely dinners and the quiet markets a reminder that for so many, the idealized holiday we see on TV and greeting cards is just that, an ideal that few manage to capture completely.
Even Dominique, who does spend the actual day of Christmas in suburban Jersey, feels disconnected from the celebration, in part because she’s balancing familial obligations with working for the Dark Army, and in part because it doesn’t matter if you’re by yourself or surrounded by family—it’s very easy to feel lonely during the holidays.
Following “405 Method Not Allowed” are two episodes which lead to the show’s darkest and most intense moment: Elliot, with the help of his longtime therapist, confronting the fact that he was sexually abused by his father when he was a kid. But after that heartbreaking realization, Elliot begins the real true journey back to himself. Within the world of the show, the series finale is set several days after Christmas, and thus no holiday frivolity is there to distract from Elliot’s journey at the very end. But that doesn’t shake its thematic connection to the narratives we crave at this time of year.
Christmas is a time for magic and for family, however you might define those things. It’s an opportunity to really understand what matters most in life, and realize what really doesn’t. When Elliot opens his eyes at the end of the episode and sees his sister, and maybe is fully returned to himself…
Well. It’s maybe a miracle.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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