This review contains spoilers from episode seven of Mr. Robot Season Two.
After two corker episodes, imperfect but electric, this week’s Mr. Robot is either the completion of an artful con or a desperate swerve out of the season’s skid. It might be a bit of both: Though Elliot Alderson’s unreliable narration has long been the series’ fail-safe, I’d be lying if I said the erasure of what’s come before—as if the narrative were one of the FBI’s corrupted archives—didn’t surprise me, offering the rare (if fleeting) pleasure of the near-total volte-face. Still, it’s hard not to see the last six weeks as a bait-and-switch, confirmation of the church group’s Biblical warning. In the end, writer/director Sam Esmail’s arrogance was breathtaking enough that he sets his own trap, quoting from Deuteronomy before committing the same sin. “Whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them,” as the group’s leader reads—referring to false idols—though it’s the next verse in the chapter that seems to me the most telling: “Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them.” As Elliot apologizes for not telling us everything, Mr. Robot’s snare snaps shut, and with it my willingness to follow the series through its self-serious contortions much longer. The handshake of “h4ndshake.sme” turns out to hide a joy buzzer, a delightful gag for the con man, perhaps, but a callow one for the conned.
The twist itself—Elliot’s been in prison, and not at his mother’s house—is not the problem, so much as the swollen, languidly paced half-season it took to get there. In fact, Esmail handles the revelation with aplomb: The flickering out of familiar sets (the diner, the church circle, the basketball court) as the red light flashes and the siren sounds is a striking attempt to visualize the thin line between the imagined and the real. If Elliot’s involvement with Ray was no more than a red herring, it was an unsuccessful one, violating the principle at the heart of The 39 Steps and The Usual Suspects, The Planet of the Apes and The Sixth Sense, which is that we must come to care about the rules of the game for breaking them to be effective. Instead, Mr. Robot gave us more than six hours’ worth of stalemated chess matches and philosophical debates, hobbled by a raft of allusions that now seems a null set, winding back around to where last season ended: Elliot’s world is not what it seems. Fine, pull the rug out from under us. The rug was trash, anyway.
It’s no coincidence that the season’s finest sequences—Dom DiPierro’s trip to China, Angela Moss’ electronic infiltration the FBI—didn’t unspool in the space between Elliott’s ears, though “h4ndshake.sme” calls even this into question. (If he’s been in prison, he couldn’t have planted the logic bomb that led to the hack of the FBI, right? And without that intermediate step in the process, how could Darlene and Angela execute their plan?) Esmail’s “nothing is as it appears” narrative leaves much to be desired, not least because the Etch-a-Sketch in his back pocket has left him unable, or unwilling, to create much momentum; Mr. Robot increasingly resembles a clothesline or corkboard strung with conspiracy theories, certain fragments engrossing but the whole incomplete. There are high notes in “h4ndshake.sme,” to be sure—the garbage-burning “cottage industry,” Dom’s search for a Fourth of July barbecue “to be miserable at”—but by the time the episode cuts to black, the sense that Esmail’s been on a feckless walkabout since the end of last season is hard to ignore. If Mr. Robot is going to be a series that self-destructs at regular intervals, the edifices it builds in the interim can’t be as shoddy as they’ve been. When it comes to suspense, the space between the twists is as important as the sudden reversal.
As such, Elliot’s voiceover at episode’s end reads to me as a pre-emptive deflection, a dismissal of criticism, the self-conscious wink of a writer deciding to paint himself out of a corner. “Control can sometimes be an illusion, but sometimes you need an illusion to gain control,” Elliot suggests, in another of the tautologies that render Mr. Robot’s ambition more surface than substance. “Fantasy’s an easy way to give meaning to the world, to cloak our harsh reality in escapist comfort. After all, isn’t that why we surround ourselves with so many screens, so we can avoid seeing? So we can avoid each other? So we can avoid truth?” That the sum of the series’ ardent meaning-making is this utterly anodyne idea should give us pause whether or not Elliot’s assertion that “All of this really happened” turns out to be true.
At the conclusion of “h4ndshake.sme,” Elliot—Esmail—asks for our trust, misapprehending the series’ flaws in the process. The trouble with Mr. Robot is not that nothing is as it appears, but that its obsession with appearances adds up to nothing at all.
Matt Brennan is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Indiewire, Paste, Slant, The Week, Flavorwire, Deadspin, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.