[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the latest episode of Mr. Robot, "Series Finale, Part 2." Read at your own risk!]
The cultural narrative surrounding Mr. Robot is a familiar one, but one that never gets old: An out-of-nowhere hit debut, then a challenging follow-up that uses the corporation's resources to experiment and alienates all but the die-hards, and then a return to form with nobody but those die-hards really paying close attention. Those know-it-alls then get to say, "You should have been paying attention all along." The USA Network techno-thriller didn't get good again -- it was always good, even at the most confusing points of Season 2, which was difficult but rewarding (though you'll never find anyone who'll defend that interminable prison subplot). However, the show didn't truly match the heights of Season 1 until its fourth and final season, with a series finale that featured the happy-ish ending you wouldn't have seen coming but which, in retrospect, feels completely inevitable.
Somehow, creator Sam Esmail & Co. pulled Mr. Robot's loose threads together and delivered an emotionally satisfying series finale with a remarkable twist that was hidden in plain sight the whole time. It's not a surprise that they pulled it off; Esmail has known where this story was going since he wrote it as a screenplay a decade ago, and the cast has been delivering at an all-star level all season. They could've probably gotten away with selling an ending that wasn't even as strong as this one, but with the main plot of the series mostly dispatched with, the finale committed to unraveling the show's final enigma: Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) himself.
Early in the final season, three of Elliot's dissociative identities called a meeting in a secret corner of his mind and resolved to wait for "the other one," presumably another of Elliot's identities, but no one watching had any idea who -- or what -- that was. The show put this twist on the shelf while it wrapped up the series-long plot of Elliot and his fsociety cohorts toppling the global financial order and stopping mega-hacker Whiterose (BD Wong) from carrying out her plan, which really did turn out to be time travel after all. (Her past-repair time machine may seem farfetched, but real-life billionaires are literally trying to figure out how to live forever, so it's not really much of a stretch. People really are trying to hack time, and Whiterose just had a different way of going about it.) The hack of the bank accounts belonging to the members of the Deus Group -- the top one percent of the top one percent -- and the redistribution of wealth to all Americans was completed in a beautiful, joyous scene in Episode 10, and the revelation of Whiterose's plan, her death, and Elliot's defusing of her machine happened halfway through Episode 11. So the last two and a half episodes were an epilogue. Now that Elliot's mission was complete, it was time for him to become himself again.
The first episode of the two-part finale found Elliot exploring the alternate reality introduced in the previous episode, showing what happened to him during the time we were with the alternate reality Elliot (who Reddit is calling Flliot, since in this reality, E Corp is known as F Corp) in Episode 411. He woke up on the pavement where the Washington Township power plant was supposed to be but wasn't. As he walked away, Styx's "Mr. Roboto" finally, FINALLY played, an on-the-nose needle drop four seasons in the making. He went to his father's computer repair store, where he found that his father was alive and a good man with a loving relationship with his son, and then he went home, where his uncharacteristically kind mother (Vaishnavi Sharma) revealed that he never jumped out the window to escape his predatory father, never had a sister, and was going to marry Angela (Portia Doubleday) tomorrow. So Elliot went to his apartment and hacked Flliot, who was who he would be if he hadn't had such a painful life. He found drawings on Flliot's computer of himself and Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and Dark Army soldiers and scenes from his life. When Flliot came home, he explained that the drawings were fantasies of a more exciting life he imagined himself living. Elliot, overcome with the possibility of a happy life with Angela, murdered Flliot.
The second episode started with Elliot trying to dispose of Flliot's body, but getting caught by Dominique (Grace Gummer), who in this reality was an NYPD traffic cop. He fled -- passing a poster advertising a movie called "Heroes," a callback to a poster in the same spot advertising a movie called "Villains" in the pilot -- and went to Coney Island to take wedding photos. But when he got there, Angela was nowhere to be found, and the wedding guests were all wearing fsociety masks. Mr. Robot explained that none of this was real. It was a recursive loop Elliot created in his mind to keep "him" occupied while Elliot took control.
"Who?" Elliot asked.
"The real Elliot," Mr. Robot answered.
Angela appeared on the boardwalk, and Elliot pursued her into fsociety headquarters. "You're not Elliot," she told him. "You're the Mastermind."
Elliot's reality then glitched out, as he realized he was trapped in a Black Lodge of his own making (Sam Esmail's influences are always easy to spot, and he's a huge Twin Peaks fan). Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) appeared and shot Elliot, then buried him on the beach. Elliot dragged himself out of the hole, and found himself in Krista's (Gloria Reuben) office.
"We've been trying to show you the truth and you've been resisting," this mental projection of his therapist told him. She said that Darlene doesn't exist here because Darlene is Elliot's only link to reality, and keeping her out of the fantasy was Elliot's best chance of trapping "him" here. She explained that Elliot's dissociative identity disorder created multiple personalities for different purposes. The first was Mr. Robot, who he created the day he jumped out the window, whose purpose was to protect him from intolerable situations. The second was his mother, who persecuted him for the failings he couldn't look at head-on. The third was his younger self, who handled the abuse Elliot couldn't tolerate. The fourth were the voyeurs, who Elliot was performing for and thought they weren't a part of it despite being there for all of it (this is who Elliot's voiceovers were addressing throughout the series, and the one that makes the least sense to me). And recently a fifth one emerged, "the Mastermind," created to carry Elliot's rage. For the whole show, it turns out, we'd been watching the Mastermind at work.
Mr. Robot was predictable enough when it wanted to be -- consider the Season 1 reveal that Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) was in Elliot's head, a thread shamelessly lifted from Fight Club -- but it was also completely unpredictable at times. This new development was in the latter category.
Elliot created the Mastermind persona because it could do things he couldn't. Elliot existed in society, and he couldn't be a vigilante hacker outlaw saving the world by upending society and raining vengeance upon the unjust. But he wanted to, so his mind created a way for him to do it, and this personality created fsociety and carried out the 5/9 hack. But the rage-fueled Mastermind became so powerful that it forgot it was just another personality and took over, blocking out all the other aspects that made Elliot a complete person. As Krista explained this, we saw flashbacks to all the times the show hinted at this ("How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask?"), showing how angry Elliot was throughout the show, and the times the people who loved him could tell he wasn't the Elliot they knew. We thought it was because they were talking to Mr. Robot, but it was because they were talking to the Mastermind.
The Mastermind stashed the true Elliot away in his mind-prison until it was safe to let him out, which was to be when fsociety's plan was finished. But the Mastermind didn't want to give up control. He woke up Elliot's body, and found he was in a hospital room with Darlene watching over him. Gretchen Carlson delivering the news on TV confirmed that Whiterose was dead and the nuclear meltdown had been avoided. Darlene told him that there was still an explosion as Whiterose's machine failed, and Elliot survived because the room he was in had special fortifications. Everything that had happened really happened, the good and the bad, from redistributing the wealth to the people to Angela's death.
"Guess it's official," she said. "You saved the world, Elliot Alderson."
But rather than be happy, Elliot was upset, because he wasn't Elliot. "I'm only a part of him," he told Darlene.
"I know," she said. "I know you're not him. Not the Elliot I grew up with, at least. I've known since we started fsociety. You don't act like him. At first I thought it was you but different, but then when you forgot who I was again, it wasn't hard to figure out from there." She didn't say anything because having some part of her brother was better than not having him at all, and before they started fsociety they hadn't been speaking. She didn't know how to be there for him with what he was going through mentally, so she wasn't. But she wanted to fix things between them, because she loved him. But he was gone.
"Is he OK?" she asked. The Mastermind said "I made a safe place for him. It's got everything he ever wanted." She said that was good, because he deserved it. But she misses him. As she went out to go get the nurse, the Mastermind said, "Darlene, I'm wrong. It doesn't have everything. And even though I'm only a part of him, I want you to know I love you." The voyeurs watching this scene had tears in their eyes.
Darlene went out, and the Mastermind went back inside Elliot's subconscious. "Hello, friend," he said. "God, that's always been lame, hasn't it? Sorry I never came up with a better name for you. Then again, I don't even have a name. Just a guy trying to play god without permission." He was in the boardroom with the personas of Mr. Robot, Elliot's mother, young Elliot, and presumably the voyeurs, too. He was finally ready to give up control. "You'll always be part of him, kiddo," Mr. Robot reassured him.
He gave one last bit of voiceover: "This whole time I thought changing the world as something you did, an act you performed, something you fought for. I don't know if that's true anymore. What if changing the world was just about being here? By showing up, no matter how many times we get told we don't belong. By staying true even when we're shamed into being false. By believing in ourselves even when we're told we're too different. And if we all held on to that, if we refused to budge and fall in line, if we stood our ground for long enough, maybe the world can't help but change around us. Even though we'll be gone, it's like Mr. Robot said: We'll always be a part of Elliot Alderson. And we'll be the best part. Because we'll be the part that always showed up. We're the part that stayed. We're the part that changed him. And who wouldn't be proud of that?"
The vaguely-worded speech kind of came out of nowhere. Elliot's problem wasn't that he didn't believe in himself, it was the he had mental illness. The speech is more feel-good than the resolutely feel-bad Mr. Robot has ever been, and can be read as suggesting that changing the world can come from being solipsistically true to oneself instead of through collective action, which is false. But there is truth to the idea that you have to show up for life, and you have to be true to your beliefs and principles to live an honest life. It perhaps would have been more effective to leave this speech on the cutting room floor and moved from Mr. Robot's final line into the next scene, but the speech didn't ruin the ending. As always, Rami Malek's yearning performance and Sam Esmail's tremendous direction sold it. And it makes what Rami Malek told me at the premiere about what he hopes the show's legacy will be -- that hopefully people were lifted by it and it makes their voices louder and stronger and they feel like they can change the world -- make more sense to me. I thought it was an odd statement at the time, but after seeing this scene, I see that this is what he was thinking about. The season was building to a moment of uplift.
After he finished his speech, the Mastermind followed the other personalities into a movie theater. They took their seats, the movie that is Elliot's life started to play, the grand strings of M83's "Outro" swelled, and the camera flew into the projector and came out looking at Elliot's eye, which welled up with a tear that dropped. We cut to Elliot's point of view as Darlene came into the room. She noticed that something was different, and bent down to get a closer look at him. She searched his face for a few seconds, and the trace of smile flitted across her lips.
"Hello, Elliot," she said.
It was a beautiful ending, full of the love and hope Elliot and Mr. Robot had always been seeking but had never been able to find until now.
Mr. Robot was never perfect. It always had stuff that didn't quite work. The pacing might be off, and the writing could be too derivative at times. Even in Season 4, the season-opening murder of Angela was Esmail throwing his hands up and admitting he never figured out what to do with the character. But the show did so many things phenomenally well. The thriller set pieces are among the tensest ever put on TV, and it did them over and over again (my personal favorite is the one in Season 2 where a Dark Army agent opens fire on a restaurant). Every major performance was truly excellent, and hopefully Carly Chaikin gets her own starring vehicle soon. Esmail raised the bar on television filmmaking, directing every episode of the final three seasons and making the show look like nothing else on TV, with its off-center frames and uneasy close-ups and cinematography that captured contemporary New York City more accurately than just about any other show currently on TV. The show's location scouting and editing and sound design and music supervision and scoring (shoutout to composer Mac Quayle) and attention to technical detail in the hacking scenes (shoutout to writer Kor Adana) was always best of the best. Remember when it did a single take-style episode that was so smooth people didn't even notice it was a single take?
The show's true legacy will be twofold: It launched Rami Malek and Sam Esmail, both of whom seem likely to be cultural forces for years to come, and showed that it's not always bull when a basic cable producer says their show is a multi-season movie.
Mr. Robot Season 4 is available to stream via USA. Seasons 1-3 are available on Amazon Prime.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)