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Mr. Robot season 2 finale: this season was better than its reputation — even with all the mess

But, okay, yeah. It was more or less a season-long trailer for season three.

Mr. Robot
Things got weird for our hacker hero in season two — so weird that USA didn’t provide any photos for the finale.

Every week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke get together to discuss USA’s Mr. Robot. This week, we’re talking about "eps2.9_pyth0n-pt2.p7z," the season finale of the second season. You can catch up on our previous coverage of the series here.

Todd VanDerWerff: Mr. Robot season two was frustrating. Mr. Robot season two was messy. Mr. Robot season two noodled around for roughly half its 12 hours, before abruptly realizing it needed to tell a story.

It was also far, far better than it had any right to be.

Let’s just dispense with something the finale, "eps2.9_pyth0n-pt2.p7z" — better known as "Python, Part 2" — makes very clear: Season two is by and large a season-long trailer for season three. That’s rarely a good look on a TV show, and it’s what keeps this season from reaching the heights of season one.

But at the same time, it’s a trailer that does some really great stuff. As we’ve talked about many times here, the season did some incredible stuff with the show's women, and in the last few episodes, I was even struck by how much it was doing to clue Elliot into just how much of a mess he was creating.

In short, the season’s best trick was how it caused us to question everything Elliot had attempted to sell us in season one. The standard line against the show is that Elliot’s political ramblings are juvenile and empty. And they are!

If nothing else, season two — complete with a chilling conclusion where Elliot realizes that "stage two" will kill people, before Tyrell shoots him, and the power goes out throughout New York City — revealed the darkness in Elliot’s head didn’t need to be let out into the world at large. At least not without realizing how dangerous doing such a thing would be.

And yet, he did, and now the world is paying the price.

Taking some of the spotlight off Elliot this season broadened Mr. Robot’s world

Mr. Robot
I lied. They provided this photo of Jeremy Holm as "Mr. Sutherland."

Caroline Framke: I had avoided watching Mr. Robot for a long time exactly because I heard snippets of Elliot’s "political ramblings" and almost sprained my eyes rolling them. But then you promised me there’s some level of self-awareness in them, I tried a few episodes, and before I knew it, I was done with the first season in under a week.

For the same reason Elliot’s managed to inspire legions of hungry people, I couldn’t help myself from getting invested.

In that respect, season two — and especially "Python Part 2" — is fascinating if only because of how thoroughly it makes Elliot realize that he has no idea what the fuck he’s doing. In the first season, he was in some level of control even if he was Mr. Robot’ing all over the place, because he believed in something. In season two, he’s just desperately trying to figure out if that belief is founded on anything real, and it undercuts any authority he had before.

So while I can see that this shift in gears might be frustrating for someone who became a fan of the show specifically because of Elliot’s magnetism, season two’s exploration of why that magnetism is kind of bullshit is more fascinating to me by a long shot, sloppy pacing and all.

Todd: And I think it’s better built for the long-term, too. This season really needed to let the show breathe beyond Elliot’s occasionally claustrophobic point of view, and by sequestering him away for so much of its running time, it’s gotten us much more invested in everybody else. If season two was, say, the first half of a full season, I'd feel a lot more positive about it on the whole.

But at the same time, I think some of the grousing about the show has been slightly off the mark. Yes, sending Elliot into the cave to fight his darkest self ended up feeling like not a lot of anything (and probably would have been better had we known the nature of said "cave" from the first). But the more the show pulled back and back and back from the limited world of his perspective, the more thrilling it became.

Mr. Robot started out as a really interesting character and some great filmmaking, and then some hints of some other interesting stuff at the edges. Season two’s greatest trick was to build an entire world around all of that, one where we might actually care when the lights go out.

Dom knowing more than she let on is a twist that season two earned

Mr. Robot
Dom is the smartest person in the room.

Caroline: To shift gears slightly: Another great aspect of this second season was the fact that this finale reveals that Dom (the FUZZ!) has known far more than she’s let on all this time. As far as Mr. Robot’s reveals this season go, this is one that really works.

Dom’s been a shot in the arm for Mr. Robot this entire season, but knowing that she’s had a much keener eye on the situation than we even knew makes me like this season approximately 30 percent more than I already did.

Again, it undermines Elliot and fsociety’s belief that they’re unspeakably brilliant renegades evading the law, when the law’s had its eye on them for long enough to know how they work.

It also gives Grace Gummer more to do, as she makes constant adjustments both small (i.e., catering her interrogation styles to whomever she’s facing down) and huge (i.e., showing Darlene the FBI’s map of the five/nine hack, with her, Tyrell, Angela, and Elliot at the center).

Dom is someone who takes risks, but also knows exactly when to deploy them. That’s the kind of character I can’t wait to follow into another season.

Todd: Yes, the reveal of Elliot near the center of Dom’s giant web of fsociety members — trumped only by Tyrell — was a moment that made me gasp in delight, even as I realized that of course Dom would have figured it out. After all, what’s the direct line connecting, say, Angela to Darlene? It can’t be that hard to figure out.

I’m less certain about what Angela’s up to. Apparently she’s now working with Tyrell (or always was), and she’s all in on the Dark Army’s plan (for a little while at least). Angela and Tyrell have worked so well as weird mirrors of each other that it will be interesting to see them working together. But of all the season three teases, this was the least immediately intriguing.

What I do like are all of the hints that Mr. Robot and Tyrell’s plan has all of these little loose ends that need to be cleaned up here and there. Joanna is more or less a free agent at this point (though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s somehow still working with Tyrell).

And all the way over in California, Mobley and Trenton are working at Fry’s (the state's famed electronics chain) and talking about how they could potentially undo the five-nine hack, if they really wanted to. Of course, Leon is there to keep an eye on them, so who knows how long that will last?

Above all else, "Python, Part 2" conveyed a sense of both dread and possibility — dread at how the world is falling apart, but the possibility of a new beginning or a new hope. And, like Mad Men before it, Mr. Robot’s new hope just might reside in California.

Caroline: Don’t you tease me with the image of Angela going all Megan Draper on us, Todd. You know I won’t survive it!

But hey, who knows? It could happen. As far as setting up season three goes, "Python Part 2" sure as hell made it clear that it’s just about impossible for anyone to trust that they know what’s going on, even if they think they’ve taken all the necessary precautions.

Mr. Robot blew up the world, scattered the pieces, and demanded that its characters figure out how to live in it. Only a few — namely Dom, Angela, and maybe even Joanna — have come out of this season swimming instead of frantically treading water.

Let’s talk for a sec about Joanna Wellick, because whoa

Mr. Robot
Joanna is in her afterlife kitchen, apparently.

Caroline: Speaking of Joanna, her storyline was maybe the most interesting to me this week, if only because she’s still playing the same games she was in the first season. Yes, she was briefly played by the E Corp exec she and Tyrell brought down, who’s mourning his (apparently pregnant) wife with drinking and mind games. (Played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, Scott Knowles is a particularly snarled and sad figure these days.)

But out of everyone, Joanna's changed the least. Her hissing at Scott that he’s a "pussy" and calling his dead wife a "fetus corpse" is gross and shocking, just as she meant it. She knew that would make him furious, make him want to hurt her — and that she could use his anger to her own advantage.

Joanna’s never been one to shy away from a challenge, or back away from what looks like a dead end. Most everyone on Mr. Robot would look at that dead end and either walk away or try to make it come crashing down, but Joanna? She’ll manipulate that wall into bringing itself down, brick by brick.

So what do we want from season three?

Mr. Robot
See you next summer!

Todd: And yet I can’t help but feel a little exhausted by the endless mind games and reality distortions and the like. If I have a season three wish list, it’s that the show stops doing so much in terms of trying to be weird. It’s rarely easy to top yourself in this regard, and I hope Mr. Robot eventually just settles down.

However, there’s a good sign it might be doing just that, and I’d like to close on that moment.

Elliot becoming convinced that Tyrell is just a figment of his imagination — just like Mr. Robot — is such a great moment because it plays off of fan theories and your own worst fears about where the show might go and on and on. And even though you’ve seen Tyrell on Dom’s conspiracy wall, and even though you know he and Elliot can’t be one and the same, you’re still trying to do contortions to make it all fit.

And then Tyrell raises his gun and shoots Elliot in the gut. He’s very real, and very dangerous.

Mr. Robot’s stakes, so far, have occasionally felt weird and distant, caught up in mental loop-di-loops. Now, though, they're present in a way they haven't been before. Everything's on the line, and there’s no time for Elliot to try to figure it all out.

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