Mr. Robot’s third season was its best. It moved with the momentum and confidence that made season one such a hit, with the stronger character development that had marked season two. In season three, when a random associate of Elliot Alderson’s was threatened, it felt queasier, or when two of the supporting cast members hooked up, it felt more thrilling.
And I agree with something the Ringer’s Alison Herman recently suggested: Mr. Robot was only able to pull this off because almost nobody was paying attention to it.
On the one hand, the show didn’t have any major twists this season for audiences to second guess. That probably played a part in its relative obscurity, since the twists drove much of the discussion in the first two years. But on the other, the conversation had also moved on. Mr. Robot felt downright prophetic when it debuted in 2015, with its tales of angry, alienated young men and a political system rigged even in the case of revolution. But in season three, it felt a little like a prophet of doom warning you not to continue on your current course as you pass him in your car. You could still hear his shouts, but only barely, and the landscape was on fire up ahead.
What the season did have was a thematic unity that wedded Mr. Robot’s superheroic hacking exploits to its deepest character story, about an isolated young man slowly coming to realize he’s not an island. It revolved around Elliot (the still magnetic Rami Malek, whose performance remains one of TV’s best) attempting to shove the genie he loosed upon the world in the form of a massive economic hack back into the bottle, both because he realized it was the right thing to do and because he had forged stronger connections with those he cares about, from his sister to his former best friend to the imaginary man that lives in his head.
And that deeper, richer story benefited from having more space to unfold in a world that wasn’t so impatient for it to get where it was going. I’d stack the season’s last six episodes against any TV made this year.
In season three, Mr. Robot pulled off almost everything it wanted to pull off in season two, but in far stronger fashion
I am, in general, a Mr. Robot season two apologist, but even I will admit that season two’s early episodes were lengthy slogs that spent way too much time on Elliot trying to reconcile himself with Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), a devilish alternate personality who took the form of his deceased father. It was infuriating TV — conceptually and thematically interesting, but never as gripping on a character level as it needed to be.
But this sort of slump is one that lots of TV shows, from Friday Night Lights to Homeland to Justified, have bounced back from, simply by better integrating their characters and their ideas. You could already see Mr. Robot starting to do this by the end of season two, but it ultimately had to abandon a lot of its “Elliot and Mr. Robot negotiate their relationship with each other” material to succeed. (It’s always been telling that season two’s best episode didn’t feature Elliot at all.)
Indeed, season three begins with the two men not speaking to each other, and Elliot doing his level best to hold off Mr. Robot and prevent him from taking over. He takes his meds. He goes to work every day. He makes himself a good worker bee, in hopes that if he can keep Mr. Robot at bay, the devastating cyberterrorist attack that Mr. Robot and the mysterious Dark Army are planning will never come to fruition.
But Mr. Robot is a TV show. And when you have Slater on the payroll, you’re going to have him do more than just leer menacingly at the camera for a few seconds every episode. So as season three hit its midpoint — where Elliot succeeds in stopping the terrorist attack, but neither he nor Mr. Robot see a far worse one coming — everything Mr. Robot has been about, for better or worse, began to turn itself inside out.
Mr. Robot learns he’s been played for a patsy by corporate overlords who unleashed a seeming economic revolution to line their own pocketbooks. Elliot vows to return the world to the way it was, as many of his colleagues and friends fall to the Dark Army. And then the two personalities finally start working together, to try to find a way to stop the Dark Army from furthering a plan that seems designed to turn planet Earth into an anarchic wasteland, ruled by super-corporations. Eventually, the finale ends with Elliot seeming to reverse the massive hack from season one, but its post-credits scene suggests that nothing is ever that easy when capitalism is involved.
The standard knock against Mr. Robot in its first season was that its main philosophy, espoused by Elliot, was basically a knockoff of Fight Club — anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist in a way that seemed reactionary at best and completely misinformed at worst. But I always felt that creator Sam Esmail had more up his sleeve. Elliot was right to be suspicious of the capitalist society he lived in, yes, but he was simply being played by different corporate overlords. And nothing is ever as simple as saying, “We need to do this one thing, and everything will be better.” There are always consequences, and there’s always blood in the streets.
Slowly but surely, Esmail and his writing staff have since built a story designed to give Elliot things to lose. He wants to take down the masters of the universe, who rule from their closed-off boardrooms, not just because they’ve built a cruel, exploitative world, but because he believes his sister and friends and imaginary father figure deserve something better. Saving the world can’t be done from behind a computer screen. It’s a movement that begins on the ground, and continues until walls come tumbling down.
Season three was obsessed with the idea of time travel, with the thought of going back in time to undo something, in much the way that Elliot wanted to undo his season one hack. His friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday), seemed, for a time, to actually believe that time travel was possible.
But it was all a red herring. As Elliot walked home to fix the hack, he passed a crowd of people, gathered outside in the rapidly crumbling New York street, to watch the movie Superman in a store window, specifically the scene where Superman flies opposite the Earth’s orbit so quickly that he turns back time and saves Lois Lane’s life. Elliot can’t resurrect anybody, but he can try to reverse time, just a little bit. He can put some things right, then get on to the work of building a better world.
In this way, I think, Mr. Robot sneakily rediscovered its relevance, and I hope as more people catch up with the series on streaming, they’ll spark to that (or maybe to the unexpected but welcome romantic tension between Grace Gummer’s Dom and Carly Chaikin’s Darlene, or maybe to the series’ welcome return to episodes that stand alone as episodes, or maybe to its still thrilling sense of cinematic self, or maybe just to Bobby Cannavale’s deeply weird performance as Dark Army specialist Irving). On Mr. Robot, political, social, personal, and professional awakenings are all the same thing. You can’t save the world, but you can rebuild it, brick by brick.