Most weeks, we pick an episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 2 through 8 is “405 Method Not Allowed,” the fifth episode of the fourth and final season of USA’s Mr. Robot.
When I’ve mentioned, offhand, to friends and social media followers that I’m really enjoying the fourth and final season of Mr. Robot, they’ve expressed a mild shock. They’re not shocked that I think the final season continues a hot streak the show entered in its third season (which aired way back in 2017). They’re shocked the show is still even on the air.
The “That show is still on?” reaction is common for series that were once media darlings but then fell out of the zeitgeist. It feels as though that happened particularly quickly with Mr. Robot, which debuted in 2015 and was one of the breakout critical sensations of that year, then squandered at least some of that goodwill on a long and meandering (but still very good!) second season.
The third season was an improvement, but by then the conversation had moved on. The show felt stuck in 2015, and its primary contribution to the culture had become rocketing star Rami Malek (who won an Emmy for his role as disaffected hacker Elliot and later, in 2019, the Best Actor Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody) to superstardom.
Mr. Robot is also quite literally stuck in 2015: As the series entered its final season, the action had only advanced to just before Christmas 2015, and if it advances time at all, it might be lucky enough to just crack New Year’s Day 2016. In the Mr. Robot world, Barack Obama is still president and Donald Trump is still an outsider candidate whose chances at the White House seem slim. If Mr. Robot existed in Mr. Robot’s world, it would still be one of the most talked-about shows.
But there’s value to living in the eternal 2015 of this show, even beyond the fact that the series remains one of TV’s most stylistically and creatively adventurous. Where the show’s focus on lonely and angry young men longing for a less corrupted world felt prescient when the show debuted, it now plays as a reminder of a recent history we’re perhaps too tempted to sweep under the rug. And where Mr. Robot was simply diagnosing a national illness early in its run, now it’s starting to suggest a cure.
The final season’s fifth episode is a brilliantly staged heist — with only two lines of dialogue
Mr. Robot has always been fond of stylistic gimmicks, undertaken with a wink and a smile. Its entire cinematographic palette, so unusual when the show debuted in 2015, is an ode to the power of negative space on even the smallest of screens, to the way that humans can feel swallowed up by emptiness so very easily.
But in its third and fourth seasons, the show has taken its stylistic ambitions to new heights. In season three, it constructed a thrilling hour that was filmed and edited to seem as if it was taking place in a long, continuous single shot that darted and weaved in and around a massive skyscraper on the day of a protest turned riot. It was one of my favorite TV episodes of 2017, and at its center was an inescapable sense that everything — all the chaos and all the serenity — was connected.
The thematic resonance of season four’s own stylistic break is harder to pin down at first. The season’s fifth episode — “405 Method Not Allowed” (and yes, all of season four’s episodes are named after http status codes, a gag that may delight you or irritate you or both) — features just two lines of spoken dialogue.
Near its beginning, Elliot’s sister, the snarky cool girl hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin), says, “It’s cool, dude. We don’t have to talk,” when she picks up her brother in the midst of another wild adventure. And at its very end, one character says to another, “It’s time we talked.” In between — amid one of the most elaborate hacks the characters have ever undertaken — the characters do not speak out loud to one another. What “dialogue” there is is handled via text messages and computer keystrokes. Meaning is conveyed, but not verbally.
On the one hand, this is just fun. Because the episode is so propulsive, so full of scrapes that Elliot and Darlene have to get out of (to say nothing of other silent adventures involving the show’s ensemble cast), it took me about 15 minutes to realize that there wasn’t actually any dialogue, I was so invested in the story. And writer and director Sam Esmail (the show’s creator and showrunner, who has directed every single episode of the show since the season two premiere) paces the episode at a dead sprint, while also infusing it with the spirit of the holiday season. (I haven’t even mentioned yet that it takes place on Christmas morning!)
From the moment it debuted, however, Mr. Robot’s love of stylish frippery has been held against it. The show was all style and no substance, thought some critics, with a core message about alienation and how capitalism is rigged against the little guy that was ultimately pretty shallow. You could maybe wade in it, but you’d never break the surface.
I’ve always disagreed with this line of critique. I’ve felt like Mr. Robot has depths that are rarely explored in criticism of the show because its surface qualities are so ostentatious and flashy. Season four, thankfully, seems like it’s finally rewarding my faith in the show’s long game.
Mr. Robot is a deeply humanist show that pretends to be antisocial on its surface
At first blush, the mostly dialogue-free hour that is “Method Not Allowed” seems like another gimmick, even to a defender of the show like me. But taken in concert with the fourth season’s other episodes, it reveals the show edging toward making some sort of definitive statement on the human condition in the 2010s. (It is oddly appropriate that the show’s finale will air on December 22, 2019, with just nine days left to go in the decade.)
The most facile version of this conclusion might be, “Though the connectivity of the internet promised to bring us closer together, it has instead made us more alone,” but I would push beyond that to something more like, “The world is rigged against any one person, but the more people who band together, the harder the world becomes to rig.”
The final season has dispensed with what was a core part of the show’s storytelling: Elliot’s hum of a monologue delivered to the audience (a “friend” only he can see). Instead, the monologue is now delivered to us by Mr. Robot, Elliot’s more outwardly self-destructive alter ego, who has become a weird caretaker of Elliot in the final season. Again, on the surface, this is a superficial change made to shake up the show’s status quo. But on a deeper level, Elliot is no longer talking to the person — us — with whom he can be most honest. Communication has been severed.
The structure of the season has been about Elliot tentatively rebuilding relationships that have frayed throughout the series, most notably with Darlene, who has always been there for her brother, albeit to little real notice from him. She’s there to pick him up over and over again, and because he struggles with a mental illness that makes him occasionally forget who she even is, he’s not there for her nearly as consistently.
Yet early in the final season, after the duo’s mother dies, the two discuss the legacy of their neglectful, abusive household and the way they have always been the only person the other really could count on. It’s a sweet storyline, and it’s mirrored in the season’s fourth episode, in which both Darlene and Elliot have long, late-night conversations with characters they find themselves stuck with as Christmas Eve turns to Christmas Day. Conversation and connection — especially when laced with empathy and honesty — is key to defeating the forces of darkness.
And because this is Mr. Robot, those forces of darkness are nothing less than the underpinnings of capitalism and the modern political order itself. In the final season’s second episode, a conspiracy-laden monologue straight out of the Oliver Stone movie JFK outlines a world run by a very small number of men who answer to one woman, the series’ main antagonist, the Chinese government official Whiterose.
(It should probably bother me that she’s a trans woman played by cis man actor BD Wong. But because the show has made a surprising meal of how Whiterose’s pathology and sociopathy is driven by mainstream Chinese society’s refusal to let her to live as herself, I’m just ... not. To me, this is the rare case where a cis actor playing a trans character lends a weird poignancy to the character.)
The monologue is at once true — there really is an increasingly tiny number of men who seem to hold the fates of all of us in the palm of their hands — and false, because there’s no way you could end global capitalism by taking out a single target. There is no Whiterose. There is no dragon to slay to make it all better.
I assume Mr. Robot will point this fallacy out eventually. It’s always been smart about this. But what it’s also making clear is that what keeps us alive are the connections we build to other people — real connections and not hollow ones.
Revolution starts in the streets, be they physical or digital, but lasting change begins one on one, conversation to conversation. We can still build a better world. The promise of every holiday season is that in the darkness at the end of the year, we can make a little more light than usual. But that’s not just true in December.