Mr. Robot and Why TV Twists Don’t Work Anymore

MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.1_k3rnel%u2010pan1c.ksd" Episode 203 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network) Photo: Peter Kramer/USA Network

Spoilers ahead for Wednesday night's episode of Mr. Robot.

Well, what do you know? It turns out Elliot, the hacker hero of Mr. Robot, wasn't decompressing away from the internet at his mother's house while attending individual and group therapy and getting to know a half-kindly, half-menacing street criminal named Ray (Craig Robinson). He was actually in prison the whole time! His "mother" is a prison guard. Ray is a fellow inmate who apparently is running some kind of Tor-routed website that lets him deal in drugs, prostitution, and weapons from behind bars. 

This is the big twist of season two, apparently. The big twist of season one was a variation of the one in Fight Club: The title character (Christian Slater), the crazy-badass visionary renegade who "recruits" Elliot, turned out to be a figment of the hero's imagination, a stylized mental re-creation of his father, a computer salesman who died of leukemia caused by toxic leaks at a plant owned by Evil Corp.

Can we expect a twist, or "twist," along these lines in every season of Mr. Robot? Because, if so, I might have to stop watching — not because it's devoid of other merits (it's brilliantly directed, photographed, edited, and scored, and has a superlative cast), but the insistence on building perceptual tricks like these into the narrative diminishes the show's real and far more substantive virtues.

Series creator Sam Esmail, who wrote or co-wrote most of the episodes and directed all of season two, has gone on record repeatedly to say that he's not trying to fool anyone by doing this kind of thing. There are just enough clues dropped from the very beginning so that alert, film-history-conscious viewers have no trouble figuring out each season's structural sleight of hand. That's all true and fair. He's working in a tradition that also includes films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, A Beautiful Mind, and, in its own way, The Usual Suspects: You get pretty deep into the film and realize that what you thought was one thing was actually another thing.

I didn't outright predict that the character of Mr. Robot was going to turn out to be a Tyler Durden–style hallucination, but I was worrying about it all the way up to the episode where Esmail finally showed his cards — dreading it, really, because the show was so good at constructing a partially subjective universe shaped by Elliot's sardonic narration and star Rami Malek's introverted yet expressive acting, which I still think constitutes the best ongoing performance by a lead actor in a serialized drama. In season two, I didn't think Elliot's "detox" might turn out to be a fantastic construction, à la Mr. Robot himself, because it just seemed like too much of an M. Night Shyamalan thing to do, and since Esmail had done that once, drawing more criticism than praise, why would he do it again immediately? (My colleague Abraham Riesman figured it out right away, and as I read his evidence for Elliot's latest fantasy, I felt my heart sink, because if he turned out to be right, it would diminish my respect for a show that's so original and unpredictable in so many other ways.)

I should probably ’fess up here and admit that I don't watch Mr. Robot, or any other TV series, to test my knowledge of TV tropes and say, "I called it!" whenever I successfully predict where a show's plot might be headed. That particular viewing approach doesn't interest me. I know there's a pretty sizable contingent of people who watch films and TV series mainly to see if they can successfully guess what will happen next — Reddit is a virtual mecca for this sort of viewer — but I've never encouraged that impulse, because it seems to me that it rewards screenwriters who are thinking about their plots and characters on the most superficial level, constructing a puzzle for others to solve and to feel good about having solved; this also encourages some writers to cheat a bit, withholding evidence that might tip their hand early, or just obscuring details and piling twist upon twist and reversal upon reversal until none of the characters make sense anymore as anything but figures in a nonsensical dream.

I'm not saying Esmail is doing that: He dropped enough hints in both seasons that you could figure things out early if you were so inclined. He even salted the dialogue and the scenes themselves with what feel in retrospect like winks or shrugs. After Elliot figured out that Mr. Robot was a hallucination of his dead dad and Darlene was actually his sister, the show played an acoustic version of Fight Club's closing-credits theme, the Pixies' “Where Is My Mind?” In last night's episode, Elliot seems to half-sheepishly apologize to his unseen "friend" — the TV viewer — for the prison twist. "I know what you're thinking. And no, I didn't lie to you. All of this really happened." 

In an interview with my friend Alan Sepinwall, Esmail said that these sorts of techniques are not intended to outsmart anyone, but to reflect the hero's "ability to reprogram his life: E Corp was turned into Evil Corp. When we thought about him being in prison, what would be that coping mechanism, this came to mind. The other approach was his relationship to us — to his 'friend' — and how we left him at the end of the first season. He basically didn't trust us anymore, he felt we were keeping things from him. So we wanted to develop that relationship as well. That was the one approach of, 'This is what Elliot would do in this situation, to cope with being in prison,' and then the other of keeping it from us because he felt betrayed by us from the first season."

Fair enough, but that still leaves us with another question, not about Elliot but about Mr. Robot as a work of popular storytelling: Do twists or tricks like these add to the story or detract from it? I'd argue that, in this case, they detract. 

What makes Mr. Robot so innovative, audacious, and delightful aren't the narrative overlays of "Is this person real?" or "Is this situation real?" It's the detail and conviction with which Esmail and his actors build this mesmerizing alternate universe, which is essentially our world unfolding along what Abed on Community would call "the darkest timeline." 

Experts have hailed the show as the most accurate portrayal of computer programming, hacking, and the fine points of cybersecurity that TV has ever seen, and it's so good at weaving this crucial material into the characters' lives that you don't need to be an expert yourself to grasp what's going on. The show's mastery of tone — sardonic and satirical, but ominous — is just as unusual. Its distrust of both capitalism and the possibility of revolution and reform are unheard of on commercial television, and its alternately idealistic and despairing worldview is so sincere and distressed that you can't just hit it with the usual complaints of hypocrisy ("If it's so anti-Establishment, what's it doing on commercial TV, eh?") and walk away thinking you've delegitimized Esmail as a political storyteller. The show is at least as good at world-building as Game of Thrones — every episode brings more tidbits about the economic and political effects of the 5/9 hack, and makes sure you understand the motivation for, say, blackmailing Evil Corp and then forcing its CFO (Brian Stokes Mitchell) to burn the ransom money in a public park, where the act will be captured on camera phones and uploaded to social media, furthering the idea that the corporation literally has money to burn and that fsociety isn't in this to enrich themselves.

But all this is diminished by the games Esmail plays in presenting Elliot's view of the world. What's the point, ultimately? Why do it at all? And if you're going to do it, why not 'fess up immediately and let the narrative tension come from juxtaposing reality and "reality" in ways that illuminate the hero's internal struggles? The show seems to be hedging its bets here, arranging the material in a way that suggests we're going to be gobsmacked and mind-effed at some point, while simultaneously building enough signals into the story that if viewers complain that they figured out the twist right away, it's because it was never meant to be a twist. Bear in mind that I'm not saying Esmail shouldn’t make the show he wants to make and is making — only that Mr. Robot is devoting an inordinate amount of energy to an aspect of storytelling that's vastly less interesting than the things the tricks are meant to enhance and support. 

I wouldn't mind seeing a moratorium on this kind of screenwriting for that very reason: It just never works anymore. 

The twist movies of the late 1990s occurred during the last possible cultural moment when a storyteller could do something like that and not have millions of people instantly take to the internet to figure out what was "really" going on. You might figure it out on your own and share your evidence with your friends on a chat board or in the comments section of a blog post, but the phenomenon of literally millions of viewers simultaneously joining forces to stay one step ahead of a storyteller was still about five to ten years away (depending on which social-media platform you think did more damage to a screenwriter's ability to keep a secret, Facebook or Twitter). 

The funny thing is, you often find yourself appreciating the substance of a story more once you've gotten past the adrenaline rush of "What's going on?" and "What's really going on?" and are able to concentrate on the details of characterization, performance, and storytelling. As one personal example of this phenomenon, I offer The Sixth Sense: I accidentally found out the twist before I saw the film when my eye randomly fell on a particular paragraph of an Entertainment Weekly story with a spoiler warning at the top. But I still loved the movie because it painted such a haunting (in every sense) portrait of the human mind's capacity for denial and delusion. At its heart, the film is not merely about a man who had no idea he was dead, but a man who refused to accept his fate and was going through the motions of an old life that no longer existed. Most people who saw it for the first time were probably preoccupied with guessing the twist, and if they guessed it early, they might have decided the film was a waste of their time: You promised you were going to be smarter than me, movie, but it turned out I was smarter than you, so I'm disappointed. 

Seventeen years on, there are Facebook and Reddit and Twitter threads, video essays and blog posts dedicated to figuring out every last twist and trick that storytellers naïvely hope they're holding in reserve. For some reason — perhaps the social-media-age rush to jump ahead to the next thing — this kind of viewing has become endemic. Whether the topic of discussion is the meaning of the ending of Inception or The Sopranos or the lineage of Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it's guaranteed that somebody (or somebodies) will eventually guess the correct answer or, worse, insist that they've "solved" a work that was meant to be ambiguous and unresolved. The end result of this kind of discussion diverts attention from the deeper values of storytelling and re-centers interest on the hook, or on what viewers mistakenly believe is the hook, of any given tale. Art becomes a math problem, or a gift-wrapped present whose identity can be deduced by shaking the box a little. 

Mr. Robot is encouraging this kind of reductive approach to engagement with art, however accidentally. And it's a shame, because the rest of the show is so rich with imagination and meaning that it could probably rivet us if it dropped the gimmicks entirely and just concentrated on doing what it already claims to be doing: telling the story of Elliot and the cruel world that he's trying to destroy and remake. As I've said of other series, including Mad Men, this show is smarter than the people who think they are smarter than the show. But it's not easy to make that case when Esmail is pulling another variation of "it was all a dream.”