the future is now

Mr. Robot and the Delicate Art of TV Twists

Mr. Robot - Season 1
Mr. Robot. Photo: USA Network

This post contains spoilers for last night’s Mr. Robot. Are you not watching Mr. Robot? You should start!

“Did you forget again? Did you forget who I am?” Last night’s Mr. Robot was, to put it mildly, a real mind-fuck. It called into question several parts of the show’s reality, a reality already distorted by Elliot’s particular lens. We now know, or think we know, that Darlene is Elliot’s sister; Mr. Robot’s his father (well, the person he sees as Mr. Robot?); Darlene does ballet (whaaaat!); Mr. Robot and Tyrell know one another; some of these people eat popcorn in the morning (horrific); and White Rose is B.D. Wong, which is the most joyous moment the show has ever given us. But among all the surprises in the episode, one stood out as the most surprising, and that was the sense that the show might actually be able to pull this off.

Twists on shows are tough. Movies with twists? Sure! Because the movie only has to pull that off once, and it’s easier to reframe the reality of two-ish hours worth of ideas than eight (or more) hours of story. A “twist” — in this context — isn’t just a surprisingly story line, it’s a restructuring of what you had come to believe was valid about the circumstances. Bruce Willis is dead is a twist; Ned Stark dies is a merely a shocking development. It’s a very shocking development, no doubt, but you’re not left with the curiosity to go back to previous episodes and see if it “holds up” somehow.

TV doesn’t usually do true, mind-bending twists like this; even St. Elsewhere’s snow-globe twist-ending felt more like a lark than a real reestablishment of premise. Lost tried for a couple of twists along the way but wound up with so many nesting dolls of ostensible bombshells that the expectation became surprise, with no real way to subvert it. We didn’t know which Galactica crew members were Cylons — but, then, neither did they.

Unless something outrageously serendipitous happens, a twist has to be baked in from the get-go. And that’s what’s so thrilling about Mr. Robot. This has been part of the show all along, provoking a Fight Club theory in some fans, but leaving everyone at least sure that there was nothing to be sure of. We knew Elliot had “hacked” aspects of the life he was presenting to us (see: “Evil Corp”), but just what else that hacking entailed remains unclear. One of the dangers of shows that seem super-complex is the desire to overanalyze — a desire I share and perpetuate. Cut me, I bleed scrutiny. But after obsessing over Lost’s background mathematics or True Detective’s seemingly literary clues, one feels the fruitlessness and frustration of these endeavors. The fact that so far Mr. Robot seems actually to be designed to withstand this level of inspection feels like a miracle. Why is Mr. Robot always reading the book Resurrection? Well … that makes sense now.

We’re eight episodes into a ten-episode first season. I guess it’s possible this could all go to absolute shit, or everything that seems so worthy of obsession right now is merely a projection of my human desire to avoid emptiness rather than what the show is genuinely presenting. Maybe I am Mr. Robot–ing myself, and I’ve forgotten — again — that usually when shows seem like they’re the best, they eventually get terrible and stupid and disappointing, and who cares more about this show, the fans or the writers, hm? Maybe I’m a sucker. But everything has been so tricky and careful thus far, so meticulous and patient. Please, Sam Esmail, let this be your big shock: creating a show that — amid the hype, speculation, and fervor — actually rises to the occasion.

Mr. Robot and the Delicate Art of TV Twists