Spoilers for tonight’s episode of Mr. Robot below.
In the final minutes of this evening’s installment of Mr. Robot, I was reminded of a bit of dialogue from another self-serious and dimly lit urban thriller, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne tells Alfred, “Today, you get to say, ‘I told you so’”; Alfred replies, “Today, I don’t want to.” From the very first episode of the show’s sometimes delightful, sometimes plodding second season, we were pretty sure Elliot wasn’t actually staying at his mom’s house, but rather was locked away in an institutional setting somewhere. The show just revealed that to be the case (we were slightly off — it turns out it was a prison, not a psychiatric ward), but instead of feeling satisfied, it was more of a Jesus, can we finally move on now? moment.
This is, of course, not the first time that the series’ grand poobah, Sam Esmail, has pulled this sort of delayed-gratification unveiling. Last year, he took nearly the entire season to unveil the fact that Mr. Robot was a hallucination in the image of Elliot’s father, generated by our hacker hero in order to get through the dirty work of taking down the global economy. By the time the show got to that information, viewers had already been theorizing about it for weeks — indeed, in the walk-up to the revelation, it seemed like such an obvious (and Fight Club–aping) potential move that I was starting to suspect it was a red herring and that we’d get some kind of narrative jiujitsu in which our anticipation of a twist was rewarded with a twist upon the twist (perhaps Elliot would conclude Mr. Robot was an illusion, only to find out that he was actually real?).
But Esmail went ahead with the by then somewhat obvious plot element. So when he started dropping hints about this season’s situation — e.g. Elliot’s meetings with outsiders in the same location every time, the regular group therapy, and Darlene not acknowledging that she was allegedly in the room with her own mother — the dance felt familiar. On one hand, it seemed like he couldn’t possibly expect us to be excited by the same sort of trick a second time. On the other, he’d already done it once, so why shouldn’t we suspect that this was just the sort of thing he enjoys doing?
Sure enough, the latter was the case. Fool me twice, etc. Why did Esmail wait this long? What was gained? Narratively, absolutely nothing. The plot would have been exactly the same, given that Elliot was (as far as we know) only hallucinating his environment, not the characters or the chain of events we saw inside of it. In fact, you can argue that something was lost: Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to see Elliot navigate life in the big house, rather than just plod around in a generic home and a boring neighborhood? Similarly, it’s a visual opportunity wasted: Given that Elliot’s getting released now, we’ll never get to see Esmail adapt his idiosyncratic approaches to lighting, framing, and mise-en-scène to the fluorescent, orange-jumpsuited world of a prison. (That said, the seamless transitions from illusion to reality in the episode’s final montage were pretty nifty.)
That leaves us with the question of whether or not the audience received any thematic gifts by being strung along for such an extended period of time. It does make Elliot’s relationship with the audience a little more interesting, in that he’s been revealed as not just an unreliable narrator, but a downright deceptive one. “I’m sorry for not telling you everything,” he tells the audience. “But I needed this in order to get better. Please don’t be mad too long. This’ll be the last time I keep things from you, I promise.” Why should we believe him? We’re going to be kept on our toes for the rest of the series, knowing we might get fooled again.
This does add to the season’s overall exploration of control — we’ve been manipulated by the main person we’re supposed to relate to, reminding us that even our friends can put us in uneven power relationships and justify to themselves that they’re doing it for our or their own well-being. Plus, the whole endeavor demonstrates how far Elliot has fallen in his mental illness (after all, this means last week’s faux-sitcom was a hallucination within a hallucination).
And yet, couldn’t we have accomplished all of that sooner? Wouldn’t it have been much more of a thrill to find out that we’d been duped at the end of the first or second episode, when we’d had much less time to solve the puzzle? It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe where the show gave us a shock and redirected the energy it spent in keeping us ostensibly in the dark toward something more useful, like a clearer sense of the stakes for this season. By holding out on us, Esmail is making this twist a centerpiece of the season, rather than a fun little component to get us jump-started. “Control can be an illusion, but sometimes, you need an illusion to gain control,” Elliot murmured to us tonight. “Need” seems like an awfully strong word there.