It’s been almost two full years since Mr. Robot last aired. That means it’s been almost two years since we’ve last seen Elliot and Mr. Robot (or Darlene, or Dom, or Angela, or Price, or Tyrell, etc.), or been immersed in the evil machinations of Whiterose and the Dark Army, or observed the catastrophic effects of the Five/Nine hack. Sam Esmail’s off-center direction and caustic, labored writing has been off the airwaves for 22 months. During that time, his star, Rami Malek, won an Oscar, and American culture caught up to the show’s bitter paranoia thanks to the Trump administration and the ascendency of the alt-right. Mr. Robot has never been perfect, but, thematically, it’s always been slightly ahead of the curve.
Now, Esmail and his brainchild have returned for a fourth and final season, set during the 2015 Christmas holidays, in the tradition of British television Christmas specials, à la The Office. (Side note: Mr. Robot’s altogether confusing timeline made me forget that the entire series takes place over the course of 2015.) But before the series jumps ahead to December, it first provides a mini-recap of last season’s events, a necessary maneuver considering the oft-byzantine complexity of the series’ plot. We see protesters destroying the midtown E Corp building; news footage of the Stage 2 cyber bombings, in part caused by Elliot and Angela; Price promoting Tyrell to E Corp CTO; Irving blackmailing Dom into becoming a mole for the Dark Army while murdering Santiago with an axe; Mr. Robot reconciling with Elliot; and, finally, Angela falling under Whiterose’s influence.
Then, it picks right up with Angela and Philip Price on his estate, where, if you remember, he has just removed the wool from her eyes to reveal the truth: Whiterose capitalized on Angela’s lingering grief following her mother’s death to manipulate her into doing the Dark Army’s bidding, i.e., the cyber-bombing attacks. She did this to get back at Price, who tried to hinder her plan to move the Washington Township plant to the Congo. There was no larger revolution. Just a psychotic cyberterrorist trying to control the world by any means necessary.
Price does his best to get Angela to stand down, to accept the fact that she has been brainwashed and try to rebuild her life. Except it doesn’t take. Angela wants Whiterose’s head on a platter, and as soon as she verbalizes her intention to take her down, it’s all over. She stares, chilled to the bone, at something offscreen. Price, panicking, pleads with her to beg for forgiveness. But she won’t relent and she won’t run. Price walks away, furiously removing the wire hidden in his shirt. Two Dark Army agents approach the seated Angela and shoot her twice in the head.
A literal bang to begin Mr. Robot’s final outing, Angela’s murder inspires Elliot to take down Whiterose following his reversal of the Five/Nine hack, which subsequently restabilized the U.S. economy and returned the culture to some semblance of normalcy. However, her death clearly also functions as the beginning of a season-long elegy for the series’ characters. Angela was Elliot’s childhood friend, and for a while, his moral compass, a connection to the real world beyond his double life. Her immersion into E Corp, fsociety, and, finally, the Dark Army precipitated her indoctrination and eventual breakdown, and while Elliot isn’t directly responsible for her death, it certainly wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t in the same sphere. The guilt following Angela’s death ripples out to her closest friends and further crystalizes Whiterose’s danger, even as the world slowly resets.
“401 Unauthorized” (thank God for no more episodes titled after computer filenames) continues Esmail’s commitment to simplify Mr. Robot’s narrative. The episode primarily follows Elliot’s pursuit of Whiterose, for whom he has ostensibly been searching since she sent Elliot a picture of Angela’s corpse. Yet Esmail introduces Elliot’s scheme in a compellingly indirect manner, mainly through a new character not long for this world.
On the night of his firm’s Christmas party, Freddy Lomax (Jake Busey) — a drunk, keyed-up, openly misogynistic lawyer at Lomax & Looney Law — receives a package containing a DVD, a phone, and a USB drive. The DVD contains footage of him masturbating to a clearly underage girl on a live video chat. Just as Freddy begins to freak out in his office, Mr. Robot calls to blackmail him into transferring all of his emails onto the USB and tells him to bring it to Grand Central station. It’s a neat callback to Elliot’s actions in the series pilot, when he brought down that coffee-shop owner who was hosting a child-pornography server. Only this time, Lomax isn’t just another pervert causing far-reaching, incalculable emotional and physical damage. He has something Elliot needs.
The tense Grand Central sequence features Mr. Robot at its best. It sports clean direction, with clear sight-lines of the space and strong spatial reasoning. Esmail’s tight screenwriting (minus the “coked-up Henry Hill” crack that only confirms he should keep pop-culture references to a bare minimum) keeps the action propulsive and pragmatic, while also delivering necessary information at just the right clip, mainly that Lomax’s firm has helped Whiterose and her cronies funnel money through shell corporations. The reveal of Elliot on the train might be Esmail’s single best moment on the series in years.
Elliot digs Cyprus National Bank out of the mass of data, but his manipulation of Lomax ends with another body on his conscience. The two escape the Dark Army tail in Grand Central, but as soon as they’re outside, Lomax figures out that Elliot can’t actually protect him from Whiterose, that he’s merely pumping him for information. He kills himself in the middle of 42nd Street with the gun he brought to threaten Elliot. Even if Lomax weren’t an objectionable human being, his death wouldn’t affect Elliot like it used to. He has learned to compartmentalize his considerable grief following Angela’s murder, throwing himself into the Whiterose plan to avoid confronting the pain. He no longer talks to the audience; now, Mr. Robot takes fourth-wall duties, which is a nice reversal of expectations, one that shows up late enough in the episode to be a surprise.
Meanwhile, “401 Unauthorized” catches us up on a few other characters in Elliot’s sphere. Tyrell Wellick still runs E Corp, and though he’s considered a hero because of his company’s data recovery and loan program following the Five/Nine reversal, he’s floundering in despair. Darlene blames herself for Angela’s death and takes copious amounts of drugs to cope. Dom, paranoid and sleep-deprived, has been staying in her mother’s home to avoid telling the FBI anything about Santiago. That is, until she’s intimidated by a Dark Army foot soldier disguised as one of her mother’s church friends.
Despite some especially try-hard dialogue and obnoxious aesthetic choices, Mr. Robot has rediscovered its emotional core by clarifying and reestablishing the connection between Elliot’s actions and the people whom he’s trying to avenge or save. If Whiterose isn’t stopped, the Five/Nine reversal will have meant nothing, and so many friends and family will have died in vain. When the Dark Army associates nab him from the Jean-Paul Sartre-inspired honeypot apartment, Elliot pleads with them to spare his life, if only to atone for his sins. Malek’s palpably pained screams before he’s pumped full of a lethal dose of heroin are fairly harrowing.
Then, Mr. Robot briefly borrows from The Sopranos’ final season as Elliot lies on the ground in a stupor, struggling to reach the phone before losing consciousness. But it’s too late. Elliot begins having visions of his family as they watch him slowly die. Those visions eventually turn into scenes from his life flashing before his eyes, which essentially functions as Esmail appropriately indulging in nostalgia of the show’s greatest hits. The Mr. Robot shop. Elliot and Darlene comforting each other. Elliot and Angela in better times. Flashes of Shayla before her murder. A brief glimpse of fsociety in its original form. The iconic shot of Elliot triumphantly throwing up his hands in Times Square after he took down Terry Colby. As the dial tone from the landline rings out over the soundtrack, Elliot fades from this world. It’s all over too soon. Fade to black. Begin credits.
Except that Esmail pulls a classic fake-out and returns to the action immediately after the first title card. One of the men gives Elliot Narcan to revive him. He shoots right up, gulping down air as quickly as he can. Philip Price walks into the room.
Welcome back, Mr. Alderson.
• The Grand Central sequence reminded me of a similar scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, when Bourne tries to help a Guardian reporter evade the CIA in the London Waterloo station.
• I’ve accepted this as necessary suspension of disbelief for this show to work, but Mr. Robot really plays fast and loose with the split identity. Mr. Robot and Elliot can’t be in two places at once, and yet it feels like they are almost all the time.
• Music corner: Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” plays while Price’s men kidnap him from Garcin’s apartment.
• Mr. Robot on social media: “I know we have our issues, but it’s these people that are the real psychos. I mean, how proud of your life can you be?”