One of the best tests of the effectiveness of a work of art is whether you keep seeing its essence in the contours of the world that you know. The USA Network cyberthriller Mr. Robot, which recently began its fourth and final season, is that kind of series. When I walk around New York City at night, the light cast by streetlamps and storefronts seems to crawl across the architecture, and the streets and avenues warp like walls and stairs in M.C. Escher prints. This comes not from decades of living in the city, but from 30-some hours logged inside the mind of Sam Esmail.
The New Jersey–born Egyptian-American filmmaker created, co-wrote, and directed most of the adventures of hacker/revolutionary/split personality Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), who addressed us directly in 2015 (“Hello, friend,” he began) and hasn’t stopped confiding since. Over the years, Esmail and his cinematographers (first Tim Ives, then Tod Campbell) transformed the city into an expressionist labyrinth, merging the virtual and the real. Esmail’s fondness for looming shadows, chiaroscuro faces, and vertigo-inducing God’s-eye angles, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, made the interiors seem nearly as vast as the exteriors, like the spaces where a film-noir patsy might have a nervous breakdown.
I’m not here to praise or bury Mr. Robot, though, merely to acknowledge that it had a unique and often mesmerizing vision, albeit a divisive one. I had well-documented issues with Mr. Robot early on, chiefly having to do with Esmail’s fondness for toying with audience perceptions, making viewers think they were seeing a particular scenario and then revealing that it was actually something else. The most notorious instances occurred in season one, which belatedly revealed that Darlene (Carly Chaikin), Elliot’s right hand in the cyberterrorist group fsociety, was his sister and that the revolutionary who recruited them both (Christian Slater) was a Tyler Durden–esque figment of Elliot’s imagination, based on memories of his father, who died of radiation poisoning unleashed by a New Jersey nuclear plant owned by E Corp, the evil megacorporation the hackers were battling. (Esmail playfully acknowledged the Fight Club of it all by playing a solo piano cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” after the big reveal, but it still felt like a vestige of the multiplex fantasies that fed his imagination as a young man.) Even if you enjoyed such twists, they were ultimately less surprising and original than the show’s jaundiced riffs on consumer culture and its acknowledgment of the creeping dread people feel about corporations’ use of technology to control every aspect of modern life, including government.
Seasons two and three deepened the schism between the show’s apparent desire to be the kind of ’80s blockbuster that the Stranger Things kids would honor with a poster and its aspirations to something creepier and more sophisticated. Season two built toward a revelation that Elliot’s exile after unleashing the cyberattacks of 5/9 had unfolded not in a mental-health facility and his mother’s house, but in a jail. Season three — by far the strongest and most creatively ambitious, with a single-take episode as its centerpiece — seemed largely uninterested in this brand of narrative three-card monte, but then the closing episode sprang one of the biggest prestos of all: Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday), Elliot’s childhood friend who originally hired him to work for E Corp’s chosen cybersecurity firm, was the secret love child of E Corp CEO Phillip Price (actor-playwright Michael Cristofer). As if doubling down on a proclivity that Esmail knew had been troublesome for some viewers, Price looked Angela in the eye and deadpanned, “I am your father.”
My objections to this kind of stuff were so pointed that Esmail contacted me after season two asking to go on the now-defunct Vulture TV podcast to discuss them. I never found his defenses that persuasive, but the discussions led to a friendship and brief professional association that gave me a different insight into the show.
Esmail is mainly interested in movies as dream language and stories as myths or fables. He’s making melodramas — not in the relationship-drama sense, but in the sense of a silent movie that might climax with the heroine tied to the train tracks as a steam engine bears down on her. The “big reveals,” as screenwriting coaches like to call them, are part of the package, dealt out with awareness of their contrived nature, but always tethered to something psychologically plausible that was planted far in advance. Price’s Darth Vader mic drop, for instance, retroactively explains why Angela rose so far so fast at her security firm, which was secretly yet another arm of E Corp, and it explains why Price seemed utterly infatuated with her. (The show initially misdirected viewers into thinking it was another instance of sexual predation by a rich old dude.) There is something disarmingly matter-of-fact, at times almost cheeky, about the twists, even when the show’s off-kilter framing, pewter-dusted hues, and Tangerine Dream–esque synth music (by Mac Quayle) make it seem like a moon-size mothership is about to land and abduct the entire cast at once. That one of the first season’s big baddies, E Corp’s Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), was thought dead and then appeared again two seasons later answers the question of how literally we’re supposed to take the totality of it. At its most prankish, Mr. Robot is reminiscent of a high-school English teacher’s summary of the plot of Oedipus Rex: “Who is responsible for this plague on Thebes? Oh, wait a second … it’s me.”
Season four is the culmination of everything Esmail has built to date, plus everything he learned on his best work as a director, the Amazon military-conspiracy thriller Homecoming. Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is that Esmail’s virtuosity is laser-focused, to the point where he can toss off flourishes that would’ve been the look-at-this centerpiece of a season-one episode, like the premiere’s long tracking shot of Price walking away from Angela as his goons execute her in the out-of-focus background over his left shoulder, or the overhead shot of the villainous Whiterose (the great B.D. Wong) toppling an enormous Christmas tree in rage at Price’s refusal to kowtow, or an upcoming flashback to a sexual origin story from Whiterose’s past, which builds toward a suffocated yet rapturous encounter reminiscent of fiction by Marguerite Duras. The blocking of scenes involving Elliot and Mr. Robot — who finish each other’s sentences, and sometimes relieve each other in the frame like wrestlers tagging out or in — is the sharpest it’s ever been, and the choreography never feels fussy: It’s always expressing aspects of the hero’s personality that were dissociated when we first entered the story.
But season four’s biggest revelation is the slowest and most gradual: Despite its regular references to classic paranoid thrillers, it’s not nearly as pessimistic as we might’ve thought based on Malek’s hard-boiled and spiritually exhausted narration. What’s done can be undone, if the body politic’s spirit and flesh are equally willing. And when that happens, the dark forces that once plagued us will say good-bye, friend. At least until the reboot.
*A version of this article appears in the October 14, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!