Anyone who has kept up with Mr. Robot knows that it takes big swings — conceptually, stylistically, and narratively. There are the twists (Elliot and Mr. Robot are the same person; Elliot has been in prison the whole time; Angela is Price’s daughter; Elliot was sexually abused as a child), the gimmicks (remember the ’80s sitcom parody?), and the many, many stabs at plain ol’ weirdness (Angela’s surreal trip into Whiterose’s lair). For better or worse, Sam Esmail’s vision is an ever-moving target, one that requires an ambitious storytelling and filmmaking schema to hit. For all of Esmail’s cinematic influences, Mr. Robot’s eagerness to play with form and tone, to mold the show to the whims of its creator, recalls shows like Moonlighting and Community.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of this part of Mr. Robot. Barring a few exceptions, most of the twists and conceptual ploys either feel like cheap attempts to enliven an already thematically rich venture or serve to needlessly complicate a labyrinthine narrative. In fact, most of the time, Esmail’s swing-for-the-fences approach only serves to underscore the hollowness of the approach itself. Simple and grounded has always been better for Mr. Robot, as illustrated by this final season, which has played around with storytelling but kept the flights of fancy to a bare minimum. I can swallow the occasional all-silent episode if it means returning to its original roots and sending off members of its large ensemble cast with care.
However, as soon as Esmail introduced the possibility of a third personality, or a second Elliot, there was no other way for Mr. Robot to address the elephant in the room. This brings us to “Exit,” the often maddening, occasionally thrilling penultimate episode of the series that opens up some new doors at the very last minute. After weeks of staying on the straight and narrow, Esmail finally veers into what-the-fuck territory with unabashed confidence. It’s the kind of episode whose emotional weight partially hinges on a text adventure video game before transitioning into Lost territory.
The episode picks up with Darlene parting ways with Elliot at the motel. He’s on his way to Washington Township to follow through with Price’s wish to destroy Whiterose’s project for Angela’s sake. Mr. Robot cautions him to leave it alone, but Elliot remains steadfast, and after seeing a vision of his mother and young Elliot (or whoever), advises him to go with them instead. He must do this on his own. So Elliot makes his way to the Washington Township nuclear plant, his journey scored by the Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains” (a nice touch), but when he arrives, he finds it eerily abandoned.
Surprise, surprise, it turns out that Whiterose and the Dark Army have taken control of the plant to instigate a meltdown. Why? Oh, standard Whiterose pabulum: to be reborn into a better, parallel world, the place where everyone was meant to live, freed from the shackles of the past. At least that’s what she says when sitting face to face with Elliot after he’s captured by Dark Army soldiers and brought to the mysterious Black Box room, the place where Angela was once lured for brainwashing. She sees a world crumbling by mankind’s own hand and desires a new utopia. This is why so many people have to die and why she’s willing to bring about another Chernobyl to make it happen. Or so she says.
Maybe “Exit” would have gone down smoother if it weren’t so structurally slack. The middle section of the episode feels too claustrophobic by a hair. It’s constrained to dueling monologues from Whiterose and Elliot that are deliberately slow paced and serve to espouse the series’ broadest thematic contrasts: love vs. hate, liberation vs. imprisonment, creation vs. destruction. While Rami Malek sells Elliot’s speech, which essentially details his recommitment to the world because of people’s persistent, determined love for him in spite of his own emotional displacement, it slows the proceedings down to a crawl.
But that would have been okay if what followed wasn’t, well, at least a little bit silly. As the plant’s alarms blare, Whiterose informs Elliot that the malware he installed to shut down the plant has failed. Elliot implores Whiterose not to follow through with her plan, but she goes on about how he gets to decide what happens next before unceremoniously killing herself. Esmail’s tactic here proves to be very frustrating: He provides Whiterose with purposefully vague dialogue that’s essentially designed to be pored over for clues, but devolves into uninteresting nonsense. It’s the most Reddit-friendly part of the series, which frankly doesn’t appeal to me one bit.
But then Elliot realizes that his “choice” lies in a text adventure game called eXit that’s also an override process to stop the meltdown. The goal of the game, which involves a dungeon and a boat, isn’t to escape to a new world but rather to not abandon your weakened friend. But even as Elliot beats the game, the meltdown is so far along that it’s too late. So he sits there across from Mr. Robot as the plant crumbles around them, refusing to abandon his friend. They proclaim their love for each other. Then Elliot, with a tear rolling down his cheek, repeats what Mr. Robot told him so long ago: “It’s an exciting time in the world.”
Then the frame turns red. Another alarm begins to blare, but this time it’s a wake up call. A man wakes up in his apartment and opens the shades. He puts on a record and plays a song (“Turn Up the Radio” by OK Go) and stretches his arms. It’s Elliot and it’s time for him to go to work.
Esmail throws us headfirst into this sideways reality featuring a cheerful version of Elliot, one who dances in the shower, combs his hair, and wears a button-down and a sweater instead of cloaking himself in a hoodie. In this world, he’s the CEO of Allsafe, where he’s about to land the prestigious “F Corp” account (run by an alternate Tyrell, who cheekily dresses like Elliot in the original timeline and sports a beard), and will soon be marrying Angela. He has a healthy, active relationship with his father, Edward, who still runs the Mr. Robot computer repair company. He pays lip service to the idea of having a more exciting life, but it’s clear that he loves the routine. He’s happy and engaged. This is the “normal” world that Whiterose desperately craves. Coincidentally, it’s one where she’s the richest person in the world and an active philanthropist.
At this stage, it’s tough to tell how “real” this reality is, but I’d wager that it’s another Whiterose illusion, given that she tells Elliot that she will show him what Angela saw. But whether or not that proves to be the case, Esmail doesn’t handle the timeline shift very well, mostly because he obnoxiously underscores its unreal nature. Everyone is artificially happy, like they’re all under the influence of heavy mood-enhancing drugs, and all the circumstances are too perfect. Elliot and Angela talk to each other like aliens who have researched “bourgeois happy couples in love.” There are tremors in the margin — a sudden earthquake that’s quickly brushed aside, Elliot accidentally calling F Corp “E Corp,” Elliot’s frequent headaches — to aggressively telegraph that nothing is at it seems. The gag of “Turn Up the Radio” playing over and over again is akin to someone poking you in the ribs and saying, “This is weird, right?” It’s too transparently designed to be mysterious only for Esmail to reveal its true nature in next week’s finale.
Still, the final shot of Original Elliot and Sideways Elliot standing face to face in the apartment has genuine charge. For the first time, the Real stares down the Ideal, wondering if they’re one and the same.
• Some familiar faces from the first season return this week: Aaron Takahashi as the helpful, sarcastic Lloyd, and Ben Rappaport as Ollie, the office’s resident douchebag.
• In the sideways timeline, Elliot plans to give Angela a first edition signed copy of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Cool?
• Music corner: “Heroes and Villains” is the episode’s real draw, and “Turn Up the Radio” is the gag track, but the third song used in the episode is “White Widow” by the Italian band the Afterhours. The song comes from one of their few English-language albums Ballads for Little Hyenas, which was produced by Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs.
• There might not be a more quintessential Mr. Robot image than the text adventure disk hiding within the pages of Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection. High and low cultural references entwined into one.