With Mr. Robot till the end

The TV show Mr. Robot ends its four-season run in six days.* It began four and a half years ago, in the summer of 2015. It didn't exactly begin with a bang, but the whimper of its premiere (if I may mix metaphors) snowballed into one by its first season finale. Its seemingly omnipresent, omniscient mastermind of a creator Sam Esmail appeared to be the Next Big Thing in TV: a child of 90s cinema, he was and is Fincher and Spielberg and Soderbergh and PTA and Tarantino all—at least aspirationally—rolled into one. Eventually writer-director of every single episode—40 in total by series' end—the show is the complete vision of a self-styled auteur if ever there was one.

The second season lost much of the good will and momentum generated by the first. Sprawling, dense, literally and figuratively dark, trapped for much of its time in Elliot's mind: both critics and viewers in notable numbers dropped the show then, or so it appears from online commentary and anecdotal conversations. And although season 2 contained high points, especially in the back half of episodes, much of the criticism was justified.

I'm here to tell you, though, that not only are seasons 3 and 4 worth your time. Not only do they contain some of the most creative, entertaining, formally innovative storytelling in the medium. They might make for the two best seasons of TV in the last 3-5 years, at least for hour-long dramas.

The only comparable series in terms of back-to-back seasons during the same time frame would be Atlanta (though not an hour-long drama), Succession, The Leftovers, Better Call Saul, The Expanse, and The Americans (though its strongest run was seasons 3-4 in 2015–2016). Pound for pound, Mr. Robot is a peer to those heavyweights, and it might actually be the champ.

I realized this in the last six weeks when, on Sunday or Monday evenings, I had the choice to catch up on any number of quality shows: Watchmen, Silicon Valley, The Good Place, The Mandalorian, Jack Ryan (okay that one turned out not to be so good). And I kept finding myself, against what I felt to be better (or rather, public critical) judgment, opting for Mr. Robot: both to-breathlessly-see-what-happens-next, and for the sheer pleasure, the emotional thrill, of experiencing one more hour in Sam Esmail's world. Not one episode has let me down.

Season 1 was all world- and character-building, along with establishing the style of the series. Season 2 went inward, at times too deeply or wildly, but without ever quite losing sight of the goods or goals of the story and its characters.

But seasons 3 and 4 have been masterful as exercises in pace, plotting, tone, tension, and two different balancing acts: narrative and character arcs, on the one hand, and form and substance, on the other. I find myself, against all odds, caring about Elliot and Darlene and Mr. Robot and Angela and the rest. And the virtuosic experimentation has been exquisitely married, at each juncture, to the nature of the action and the purpose of the narrative and where we find the characters therein: whether that involve a silent episode featuring a heist and a host of isolated characters texting one another, or a multi-act stage drama bottle episode, or an "uncut" single-shot thriller—or whatever. It is beyond thrilling. It's mesmerizing. I find myself drawing closer to the screen, so captivated I'm standing, the music of Mac Quayle blasting as the odd angles of the camera dislocate the persons on screen relative to one another.

However Esmail concludes the series this Sunday,* he'll be ending the way he always envisioned: not with the external action, but with the internal drama of Elliot's soul. That's as it should be. He's set us up for more than one big surprise. But the revelations won't make or break the series. He's already made good on his promise. Mr. Robot is the real thing, and I'm with it—with him—till the end.

*Update: Unbeknownst to me, the fourth season of the show does not contain 10 episodes (like the previous three), but 13. I thought I checked this back in September, but perhaps I just assumed. Episode 9 only confirmed the assumption in its "feel" as a penultimate episode. Well then! Episode 10 certainly proved that assumption wrong. The good news: three more hours of what is still a great show.


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