Mr. Robot was headed for the TV Hall of Fame no matter how last night's finale turned out. In recent years there's been increased debate surrounding the merits of a series' ending. Specifically, how deeply it should affect its legacy. For some, a stuck landing is imperative, otherwise the journey is a waste. The real answer lies somewhere in the middle—as with most things, the issue is hardly as binary as most people want to make it. It's more nuanced, and each series brings a different context. For, say, Dexter, a show that put up maybe two, three great seasons tops out of eight and kept viewers tuned in largely out of Stockholm Syndrome, a bricked finale is just a final slap in the face that ensures no one who suffered through will ever recommend it to their worst enemy. Something like Game of Thrones is trickier. Can you really totally write a series that gave us elite, unprecedented television like Seasons 1-4 off just because they didn't "nail" the ending?
I digress: Mr. Robot, which concludes a four-year run on USA this week, has been arguably the most underrated show on television for at least three of those seasons. Under the increasingly audacious eye of creator Sam Esmail, who has directed every episode since Season 2, it's long been the best directed show on television. Additionally, at times, it's also been the most thrilling, most tightly plotted, and during stretches of creative indulgence when the big swings weren't quite connecting, at least the boldest.
One such stretch is where Robot definitively went from buzzworthy thriller to a heady character study mass audiences deemed too challenging to keep up with. In Season 1 the series represented a bold departure for USA from procedural popcorn fare to prestige big leagues. Rami Malek scored a surprise Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Emmy win for his portrayal of Elliot Alderson, an idealistic yet deeply disturbed Dark Web hacker battling both Dissociative Identity Disorder and the faceless One Percenters who mercilessly manipulate society. Elliot's disorder was confirmed, long after the internet guessed it, with a Fight Club-style reveal: the patriarchal freedom fighter hacker Mr. Robot (played by a thoroughly reinvigorated Christian Slater), was but a vision of Elliot's dead father, who succumbed to cancer in Elliot's childhood at the neglectful hands of the very company Elliot was fueling all of his anti-system rage at.
On the heels of awards and acclaim though, Mr. Robot didn't double-down into a techno-revenge thriller. Instead, Esmail burrowed deeper into Elliot's head, toying with the visual manifestations of Elliot's disorder(s) as he, often breaking the Fourth Wall, kept us, the audience, as in the dark as much as other parts of himself were. The imagery was often trippy and great—but the narrative propulsion stalled. Dynamic turns from guest stars like Craig Robinson and Joey Badass weren't enough to keep a sharp audience from growing impatient, especially once a similar rug-pull-reveal was yet again guessed a handful of episodes before Esmail was ready to lift the curtain. Season 2 would be the last time the show would crack a million viewers.
A shame, considering that: Season 2's leisure ultimately is rewarded by the end and by Season 3, Esmail had figured out how to course-correct while still sticking to his guns. The visual language of Elliot's relationship with Mr. Robot is mutated yet again, but in the framework of more pronounced dramatic stakes (helped along by a literal ticking clock and a season-long guest spot by Bobby Cannavale). Still, viewers who had abandoned ship were hard to win back: the numbers dipped more and an announcement that the fourth season would be its last was met with response that it'd probably be for the best lest the show get canceled unceremoniously instead.
With Esmail off making other shows and Malek graduating from Emmys to Oscars, this final season could've been an afterthought, a mail-in. Instead, it's arguably the most audacious season yet. Planned final seasons are always a special thrill—or at least, they have the propensity to be if handled right. The stakes are inherently higher. But here, Esmail also uses the context as freedom to go balls to the wall with one virtuoso swing after another. He's always been a master of editing, using cross-cutting to ramp up tension (seriously, revisit Season 2's "Hidden Process") and he's employed tricks like "continuous take" or "cinematic filter" episodes in seasons past. Season 4 has all of that, as well as an hour structured like a five-act play, an episode virtually dialog-free but so intense you'd be hard-pressed to notice and more. Even when he isn't showing off, Esmail is still flexing subtlely across this collection with small but beautiful camera movements—like a graceful pan that reveals the origin of villain Whiterose's name—that amount to some of the best cinematography on television, and on a broadcast budget at that.
The same can be said of his leading man. Esmail has long implied the broad strokes of this story were always written in stone (and that somehow, he tried to reduce the story to feature-film length at one point) and Season 4 accounts for some of Elliot's darkest hours. The impetus for his creation of the Mr. Robot identity—as well as his complicated memory of his late father, which capped with a murky physical altercation that always left holes in his origin story—is given a horrific twist that alternatively shocks but also makes total sense in terms of character and story. Malek nails every arc of Elliot's increasingly cerebral journey, all the way up to the finale, which leaves the series resolution squarely on character.
In hindsight, the last four episodes have. For a show centered around shadowy criminal organizations and government conspiracy, the plot resolved thrillingly albeit rather straightforwardly weeks ago. Remaining episodes have put the focus squarely on giving Elliot, his sister and sidekick Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and supporting characters like Grace Gummer's dogged FBI agent Dom the emotional resolution the series has truly been building to. Darlene and Dom got an episode to themselves (in an hour that was frustrating in the moment for sidelining Elliot but harmless overall), leaving Elliot the series' last three hours largely to himself. Well, himself and all of his personalities.
An earlier implication of a yet-unseen identity at one point seemingly sent the series down a rabbit hole of science fiction. Had the machine Whiterose ominously spoke of since Season 2 actually created a peaceful alternate reality? In the end, it was Esmail's last trick, and thankfully one that doesn't overstay its welcome. (Although it's highly possible that a Sam who doesn't have to recalibrate after the backlash to Season 2's jail stint would've structured this entire season around Elliot's "Alternate Reality," a la Lost Season 6). In a twist more moving than surprising, the phantom identity is none other than Elliot himself—the Elliot we've spent the entire series with. We've never known the real Elliot Alderson, not completely: just this fragment, the one obsessed with vengeance and justice who assumed control so fully he forgot he was living on borrowed time. The series ends as the "real" Elliot opens his eyes, to a world his alter ego spent four seasons hacking to improve for him.
As such, Mr. Robot reveals itself as a series less about data breaches and Dark Web duels than a tale of trauma, grief, and processed pain. It's been a thrilling ride—sometimes challenging, but never dull. Some of it didn't work (both Tyrell Wellick and his wife Joanna met unceremonious ends that simply do not square with the arc Season 1 seemed to put them on), but the majority did. And even though it seems as if watercooler chatter is at an all-time low—this, the culmination of a four-year story was just recently overshadowed by a brand-new nine-episode series on HBO—it's an ending fitting of the TV finale pantheon. Final season, and final episode proper. I hope more people discover it as those of us who stayed the course raise the flag in awareness. I hope the Emmy board recognizes Malek once again, along with Chaikin, Slater, the imperial BD Wong, and Esmail, who between this and Homecoming, has blossomed into a full-on auteur. Can't wait to see what he does next. Until then, goodbye, friend.