'Mr. Robot,' and the Art of the Obvious Twist

It doesn't matter if we all saw it coming, that Big Reveal is still genius.

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Complex Original

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I did everything in my power to actually telegraph it. I honestly was not trying to keep it from the audience. I wanted the audience to be ahead of Elliot on this. Because in the moment that he realizes he is Mr. Robot, I didn't want that moment to be about the audience being shocked. I wanted the moment to be about Elliot being shocked. I wanted the audience to be with Elliot, to look at Elliot. I wanted the scene to be about that, and not about some twist we're trying to get over on you.

That’s Mr. Robot writer/director Sam Esmail copping a plea to the renowned Alan Sepinwall that he wasn’t trying to pull the rug out from under viewers with a rudely obvious Big Twist that we were all able to spot from six episodes away. He copped a similar defense this week in another interview with Sepinwall that went up seconds after season two's own Big Twist finally went down. And you know what? His explanations seem just as genuine now as they did a year ago. He didn’t cheat us. He didn’t fail at fooling us. Oh, you guessed that Elliot wasn’t reaallly in his Mom’s house before the season premiere was even over? That’s good. Fantastic. But how could anyone be mad at the closing moments of this week's episode, "Handshake?" How could you have anything but a big smile on your face, as Esmail’s streak of excellent direction continued with that perfect sequence of Elliot's facade falling away, like a Broadway set breaking down. Is there no joy to take from a twist if it’s one you guessed? We can’t just be happy at a stuck landing?

People tripped out over the Fight Club-esque “twist” from season one, calling it early on in, just like the theories about wherever Elliot was at the start of this season. Here’s the rub: the show is bigger than an “obvious twist.” While Fight Club is remembered for that twist, once we find out that the narrator was also the guy behind the entire Project Mayhem organization, the story was pretty much done—there isn’t much to the film after that moment. With Mr. Robot, the “twists” of Elliot being Mr. Robot and Elliot’s whereabouts aren’t the endgame, they’re just another part of the story. There’s an entire criminal investigation going on, not to mention the entire question of how the hell they are going to conclude a half-season's worth of plot set-up.

Sure, the original season two theory said Elliot was in a mental institution, and now we see that it's actually a step further, with him rocking the DOC orange jumpsuit. With five episodes left, we still have to find out how homeboy even got into jail. How can your boy Elliot be behind a world-changing hack yet still not be on the FBI’s radar?! There’s a LOT to reveal, and if you think about it, the obvious twist that Esmail concocted in season two was a brilliant storytelling device that plays as a smokescreen for what’s really going on, much like the Slater-bot telegraph was a smokescreen for the Darlene reveal, which was truly surprising. That most of the backlash around the jail twist is that it “took too long” speaks to a deeper issue...a majority of viewers find this season overlong and tedious so far. To the detractors—which show are you watching? Esmail considers the two part premiere to be one episode which technically makes "Handshake" episode six. The halfway mark is a highly respectable time to draw the curtain back.

The prison reveal.

Without sounding too elite, we got to watch this episode with Joey Bada$$ and a select group of his family and friends, which was an unexpected highlight. For the first 45 minutes, it was unclear why he chose this particular week to hold a screening AND THEN HOLY SHIT IT MADE SENSE. Fifty people collectively tensed up then exhaled with relief and glee at the insanity of watching him stab a guy dead in the asshole. If there was any episode of Mr. Robot to watch in a theater setting—and for the record, it’s best watched with no interruptions or distractions—this was it.

That scene, where Leon takes out a squad of skinheads ready to deal some prison justice to Elliott, is where a number of the threads from this season came together, but occurred not too far before we got that huge reveal. It's at that moment that one should've realized that while, yes, this season has been an exhibition of Esmail overdoing it (he's not only directing every episode, but he's written every episode so far save two, and even wrote a novel that'll dive deeper into the series' lore), the end result has been a lowkey more engaging story, even if you saw it coming (although dude who got stabbed in the ass definitely didn't). Esmail's stepped it up this season, and "Handshake" highlights that not only do all of the pieces (and knives) fit, but you should appreciate how he's manipulated the story.

The first season of Mr. Robot showed us that Esmail loves toying with his audience. With season two, though, we were thrown into an intoxicating rhythm, where Esmail would pull back portions of the increasingly mythological backstory, revealing how fsociety got its base of operations, the origin of the mask, and more about Elliot and Darlene’s home life that not only served to explain why they acted and how they acted, but were then plot devices for the current story. For those who have been watching the story develop with bated breath, you were given some awesome payoffs. It’s not like the quality of the show overall has been lessened, but it's easier to be tolerant of a slower build when it feels like the creators are trying to pay things off.

It might sound like a pretentious, snobby and borderline Stan defense, but these six episodes are proof that Esmail’s twists are truly rooted in character. Just look at the follow-through. Last week’s seventeen minute, TGIF-tinged sitcom detour pretty much proves that Esmail was just itching to have some real fun with the conceit. And this is just another facet of that. If dude's alter ego creates a sitcom to shield himself from trauma— why wouldn’t he make a whole alternate reality to mask his unfortunate surroundings?

The idea of Esmail pulling off writer and director duties this season understandably invited wariness, but now that we're halfway through, it truly feels like the show’s voice—which was firmly established in season one—is even more prominent here. Some episodes might run long, and we got another “twist,” but if you’re actively paying attention to the world he’s creating, you're seeing Esmail consistently knock this season out of the park, all while actively throwing in challenges to viewers.

Will some of that shit turn people off? Judging by the ratings, it seems like it (even though USA has already committed to a third season). Is it ultimately worth it when an auteur is swinging for the fences like Sam Esmail is? Absolutely.

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