A few years ago, during one of the later seasons of Dexter (spoilers for Dexter, if you care), there was a storyline about a serial killer by the name of Travis Marshall (Colin Hanks). He aligns himself with Dexter in the search of the Doomsday Killer (Edward James Olmos’ Professor Gellar), only to discover that Professor Gellar was actually Marshall’s “Dark Passenger,” an imaginary fiction of his own. Marshall was the Doomsday Killer all along. The problem with the storyline, however, is that everyone in the audience figured that out three episodes into the season, and when it came time to make the reveal, it was less a surprise and more of a, “Yeah, no shit, we figured that out half a season ago” moment. It was one of the most anticlimactic “twists” in the history of so-called prestige television.
Mr. Robot ran the risk of that, itself, by tipping its hand toward a Fight Club-like scenario with Elliot and Mr. Robot, leaving breadcrumbs sometimes the size of an entire slice of bread. We had figured out early on that Mr. Robot was, in all likelihood, a figment of Elliot’s imagination, but showrunner Sam Esmail kept us uncertain, and the details surrounding Elliot’s psychological schism remained unclear (and to certain extent, still do). Some may have had a hunch that Mr. Robot was Elliot’s father, but in a way, that played like a misdirect: We were so focused on the identity of Mr. Robot that we didn’t fully explore Elliot’s relationship with Darlene, which made it a complete and total surprise to almost all of us when it was revealed that she was Elliot’s sister. We got our twist; it just wasn’t the one we were expecting.
Meanwhile, while we came up with a number of scenarios that could potentially explain Mr. Robot’s relationship to Elliot, the more straightforward one — that he was, in effect, Elliot’s Dark Passenger — seemed most likely.
So how do you take a running storyline that most of the audience has already figured out — or at least, had put most of the pieces together — and reveal it in a way that doesn’t look you’re trying to be smarter than your audience? Or trick them with a “twist”?
You bring your audience in, and you acknowledge that they had already figured it out, that’s how.
“I am Mr. Robot. But you already knew that.”
That line was absolutely genius, as was the piano version of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” — a song closely associated with Fight Club — at the end of the episode. Sam Esmail didn’t try to trick us, or offer up the reveal as a big twist. He put his arm around us and winked, as if to say, “You knew I was paying homage to Fight Club the entire time, didn’t you?” Through Elliot’s voiceover, he made us a part of the narrative and in doing so, transformed the “mystery” surrounding Mr. Robot’s identity into “character development.” It wasn’t about the reveal. It was how Elliot would react when he found out.
It would’ve been very easy to feel cheated by last night’s episode. It could’ve felt anticlimactic. But it wasn’t. Because the narrative smoothly shifted focus from “Who is Mr. Robot” to “Why does Mr. Robot exist?” and that question still remained murky and urgent, while other storylines opened up, like “Why did Terry Colby ask Angela to come work for Evil Corp?” And why exactly did Elliot create F Society. Why does Elliot want to take down Evil Corp? And more importantly, will he be able to pull it off?
If so, it will probably be with the assistance of Tyrell, who was fired from his job and is on the brink of losing his wife and new baby son. But Tyrell is a controlling monster, and if he can’t control Evil Corp from the inside, he’ll control it from the outside by destroying it. He is an evil psycho, and that scene with Elliot in which he described killing Sharon Knowles was a thing of quiet disturbing beauty.
We go into next week’s finale with answers, but as any good show will do, it creates more questions along the way, and the most pressing one now is: How will it all come together? Mr. Robot, Elliot, Darlene, F Society, the White Rose, Allsafe, and Angela and the raspberry pi? But most importantly, will Sam Esmail feature a scene with Tyrell riding in an elevator with “Hip to be Square” muzak playing in the background to bring the American Psycho homage out into the open, as well?