On 'Mr. Robot' and the Virtues of Television Theories and Twists
Spoilers for this week’s Mr. Robot
In last night’s episode of Mr. Robot, showrunner Sam Esmail finally revealed the big season two twist: Elliot has been in prison all along. I called that after the first two episodes! Vulture had a variation on that theory, as well (in fact, though it wasn’t as accurate, I liked their theory better). I’m sure several people figured it out early on, because once the thought was implanted, it’s hard to not to see it. In last week’s episode, for instance, when two men pulled Elliot from his hospital bed and threw him into a room by himself, it was clear to those who had the theory on their brain that he was being tossed into solitary confinement.
I thought it was a neat twist, and unlike the Dexter season six twist that everyone figured out early on, it didn’t diminish anything about this season of Mr. Robot. The success of the series is not predicated upon the twist. We knew exactly why Elliot had constructed this world outside of the prison, and the twist highlighted the lengths that Elliot will go to repress reality. Living in his mother’s house was a coping mechanism in the same way that he constructed a world where he existed in a 90’s sitcom to cope with the beating he took at the hands of Ray’s henchman.
I thought it was a satisfying reveal, and I felt a twinge of pride for having figured it out early on. Then I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece on “Why TV Twists Don’t Work Anymore,” and that pride turned to embarrassment. Matt Zoller Seitz is a much smarter writer than I, and he made me feel really dumb.
I should probably ‘fess up here and admit that I don’t watch Mr. Robot, or any other TV series, to test my knowledge of TV tropes and say, “I called it!” whenever I successfully predict where a show’s plot might be headed. That particular viewing approach doesn’t interest me. I know there’s a pretty sizable contingent of people who watch films and TV series mainly to see if they can successfully guess what will happen next — Reddit is a virtual mecca for this sort of viewer — but I’ve never encouraged that impulse …
… Mr. Robot is encouraging this kind of reductive approach to engagement with art, however accidentally. And it’s a shame, because the rest of the show is so rich with imagination and meaning that it could probably rivet us if it dropped the gimmicks entirely and just concentrated on doing what it already claims to be doing: telling the story of Elliot and the cruel world that he’s trying to destroy and remake.
… I wouldn’t mind seeing a moratorium on this kind of screenwriting for that very reason: It just never works anymore.
MZS — who is honest to God the best in the business — is too classy to spell it out, but he’s basically saying that the “reductive approach” of Mr. Robot that appeals to yarn-wallers and Reddit riffraff diminishes the quality of the series, that it gets in the way of good storytelling. Basically, he blows up my entire approach to watching and writing about shows like Mr. Robot, True Detective, Mad Men, Better Call Saul or The Leftovers.
I dunno. Maybe he’s right. In fact, he probably is.
However, there is something to be said for the yarnwallers and Reddit riffraff. We spend a lot of time interacting with these shows because we’re looking for clues. We’re looking for small details, and callbacks, and Easter eggs. We’re looking for buried treasure. I don’t know if one would call it an intellectual pursuit, but man, it is fun, not because we can say, “I called it!” but because it feels communal, like there’s a lot of us doing this thing together, sharing notes, developing theories and building on other theories. It’s another way to engage with a television show.
It also heightens our appreciation for shows like Mr. Robot, Better Call Saul, and The Leftovers that do this so well. We watch every episode two or three times, and while in search of hidden meaning, we pick up on character nuances we may have missed on the first watch; we gain more appreciation for great performances that can withstand multiple rewatches; and we are better able to ferret out references to other movies and television shows that heighten our appreciation for the one we’re watching.
Sam Esmail sweats the details on Mr. Robot, and I want to be able to surface as many of those details as possible for other viewers who don’t have the time or inclination to rewatch episodes but who still appreciate those flourishes. It’s exhilarating to spot a reference to an old Christian Slater movie, for instance, or research a Van Gogh painting in an effort to get inside of Esmail’s mind.
Matt Zoller Seitz writes in his piece about how much he appreciated The Sixth Sense even though he knew the twist going in. I feel that way about Mr. Robot, too, because once I thought I figured out the twist, there were a lot of details I was able to pick up on that conformed with the theory that I would have otherwise missed. Like, the striped wallpaper. Or the way Elliot’s conversations were staged or the red-wagon motif. I thought it was a smart way for Esmail to telegraph the twist without giving it away, to build an “adrenaline rush” into the series alongside the brilliant storytelling.
I guess what I’m saying is, I honor and respect the opinion of Matt Zoller Seitz and other critics who dismiss the theory chasing as a superficial pursuit, but I also find that it enriches our enjoyment for these shows and in many ways helps us to pick up on the “details of characterization, performance, and storytelling” that make Mr. Robot the “innovative, audacious, and delightful” series that it is.
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