Mr. Robot Season 3 may have been the show’s most atypically constructed season yet. The action in seasons 1 and 2 rise and rise and rise and rise. Season 2, for all of its faults mastered a sense of escalation.
One of the most satisfying little Easter Eggs in the truly underrated season 2 finale is that its title, “Python,” didn’t refer to the coding language but rather actual pythons as it was the “slowly binding everyone in” strategy the FBI had employed. And the entirety of season 2 acted like that slowly-binding python.
By contrast, the plot and various climaxes of season 3 occupy a near-perfect parabola. The season starts off relatively slow, tying up the loose ends that season 2 didn’t bother to and then for a 3-4 episode span hit glorious, exciting series highs before returning back to replacement-level Mr. Robot performance.
It’s not that season 3 is bad. In fact season 3 may actually be the best season yet of the entire show. The Internet this past week was littered with stories and tweets about a resurgent Mr. Robot and I’m inclined to agree. This was by almost any metric a fun, exciting season of television and a return to form for a show that may or may not have needed it, depending on who you ask.
Still, just as the first few episodes of season 3 didn’t represent the season’s best possible “hello,” this final episode, “Shutdown,” does not represent its best possible goodbye.
“Shutdown” fares pretty well in terms of what we look for in season finales. There are twists! Price is Angela’s biological father, Elliot wasn’t actually pushed out of that window as a child, he jumped. There is action! The setpiece on the Dark Army’s nice little farm upstate is legitimately tense – particularly once the guns come out and are pointed at our three (or four if you count Mr. Robot heroes). There is a cliffhanger! Well sort-of. Elliot hits “Enter” on the recovered data to Evil Corp* and we cut to black, leaving the implications of the act for season 4.
*Hilariously, two seasons worth of abject misery is undone by an email to “firstname.lastname@example.org”
“Shutdown” hits all the necessary beats to be a satisfying finale of a strong season. It just doesn’t fully accomplish the task of being a great episode, however. A good one, to be sure, just not great. No episode of television that features Bobby Cannavale hacking an FBI agent to death with an axe can ever fall below at least “good.”
Things get off to a particularly rough start as the episode begins to set up beats that we know the plot must hit. Santiago goes full Dark Army stooge as he kidnaps Darlene from headquarters and then when he comes across a suspicious Dom in the parking garage, knocks her out and kidnaps her too.
Meanwhile, Elliot finally decides to do what he’s been avoiding this whole time: merely have a conversation with Mr. Robot. Elliot and Mr. Robot on a Coney Island ferris wheel and Darlene and Dom in the back of Santiago’s car represent a season low in terms of impactful dialogue.
“The only reason we haven’t been talking is because I haven’t let myself,” Elliot tells Mr. Robot. “I’ve been scared of you. The part of me that is you.”
While that’s as legitimate a reason as any for not wanting to talk to your potentially violent alter ego, the context the show places it in doesn’t feel earned. Elliot and Mr. Robot have just started flirting with developing a relationship again and Elliot’s need to take the plunge now comes across as more of “first 10 minutes of the finale are in trouble” rather than “Darlene is in trouble.”
Likewise, Santiago’s full heel-turn makes for some truly uncomfortable dialogue in the car ride upstate.
“It’s easy to play a hero in the back seat,” he snarls to Dom after she understandably points out he’s being a major dickhead. It’s probably not a coincidence that “Shutdown” hits its stride once Santiago has taken an axe to the sternum.
The return to the Dark Army’s super secret farm upstate could have been a controversial choice as the time spent there in “Legacy” wasn’t enjoyed by all but the setting really works for a final-ish confrontation. For one, getting our characters into as remote a setting as possible helps clear out some of the clutter and noise and let’s us hone in on the truly desperate situation Elliot is in.
In the process it provides bigger moments to the characters who deserve it like Irving and Leon. Irving reaches his character’s absolute apex when he drives an axe into Santiago over and over again while listing off Dom’s family members to get her in line as the next FBI mole. When Dom returns to the barn, Leon, master of the understatement remarks “Looks like she just got her initiation.” And then offers her some of his weed because why not.
The pastoral setting also puts Elliot completely off his game. There is little technology to be relied on here, and Whiterose once again holds all the cards. The scenes at the barn are incredibly tense, even when crosscut with Price’s reveal to Angela. The best part, however, is how it includes. Elliot reaches his greatest victory yet in the series…and it’s a surrender.
Elliot quite simply gives in. He understands that the situation he is in is unwinnable and the only way out of the barn is to convince Whiterose that he still has value. So that’s what he does. He convinces Whiterose via the camera and microphones she has installed that he can get her materials transported to the Congo in a day, something her assistant Grant couldn’t get done.
Whiterose sees Elliot’s value, orders Leon to kill all the Dark Army goons stationed there, and then orders Grant to kill himself. Which he does. Elliot gets the materials transported to the Congo under the guise of a Iranian humanitarian mission and then even gets to extract the keylogs from FBI’s Sentinel for his trouble because at this point Whiterose has everything she wants and doesn’t care.
The action of “Shutdown” is what works the best – even if it is really just Elliot talking his way out of another jam. What follows isn’t quite as successful.
There are a lot of daddy issues in “Shutdown,” which is fitting as it debuts the day before the penultimate episode of a new Star Wars trilogy – one of the all-time great daddy issues art pieces ever. Maybe it’s the subconscious comparing of the two but the father-child resolutions in “Shutdown” aren’t as poignant as they could have been.
The reveal that Angela is Price’s daughter isn’t impactful. And in true Star Wars-ian fashion may lead to some pretty awkward moments on rewatches. Elliot slowly coming to terms with his father via Mr. Robot works a bit better. Still, there is a high bar to clear for satisfying resolutions of daddy issues in Western art and “Shutdown” doesn’t come close to clearing it.
Once Elliot has the keylogging information from Sentinel in hand, he realizes that it wasn’t Romero who was tracking the key strokes from the hack: it was Mr. Robot. So son and ghost dad get off their subway car onto a platform to have another discussion.
This one goes a little better than the ferris wheel.
“I did it because it’s what you would have done,” Mr. Robot tells him. The important realization that Elliot and Mr. Robot come to is that they share some of the same values and traits within each other. On the surface, that’s an unsurprising conclusion to draw because they are technically the same person. But the important thing is that Mr. Robot doesn’t look like Elliot. He looks like his dad.
Elliot has held on to his anger against his father for so long and then in one fell Darlene-led swoop he discovers his reasons for being mad all of this time were bullshit. And immediately after that he’s forced to confront that he carries some of his father’s ideals, personality, and values within him. That’s a big concept for anyone to confront, let alone an anti-social drug addicted hacker. But Elliot handles it maturely. He tells Mr. Robot that he’s going to undo the hack. Not for Mr. Robot, not for Darlene, and not for the rest of society. He’s going to do it for himself.
Elliot’s act of destruction was about his own pain so his act of re-creation has to be about resolving that pain. And he does, by firing off that email to email@example.com.
All of this is mature, and satisfying, and logical, and intelligent. It’s just not fully cathartic. Partly because the revelations and handshakes come too quickly. Party because Mr. Robot isn’t even really Elliot’s dad. Most of it, however, has to do with Mr. Robot season 3’s promised grandiosity versus its intimate end.
Right after Elliot comes to terms with Mr. Robot, he is walking down a New York street and passes a TV in the window that is playing the scene in Superman where Superman turns back time through sheer force of will. It’s another reminder of how important the seductive appeal of time travel has been this season. Angela fell for it, we fell for it, Whiterose may still be falling for it, and even Elliot in his own small way falls for it when he instinctively knows that the photo that Mr. Robot has embedded the recovered data in is a photo of him and his dad as Doc and Marty.
It’s a powerful idea and the show has done a decent job of highlighting it but concept – whether literal or figurative, abandons the show when it most needs it. I’m not saying Elliot needed to time travel back to when his dad was alive to apologize. But it would have been nice if the show abandoned its artistic instincts for subtlety and bashed us over the head a bit.
Still, “Shutdown,” for all it’s flaws pulls off a pretty incredible trick. It fulfills the promise of episode 1’s title. It undoes everything. Season 3 is burdened with the unenviable task of “undoing” everything that came before it. It’s a dramatic sin of the highest order. We move forward. Stories move forward. Shows move forward. Forward. Forward. Forward. Progress. Progress. Progress.
The fact that season 3 saw the return of a status quo as a dramatically viable path and then proved it is remarkable.
Unfortunately, the post-credits scene of “Shutdown” shows that maybe all this undoing may not have been a good idea after all. Oh well. Esmail may crack this whole time travel thing before season 4 and have Fernando “Brave Traveller” Vera stricken from the record.