Many of Mr. Robot’s episodes this season have drawn upon the show’s strengths. Unfortunately, this week’s demonstrated its weaknesses – specifically, decompressed storytelling and hollow characterization. The penultimate chapter of season 3 is a talk-heavy slog seemingly designed to reposition the characters in advance of the finale. After a string of solid episodes, this one just doesn’t hold up.
Decompressed storytelling is a fancy way of saying that Mr. Robot can be really, really slow. Rather than compressing key events into every episode, the time between them is “decompressed” – stretched out over weeks and even seasons. Much of the time in between major plot points consists of characters meeting in secret, exchanging suspicions and planning their next moves. Often it feels like we see more scheming and plotting than actual forward momentum. This week alone, we see Elliot meet with Darlene, Mr. Robot meet with Tyrell, Tyrell and Mr. Robot meet with Price, Elliot meet with Irving, Elliot meet with Angela, Darlene meet with Dom, Dom meet with Santiago, Elliot meet with Whiterose’s lieutenant, and Whiterose’s lieutenant meet with Whiterose. What happens at all of these meetings? Talking, mostly.
Things have always moved slowly and deliberately on Mr. Robot. It makes sense, considering that the show’s timeline has only advanced a few months in three years on the air. That slow build often works in its favor, ramping up anticipation for major events. But at that pace, Mr. Robot needs significant character moments that progress things emotionally, if not narratively. Otherwise, it all just feels like filler.
That brings me to my second criticism – hollow characters. Mr. Robot has an odd relationship with it characters, who are odd in and of themselves. Nearly everyone in the cast has some sort of strange, idiosyncratic mannerism that makes them seem slightly foreign to us. They would feel just a bit out of place in our world, but seem to work perfectly in Sam Esmail’s bleak mirror version of 2015. Sometimes, these characters can be incredibly compelling, aided by strong actors that are as skilled at relaying their characters’ emotions with expressions as they are with words. But other times, they feel devoid of life – brooding, over-serious caricatures of actual people that don’t process emotion or interpersonal relationships in realistic ways. This week was definitely the latter.
Real people change and grow as events change their perspectives. In Mr. Robot, there’s a lot of telling in this regard, but not as much showing. Characters this season haven’t evolved realistically, despite the show telling us otherwise. For example, how many times can Elliot and Darlene decide to trust one another, then default to keeping each other at arms’ length? I feel like we’ve seen one long interaction between them this season, that can be boiled down to Darlene saying “I’m your sister, you have to tell me what’s going on.” At some point Elliot has to let her in if we’re to believe their relationship is progressing forward.
For that matter, Darlene doesn’t seem to have learned much either. She withheld the truth from the FBI, and thousands ended up dead. And she still thinks manipulating Dom is the best move? Even if the Dark Army does own the FBI, I think it’s time Darlene tried a different tactic.
Speaking of Dom, the most criminally underdeveloped character on Mr. Robot seems to be basically the only normal one in the bunch. Many shows would use the character as a point of view for the audience, to ground events in a relatable perspective. Instead, Dom seems to receive screen time only to show the other protagonists deceiving the authorities or narrowly escaping capture. I was relieved when Darlene didn’t simply manage to steal Dom’s badge after seducing her so unconvincingly. But I can’t believe Dom even let it get that far. If we’re to believe she’s the badass cop that’s going to bring down Whiterose, we need to see her playing a more active role in events, and not just reacting to whatever deception is being fed to her.
Meanwhile, Angela has gone from grief-induced catatonia to paranoid mania – a fantastic display of range by Portia Doubleday, but it still feels off. She realizes Elliot is trying to prevent the Dark Army’s plan, but hasn’t she known that all along? And what was the point of the heartfelt moment at her door last episode, if not to bring she and Elliot closer together?
Essentially, with the exception of Elliot, we’ve been given the promise of character development this season, but with no actual follow through. No one seems to have tangibly changed despite claims to the contrary. Again, this could be a result of the story’s decompression – change doesn’t happen overnight. For them it’s only been months, but for the audience, it’s been years. With that much time dedicated, there’s an expectation that th
With both plot and character lacking from this episode, there was nothing to distract from the holes in the story itself. Taking a step back, I’m not sure the events of this season make very much sense at all. We’ve been told that the entire plan to wipe E Corp’s data was in service to pressuring Price and the UN to vote in favor of China’s annexation of the Congo. So once the vote passed, the actual execution of the attack was merely to punish Price for his lenience with Angela.
When I first heard that I thought it was great – a testament to Price’s obsession with her, and to the extent of the manipulation of fsociety’s revolution by the rich and powerful. But with the “wow factor” of that moment having come and gone, now it just seems like bad writing. All of this – every piece of the plan since fsociety began – has been unnecessary to Whiterose’s endgame? She’s so petty that she’d blow up 71 buildings out of spite? It’s frustrating as a viewer for all of the drama of three seasons to be hand waived as an inconsequential smokescreen. Something tells me this isn’t what Esmail had planned back in season 1. I wish his change in direction hadn’t removed all stakes from prior events.
The penultimate episode of season 3 is the weakest thus far. The show returns to its often frustratingly glacial pace, with characters failing to learn from their mistakes or change their tactics. Too much talking, not enough action, and nothing to help the audience invest emotionally. Hopefully this episode was just preparation for a great season finale.