“I’ve hurt so many people,” lead Elliot Anderson (Rami Malek) says in the premiere of Mr. Robot’s last season. “I have to make this right.” After four years, Sam Esmail’s innovative cyberpunk thriller “Mr. Robot” has evolved from a stylish, hacker-themed homage to “Fight Club” into a compelling modern fantasy about morality. The show — despite its dark themes and unreliable narrator — has never lacked a moral center. From the excellent pilot opener to its final remaining episodes, Elliot has remained a flawed character trying to do the right thing — whatever that means. He suffers from depression, social anxiety, drug addiction, and yet he sees the modern world better than any of television's more typical protagonists or antiheroes.
In an era where TV seems to have to be morally complex, “Mr. Robot” stands alone. The series may be mechanically complex and dark, but Elliot is far from Walter White or Tony Soprano territory. He is a recovering junkie trying to clean up the world he has potentially destroyed with the devastating 5/9 hack. He is a good person, and his flaws are largely out of his control. The conflict is clear. Elliot just needs to find a way to do the right thing while avoiding manipulation and sabotage by the dark parties who twisted his vigilante justice for their own purposes — the black suits, the 1 percent of the 1 percent, the ones who control everything. They are the perennial enemies of the series, and for many in the modern day they might as well be the enemies of the real world.
“Mr. Robot” asks viewers to decide the right thing for themselves. Is the status-quo of our capitalist society a stable and necessary force, or a monstrous and all-consuming plague that needs to be eradicated? With the show’s first season in 2015, this question was a deeply controversial one. But in 2019 — amidst increased public attention on of income disparities, corporate injustices and political corruption — the side of Elliot that wants to do away with the B.S. seems like the winning race horse. Chinese government hacking, cyber terrorism, corporate-backed digital currencies that threaten to destabilize world economies — these are all premises born in “Mr. Robot” which have now bled into the real world. “Mr. Robot” is not just relevant as a stylish and experimental drama, but as a drama that derives relatability from the chaos of the world in which it exists. Perhaps the audience really is a creation of Elliot’s imagination after all.
When it comes to the substance of the series, the fourth season comes out swinging in its premiere following the dense and action-packed pacing of season three. The series’ viewership may still not have recovered after a perceived sophomore slump, but Esmail and company are committed as ever to deliver on the promise of a relevant psychological drama they embarked on in 2015. “Mr. Robot” is going out on its own terms.
While the core narrative art of the 5/9 hack has changed direction several times now, the show always manages to find new ways to captivate viewers through its twists and turns. It helps that strong performances from Rami Malek, Christian Slater as the titular Mr. Robot, Carly Chaikin’s Darlene and Michael Cristofer’s Phillip Price sell the dark, melodramatic world that grows more convincing by the day. “Mr. Robot” may not be directed by David Fincher, but Esmail and his directors of photography have the isolating atmosphere and mood of their world established to a Tee. Mac Quayle’s Trent Reznor-esque soundtrack continues to make hacking and cyber exploits as sexy as any crime procedural.
At this stage, “Mr. Robot” is less of a cyberpunk thriller about hacking and more of a straightforward action series about the consequences of economic collapse and corporate control. The audience understands the rules and knows Elliot’s world is not as it seems. With many of the big plot twists and shock reveals out of the way, the show has room to just be exciting in an ordinary — albeit still very stylishly directed — fashion. This re-invention has been built from the foundation season three laid, and it makes for a compelling way to end the series. While the premiere does not fulfill every promised cliffhanger — Fernande Vera is still presumably coming for Elliot — it ups the dramatic stakes and manages to make Elliot’s chaotic life even more difficult.
It seems safe to say that the rest of season four will see “Mr. Robot” succeed at being a thriller on a technical level. What is harder to judge is whether the show will be able to tap into the earlier seasons’ exploration of depression, loneliness and anxiety in the modern world. This was the show whose characters have nihilistic Alexa conversations and rely on self-help audio tapes to feel less alone, after all. Perhaps these personal themes simply do not fit in the more formulaic — albeit well-executed and still captivating — high-stakes style the show has adopted.
At the very least, Esmail and company have built their scrappy cyberpunk world into a convincing facsimile of our reality, a true black mirror that is as much about people and their flaws as it is shiny techno-macguffins. “Mr. Robot” was never about the computers — it was about people struggling doing the right thing in an unfair world. Let us hope that those people find a way out of their misery before season four is finished.