When we checked in on this show mid-season, we bemoaned the rather meandering path the narrative had taken and worried that too much of it was going to lead nowhere. We were concerned that the show really needed to stick the landing on the season finale and wasn’t going to be up to the task. There were too many narrative diversions and at least one too many attempts to shock the audience with a twist everyone saw coming. The main characters were all scattered on the wind and barely interacted with each other, and the fate – and even existence – of one of them was kept from the audience until the last possible second. A lot of this could have been corrected with some sort of amazing season wrapup, but unfortunately, our worst fears about the show were proven true. Mysteries are piling on mysteries and so much of it seems to come down to the storyteller randomly withholding details instead of building up the audience’s curiosity. There’s no sense of resolution – which may not be a fair expectation at this point in the story, but there should at least be some feeling of forward movement. We’re in LOST season 3 or X-Files season 8 territory here. While we have no doubt that show creator Sam Esmail knows how this story is going to end (unlike the creators of the previously cited shows), it seems pretty clear that he doesn’t have the strongest game plan when it comes to how he’s going to get there. Much like Lindelof & Cruse with LOST and Chris Carter with X-Files, Esmail appears to be falling a bit too in love with his own tricks.
We don’t expect a ton of agreement on this point, since social media seemed to love the scene, but when Angela’s story took a sudden sharp right turn into David Lynch land – the scene with the fishtank and the mini-Angela – it sort of confirmed what we had feared most about Esmail’s methods and approach this season. It was just weirdness for the sake of being weird. And if this show had started off like Twin Peaks or X-Files or some other form of televisual surrealism, such a scene might be welcome, but part of the appeal of season one was the show’s bracing fury (voiced through Elliott) aimed at the vapidity and shallowness at the heart of modern life. His inner diatribes against modern pop culture, consumerism and the loss of privacy and identity in the age of Facebook and the rise of hacking armies were terrifyingly on point and familiar to the audience. Now we’re stuck in the Matrix with a creepy little girl who keeps asking us if we’re red or purple. Taken at the end of a season practically defined by its obtuseness, we found it intensely frustrating to watch. Who is this little girl? How long did it take Whiterose to train her to be so robotically professional and clinical? Why would she even go to this kind of trouble – including making the girl’s body up to look as if she had been the victim of physical abuse? We suppose you’re not supposed to ask those questions and just let the weirdness wash over us, but we find that a slightly depressing thing to consider, given how smart and intellectually stimulating the show was last season.
But a season like this one forces the question of what we want our television seasons to be in this day and age. A huge part of our frustration stems from the fact that we’re watching this show in real time, on a weekly basis, with 9 months of hiatus between seasons. Technically, we’re entering the third act of the story and most of our disappointment with the season stems from the fact that we’re not binge-watching this. We tend to think Esmail, like a lot of modern TV creators, isn’t particularly concerned with how the show comes across from week to week and with almost a year between acts. We suspect he’s looking at the series in a more holistic way, as a single, complete piece. In a movie, book or play, you can spend a great deal of the second act scattering your characters and withholding information from your audience so it all can come together in the explosive third act. But Esmail doled his second act out over the span of ten weeks. That’s a long time to hope that great performances and highly cinematic filmmaking choices will keep an audience interested in a plot that refuses to go anywhere.
Which isn’t to say things didn’t move along in these last two hours. But it took so long to get to this point that the revelation that Tyrell Wellick is alive or that the FBI had all of the fsociety players pegged a long time ago just didn’t land as gasp-worthy moments. They both seemed somewhat inevitable, as did the reveal that Elliott’s the mastermind behind everything and that stage 2 of the plan was going to include an actual act of terrorism. None of this felt … interesting, really. The buildup had gone on for so long and there have been so many dangling mysteries and diversions along the way (Joanna Wellick, WHAT IS YOUR POINT?) that hitting these story points didn’t have much impact.
As an aside, there’s quite a bit of chatter that the show is going to take a hard turn into science fiction and the story is suddenly going to deal with time travel or alternate realities. We haven’t put too much faith in such theories, mainly because that’s exactly the mistake everyone made with season 1 of True Detective. Like Mr. Robot, that show was stocked to the rafters with mysteries and obtuseness, some shockingly good central performances and heavy doses of weirdness. When the online reviewing and recapping community wrung everything out of it, half of them had convinced themselves that the show was going to suddenly take a supernatural turn that it never did, and in retrospect, clearly never intended. We could very easily be very wrong about this, though. Esmail is certainly dropping deliberate hints about time travel (there were half a dozen oblique references to Back to the Future in the finale) and alternate realities (check the post-credits scene last night). But we’re not convinced this isn’t just one more way he’s dressing up a somewhat basic tale of hacking and domestic terrorism. The series started off as a fascinating look at a fractured mind and how it protects itself from unpleasant reality. To have that take a turn into actual alternate realities would greatly diminish the power of Elliott’s struggles.
It’s still one of the moodiest, smartest shows on television, with a cast giving it their all and offering up some of the freshest performances in the medium right now. Rami Malek rightly won the Emmy this week, but Grace Gummer, Carly Chaiken, and Portia Doubleday have all been doing amazing work in every episode. We have no problem tuning in every week and we’ll have no problem seeing this through to the end – which is easy, knowing that it’s ending
next season possibly by season four. If this was an open-ended show, we don’t know if we’d be as likely to keep making it appointment television, though.
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[Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network]