Mr. Robot and the Problem of the Unreliable Narrator

Posted on August 18, 2016

MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme" Episode 207 -- Pictured: Portia Doubleday as Angela Moss -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/USA Network)

And now for some harshness:

Mr. Robot went from being a very good show with a lot of promise to be great in season one to a just-okay show that still has a chance to become good in season two. And it’s all because show creator Sam Esmail focused way too much on what made the show so buzz-worthy last season without focusing enough on telling a story.

The Number One problem with the show right now is that it relies far too much on the unreliable narrator trope to keep things interesting. That doesn’t strike us as enough of a hook to keep the viewer invested, especially since it was revealed long ago how unreliable Elliot is. The theory that he was actually in an institutional setting and not his mother’s home was figured out by many viewers and reviewers in the very first episode of the season. Had we all never seen the show before, last night’s rug-pull might have seemed shocking or exciting, but the show waited way too long to do the reveal and it seemed unaware of how unshocking the reveal actually was. Remember: last season, the viewership wasn’t particularly surprised to find out that Mr. Robot was inside Elliott’s head. Everyone figured that part out. The true shock of the season came when we found out Darlene was his sister. It’s possible there will be yet another shocking, “Everything you thought you knew was WRONG” twist that will wind up being a true surprise to the audience, but if they do that, then we reserve the right to say that they’re officially spinning their wheels.

Now, we celebrated that same unreliable nature when we reviewed the season 2 premiere, writing:

“It’s the very nature of reality that can’t be trusted. You literally never know if what you’re seeing is what you’re actually seeing… Mr. Robot keeps you confused so you can not just feel what Elliot is feeling, but actually live inside his head with him. With Mr. Robot, you’re not a confused audience member, you’re a confused person inside the protagonist’s brain – and he’s talking directly to you the whole time. You’re in the story.”

But as last night demonstrated quite effectively, we’re really not in the story. We’re looking at it from outside; at the mercy of whatever Elliott tells us. And as we found out with this episode, Elliott lies to us.

And while the transition from lie to reality was well handled (which isn’t surprising, because Esmail’s mastery of the technical aspects of visual storytelling is at Hitchcock levels), it’s less an “Oh, wow” moment than a “Wait, what?” one. We suppose many of the details will be filled in going forward, but it’s extremely unclear how that thing with Ray even went down. How did Ray approach him? Where was all of this taking place? How did Elliott rat him out? Maybe these questions won’t be answered at all. Maybe none of that stuff with Ray really matters to the story overall. It certainly never felt like it mattered while it was going on.

There’s a big part of us that wishes the show would skip all that and just move forward, but they’ve painted themselves into a storytelling corner, so to speak. If the show moves forward and assumes that the viewer can fill in the blanks on everything that occurred with Elliott for the past six episodes, then we’ve really had our time wasted on a lot of nonsense and misdirection. On the other hand, if they spend too much time filling in the blanks of the past 6 episodes, the narrative is going to be stuck in an ourobouros of self-referentiality. The options for storytelling going forward are to leave everything that happened maddeningly (and almost irresponsibly) vague and unexplained or to become so stuck in a self-referential loop as to stop being about anything at all. What is Mr. Robot about? It’s about how hard it is to figure out what Mr.Robot‘s about.

In fact, even the non-Elliott parts of the story – which have been the best parts of this season by far – are showing significant strain from all this narrative vagueness. Esmail’s great at setting a mood and setting up a shot (the frame compositions this episode were so gorgeous as to be almost distracting), but he sure doesn’t have time for the details of the story. And he’s far too confident of that audience’s patience. He seems to think it was a good idea to separate Elliott from all the action and most of the players in the story for most of this season, but it really wasn’t. It’s been very frustrating watching the story fail to unfold week in and week out. Especially when so much of it strains credulity.

Darlene’s group has been staying in that E Corp counsel’s townhouse for how long now? Because several weeks at least have passed since the season started. How does that make any sense? Why would that woman just abandon her house for weeks at a time without checking in on it? Don’t even get us started on how F Society dropped the balls, so to speak. It’s a great visual to see a pair of giant metal bull testicles crash through the skylight of the House of Representatives but it makes very little sense once you start thinking about it. How did this rag-tag group of hackers manage to climb on top of the Capitol building without being detected? How did they manage to escape without being caught? To not even spend a second of the storytelling explaining these things is sloppy and vague in the extreme. It’s asking way too much of the viewership to fill in or ignore details like that. But Esmail seems far less interested in details, preferring to put all his work into the expressiveness and mood of the pieces. And while we’ll never stop praising him on his meticulous technical skills, there’s something very off-putting about pairing that overly precise filmmaking with such vague and sloppy storytelling.

Having said all that, the scenes with Angela remain more engrossing than ever. Portia Doubleday is the MVP of this season and she’s doing incredible work with this character. Like virtually all the characters, it’s almost impossible to figure out what she’s thinking or what she’s trying to do, but unlike Elliot, who can’t be relied on, or Darlene, who seems to be flailing about from plan to plan, watching Angela’s cooly impassive face or listening to her meticulously consider every single word she’s about to say before she says them makes for a fascinating character study. In addition, to our surprise, Grace Gummer’s giving the performance of her career as the shrewd and unflappable Agent Dipierro. If the season spent more time on these two women right now, we wouldn’t complain. But that wouldn’t solve the show’s real problems. Esmail really needs to pull this narrative together tightly before the season finale. If it continues on this vague and meandering path (What exactly is the point of spending so much time with Joanna Tyrell?), we predict he’s going to lose a significant amount of the audience by the time the just-confirmed season three rolls around.

[Photo credit: Michael Parmelee/USA Network]


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