Computer says no: how Mr Robot’s big reveals didn’t hack it | Television & radio

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As stories of Russia hacking the Pentagon appeared in the western press in 2015, TV gave us the show we deserved: Mr Robot’s intoxicating mix of paranoia and cyber insurrection was a compelling call to arms. Elliot Alderson, a depressed, anxious cybersecurity engineer, channelled his alienation into an anarchist hacker collective “fsociety” as they attempted to take down the antagonist conglomerate E Corp. The battle lines were drawn, the fightback had begun.

Rami Malik’s Elliot had the dead-inside, beaten down glare that only late-stage capitalism can give you, and Christian Slater as Mr Robot – Mr Miyagi to his Karate Kid – was a charismatic, memorable mentor. Fsociety was a Fight Club for geeks: a collective of the disaffected finding meaning and joy in conflict and a cause they were ready to die for. The season culminated with the epochal 9 May hack that would destroy financial records and redistribute wealth in America – a year zero for finance. The bug-eyed gonk Elliot was curiously engaging, his social awkwardness and general bewilderment at human interaction making him a sympathetic figure. Finally, a social justice warrior you could relate to, even if he couldn’t relate to you.

It was with the release of Mr Robot 2 that the bugs started to appear. As the world found its bearings in the aftermath of the 5/9 hack and renegotiated the international slave contracts upon which modernity is based, our boy Elliot found himself pushed to the margins. He kept a low profile, staying with his mammy, popping Adderall, visiting the outdoor basketball court and not much else. Fsociety floundered without Elliot, and while there was much talk of “stage two” of the war against E Corp, no one could really tell us what that was.

That question was superseded, however, when in the sixth episode the show emptied a trash can over our heads and revealed that, for the last three months, Elliot had been in jail and what we had been watching was a weird fake-out of how Elliot’s brain parsed the experience. The bedroom at his mom’s was his prison cell, the basketball court the prison yard. “This will be the last time I keep things from you,” our unreliable narrator promised us, but the damage was done.

It was one of those “aha!” moments that seems to revel in its own futility, advancing character and plot not one bit. We had wasted half a season to learn what we already knew: that Elliot was a freaky kid whose flights of fancy needed to be taken with a pinch of salt. It demonstrated that the show didn’t know what to do with the bomb it had detonated in the season one finale and that the viewers were the ultimate victims.

Thus began a descent into convoluted plot porn where ambiguity reigned, no one’s motives could be trusted and Elliot decided that the 5/9 hack had been a big waste of everyone’s time and only made things worse. We all knew the feeling. The agitprop that had once seemed so exciting now seemed naive. The harsh truth gradually dawned. Just like the global capitalism it railed against, Mr Robot did not have a plan.

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