Spoilers for last night’s episode of Mr. Robot, “Handshake”, abound in this article. You have been warned.
Given the plot twists and turns of the show’s first season, fans of Mr. Robot have no doubt been watching Season 2 waiting for some kind of shoe to drop. Well last night’s episode, “Handshake”, delivered, as the final few minutes of the installment featured yet another big reveal in the vein of Season 1’s revelation that Christian Slater’s Mr. Robot is a figment of Elliot’s (Rami Malek) imagination.
Season 2’s premiere episode featured Elliot revealing to the audience a new routine of his meant to keep Mr. Robot at bay, but keen-eyed viewers noticed almost immediately that something was up. This “routine” seemed like it could fit very easily within the confines of, say, a mental hospital or prison of sorts, and clues to that end continued to flow as the season progressed. Indeed, last night’s episode revealed that yet again Elliot has not been seeing everything as it appears, as he’s actually been locked up in prison for the duration of this new season. That “routine” was his prison routine—wake, chow time, recreation at the basketball court, group meetings, etc. And just like that, Mr. Robot was turned upside down once again.
Creator and showrunner Sam Esmail, who took up the tall task of directing every single episode of the second season, spoke with Alan Sepinwall at HitFix yesterday to break down the episode’s big revelation. Esmail says it was always the plan to have Elliot in jail at the beginning of Season 2:
“We knew exactly what the fate of Elliot was at the end of the last season, and we started breaking this season’s storyline. We’re always trying to stay as authentic to Elliot as possible, what he’s going through. Knowing Elliot, from the very first episode, he definitely has interesting coping mechanisms. Even from the pilot, he has this ability to reprogram his life: E Corp was turned into Evil Corp. When we thought about him being in prison, what would be that coping mechanism, this came to mind. The other approach was his relationship to us — to his ‘friend’ — and how we left him at the end of the first season. He basically didn’t trust us anymore, he felt we were keeping things from him. So we wanted to develop that relationship as well. That was the one approach of, ‘This is what Elliot would do in this situation, to cope with being in prison,’ and then the other of keeping it from us because he felt betrayed by us from the first season.”
When asked if Esmail and his team were concerned about pulling another reveal that would make the audience further question what’s really happening on the show, he stressed that they attempted to ensure this one was treated in such a way that viewer trust would not be broken:
“If we can’t invest in what is happening and what is going on, that would become very frustrating, to the point where you wouldn’t feel any stakes. That was the test we ran through with this idea: is this actually happening to him? Is what he’s experiencing still real? And can the audience still buy into this after the reveal? Those answers were obviously yes: the events that we saw were still very much real, and the consequences of them are real, and what Elliot went through is real. It’s just the coping mechanism he used was not exactly what he saw. To me, it was definitely one of those things that prompted a real conversation. Like I think I told you last year, we’re not in it for gotcha moments or shocking the audience, but we’re in it for interesting reveals and deepening and enriching Elliot’s experience. We felt that him going through his prison sentence in this way was more true to life to Elliot than actually having seen it as a prison.”
And while this was all played as a reveal, fans had already been throwing this prison theory around since the first episode. What did Esmail think about potentially having it spoiled so early?
“It was weird. One thing that we always do is we never want to cheat the audience. We never want it to be some extraordinarily contrived thing where we’re basically lying to the audience and what they’re seeing isn’t actually happening, and we’re fooling them. In doing that, and being honest with what is going on, even though the surroundings aren’t actually what they are, we didn’t really hide it that well, right? I didn’t expect people to catch on from the very first episode, but I thought people would start to theorize and catch on. Look, a reveal is great when it’s surprising, but it’s terrible when it feels like a cheat. To me, the fact that some people who guessed it may not be surprised, it verifies that we didn’t cheat anybody, because it adds up and makes sense to them still.”
There’s certainly some ambiguity left as to how Craig Robinson’s character factors into the reality of the situation, but Esmail noted that his role in it all will be revealed “in a couple of episodes.” My guess? Prison warden.
This second reveal has gone over…interestingly. The big Season 1 twist was incredibly obvious from the get-go to anyone who’s ever seen Fight Club, but it didn’t matter too much because the story was so good. As Esmail says, he’s not trying to cheat the audience, and so learning something you kind of already knew didn’t hinder the show’s impact. With Season 2, however, in the wake of that Elliot revelation, it became hard to take anything seriously with regards to Elliot because we’re now keenly aware that he is a repeating offender of unreliable narrator syndrome. Factor in that he had little to no interaction with any of the show’s main characters, and his storyline in Season 2 thus far carried little weight because, well, there was no reason to trust what he was telling us was the truth—and we were right!
Esmail says everything Elliot showed us did happen, just in a different context, but the fact that it was unreliable plus, frankly, uninteresting has made Elliot’s arc in Season 2 the least compelling thing about the show. Indeed, Angela’s storyline has been far more compelling, and I’m already itching to see a spinoff focused solely on Grace Gummer’s FBI agent Dom.
We’re only about halfway through the season so there are plenty of episodes left, but thus far I’ve been pretty underwhelmed with this second go-around of Mr. Robot and last night’s twist doesn’t really make it any more interesting. But what about you, folks? How did you react to that twist? How have you been liking Season 2 thus far? Sound off in the comments below.