In retrospect, it was never just the attention to technical detail or the unique visual stylings. Part of what made Mr. Robot‘s first season a modern classic was how it blended familiar TV formats—Elliot would take down small timers or execute highly hackable heists in episodic of-the-week adventures while the show built up longer season arcs. It’s a formula other modern shows like Buffy, Justified, or Mindhunter have used to great effect, combining satisfying procedural watchability with slowly built histories and battles. For Mr. Robot, that blend allowed viewers to quickly get familiar with Elliot on a deeper level, as his technical capabilities and internal struggle with mental illness revealed themselves through a variety of situations. Those two character traits became the hallmark of the whole series.
In subsequent seasons, however, Mr. Robot tipped heavily toward that second TV format with only a few select exceptions (like when Angela hacked an FBI base camp). The show’s overarching plot became more and more complicated as a result: S1’s showdown between Elliot and his cronies against E-Corp evolved into a situation where this highly skilled hacker working for a Big Tech/Finance corporation contractor has been duped into executing an attack against the big corporation on behalf of a Dark Web syndicate that maybe controls the global economy… huh?
Whatever the show’s fourth and final season ultimately has in store, Mr. Robot seems to be tapping back into its roots based on last night’s premiere (“401 Unauthorized”) and the early season episodes that follow (Ars had the opportunity to watch the first four). Yes, there’s plenty of plot to plow through to see whether Elliot or the Dark Army will come out victorious. But after a second season that frustrated the show’s larger audience and a third season that quietly reset the world, Mr. Robot is willing once again to devote time to doing what it does best: sketching out deep character portraits while simultaneously executing some highly entertaining self-contained adventures.
Back to the very beginning
As S4 begins, Angela seems to be quarantined under the watch of Phillip Price. Tyrell Wellick has been promoted to CTO of E-Corp, presumably as a chess piece of the Dark Army. Dom’s only day-to-day interactions come via her mother and whatever contractors or failed date setups she arranges. And while Elliot and Mr. Robot seem to be on the same page again, they’re up against it with the Dark Army seemingly tracking their each and every move. The only character who appears to enjoy a positive outlook at the start of the new season would be Whiterose, whose (still a little vague) masterplan seems to be inching toward completion.
Mr. Robot S4, at least in its early goings, feels patient again. A large chunk of the premier plays like pseudo-deja vu of the series’ premiere: Elliot’s hacking prowess turns up dirt on a bad guy he can somewhat leverage for his own gain—then involving Ron of Ron’s Coffee, now centered on attorney Freddy Lomax (Jake Busey, again channeling the sleaze we saw in Stranger Things 3), who helps the Dark Army move around its funds. This hack of the week makes great use of Elliot’s technical savvy and the show’s still standout production (a chase through Grand Central somehow feels so claustrophobic despite the framing revealing this wide area before slowly zooming in to Busey like a ’70s thriller). The sequence is simply kinetic. But slowly we see our hacker hero’s superhuman abilities have come back to Earth a bit over time, and the outcome isn’t as clean in S4E1 as it was in S1E1.
Another pseudo S1 callback in the premiere involves Dom as her mother clumsily tried setting her up with Janice from church, a seemingly well-meaning taxidermist. For quite some time on Mr. Robot, no one ever proved to be quite what they seemed—one of the show’s first introductions to the Dark Army, after all, was a loser boyfriend of Darlene’s who appeared to be pedaling ripped CDs on the street. Characters like Vega or Leon also proved to be more than meets the eye. The upshot with Dom’s new acquaintance proves to be similarly dread-inducing, and it’s a reminder that everyone the audience may love within Mr. Robot’s universe is very much a small pawn currently being cornered.
In the grand scheme, “401 Unauthorized” serves as a table-setter for what’s to come. Elliot’s Hail Mary plan is to attack the Dark Army where it hurts (their finances). Whiterose still has some purpose for Elliot but then considers him disposable. And seemingly none of the “good guys” are safe based on the situations that unfold for Angela, Elliot, and Dom within the episode. But without spoiling anything from the other early season installments, Mr. Robot continues to indulge longtime fans from here on by leaning into past strengths without losing itself entirely in plot.
In no particular order: Elliot stumbles into one of his most meaningful human connections since perhaps when he fell for his neighbor Shayla way back in S1, and that arc reinforces what a truly fully formed depiction of mental illness this series has delivered over time. Tyrell Wellick gets a showcase episode that allows his unexpected combination of ruthlessness and Elliott-obsession to come to the forefront, harkening back to what made him such a hard-to-parse and riveting foil back in S1. And in a show full of heart-tugging flashbacks (who knew using stolen money to see Pulp Fiction could be emotional?), Mr. Robot may have saved its most affecting one for this final stretch with a small White Rose origin story woven in.
Hopefully, the overall story will land in a satisfying place at the conclusion of this 12-episode run. As more beloved TV shows reach the end, year in and year out, fans have long figured out that finales can be a fickle thing. But Esmail has long said Mr. Robot started out as a film script, hinting that he had the big plot points and a landing place in mind from the start. And at the very least, the beginning of Mr. Robot S4 reassures viewers this season will be an enjoyable, highly stylized ride to final shut down.
Mr. Robot airs Sundays at 10p ET on USA.