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Rami Malek's Mr. Robot Performance Makes Up for His Controversial Oscar Win

His jaw-dropping final season turn as Hacker Elliot reminds us why we fell for the series in the first place.
  • Rami Malek in Mr. Robot (USA)
    Rami Malek in Mr. Robot (USA)

    Warning: spoilers ahead for the first eleven episodes of Mr. Robot's final season.

    Award season narratives can feature twists worthy of a soap opera: an underdog in November can become the villain by February. The long campaign is political in nature, and last year's Best Picture nominee Bohemian Rhapsody, along with its eventual Best Actor winner, Rami Malek, were justifiably beset with criticism relating to how everyone involved dealt with ousted director Bryan Singer. Pleading ignorance regarding certain well-known allegations (and invoking Freddie Mercury’s ghost) was certainly a choice, but it's one that ultimately paid off for Malek come Oscar night. Adding to the conteroversy was a mini backlash against Malek for lip-syncing to an amalgamation of vocals  in the film (including his own), which put an asterisk of sorts on his win. But if anyone still feels bitter about his win, they should tune into the final season of Mr. Robot, where Rami Malek has put any doubts about his acting abilities to rest.

    Debuting in 2015, the critically-beloved first season of Mr. Robot, Sam Esmail’s paranoia-fueled dissection of corporate power, put Rami Malek on the map. An Emmy win followed for his portrayal of hacker Elliot Alderson, and while the USA drama never got Game of Thrones viewing numbers, the first season buzz made it one of the standouts that year. Three seasons later, the show is far less popular, but those who stuck it out have been rewarded with a stunning final run, which has not only hit those first season creative highs, but surpassed them as well. Part of this comes down to some audacious choices on Sam Esmail's part (teh showrunner has been taking one big swing after another), but Malek is also bringing his A-game to the character he's inhabited for four seasons. This isn’t a case of pulling the hoodie up and relying on the ticks and traits that made audiences originally sit up and take notice. Instead, new layers have been added to mirror the sense of urgency in fulfilling Elliot’s plan.

    The black hoodie is still a vital part of his armor, but going up against White Rose (BD Wong) one last time, Elliot is now laced with rage-filled clarity. He is no longer the narrator, talking to us as if we are an invisible friend (Christian Slater is now on voiceover duty). Confidence is something Elliot previously lacked, but his detached anger gives him a new sense of determination that doesn’t require his alter-ego or the audience as his sounding board.

    Malek’s ability to shift between Elliot’s changing perspectives emphasized his emotional range in the first season, but to see him successfully pull off a seduction move with a sweeping kiss straight out of a romantic comedy, underscores just how far this character (and actor) has come. He hasn’t suddenly become Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love, rather his ability to empathize is disconnected: sleeping with someone in order to get vital information is no longer an ethical concern. Motivated by vengeance, Elliot is willing to cross any line to complete this hack, including intentionally drugging an addict who has been clean for eight years. He underscores the cruelty of this action by simply viewing Olivia (Dominik Garcia) as necessary collateral. He has also recently been injected with drugs against his will, not that he's too cut up about it. In a rare moment of deadpan humor, he tells Olivia he has been clean for nine months, before adding "not if you count the heroin I did two days ago, but I didn’t really want it." This delivery was so good, Malek should consider comedy.

    An emotionally charged season digs into the tension as we draw closer to its end. The much-discussed dialogue-free episode showcased Malek’s physicality during an exhausting (and exhilarating) bid to outrun the cops chasing him across Manhattan. A precarious Central Park shortcut takes him across an ice skating rink, which is anything but elegant. At no point does it seem easy, he is not Tom Cruise running to freedom. Rather, this scrappy, out-of-breath escape ensures we never confuse him with the Malek delivering villain swagger in the new James Bond trailer. It's rare to hear an actor panting this much after a chase sequence, but it gives the moment and his performance more weight and authenticity.

    “Method Not Allowed" is an opportunity to strip back Mr. Robot to the bare bones of the hack, but the lack of dialogue further alienates Elliot from the audience. Being held at a distance for half the season makes the revelation two episodes later, even more powerful. In “Proxy Authentication Required," words spoken aloud for the first time reveal exactly why Mr. Robot came to be Elliot’s protector. For anyone who was blown away by the twists and turns of the first season, a therapy session held under duress leads to one of the best episodes to date. Told in a five-act play structure (complete with title cards), Esmail plays on Elliot’s tightly wound psyche before letting him unravel before our very eyes. Part of his origin story was that his father had pushed him from a first-floor window. At the end of Season 3, Darlene (Carly Chaikin) revealed Elliot had jumped. Maybe his dad wasn’t the monster he had conjured? But this doesn’t explain what her brother was protecting her from during that incident.

    The answer is horrifying and before Elliot verbalizes the sexual abuse he suffered, it becomes clear to the audience what his dad inflicted upon him as a child. As the truth dawns on Elliot, confusion gives way to denial, followed by a crushing wave of pain. And because he has been emotionally unavailable all season, this sudden influx of grief and shame hits harder. It isn’t just his chin that quivers while he weeps, it’s his whole body. Residual trauma vibrates throughout the episodes that follow, leading to the climax of this series. Doubt seeps in, replacing Elliot’s detached drive that alienated him from his sister earlier in the season. With the end of the season fast approaching, Elliot still needs to return to where it all began, so he can confront his painful past while ensuring a better future for the world.

    2019 will likely be remembered for Malek's Bohemian Rhapsody Oscar win, but for those watching this final season of Mr. Robot, he is closing out the decade with a tour de force performance that will be hard to forget.

    The two-part Mr. Robot series finale airs Sunday at 9:00 PM ET on USA

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    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Rami Malek, USA Network, Mr. Robot, BD Wong, Carly Chaikin, Christian Slater, Dominik Garcia, Sam Esmail