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Christmas comes but once a year, but on Mr. Robot the holiday period has framed the majority of the 13-episode final season. Originally debuting in 2015, the hacker drama is still set in the year it began; not much time has passed in the world of the show, which now reads like an alternate version of our universe. When we first met Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), he dreamed of bringing down giant financial conglomerate E Corp. But instead of giving power back to the people, all he did was make it worse — because, behind E Corp, the real puppetmasters are the mysterious Whiterose (BD Wong) and the nefarious Dark Army.
Seven months after the economic collapse that brought so many regular people to their knees, normal service has resumed, and this festive season looks like any other — but everything isn't as it seems when it comes to Elliot's state of mind, and this endless holiday backdrop showcases the larger themes of the final season.
Spoilers for Season 4 of Mr. Robot ahead.
"Darlene's right. He's shutting down, compartmentalizing the pain, living in the distraction, just like the holidays: the fake Santas, the plastic trees, the annoying Christmas carols. One big song-and-dance production to sell ourselves the theater that everything's jolly, at least for a moment. But when it's all over, Santa's gone back to his sh***y day job. The trees get disassembled and thrown in a closet. The music's faded away. What then?"
Instead of Elliot conversing with the audience via voiceover, sharing his inner thoughts, we get his alter ego, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). During the season premiere, he monologues an issue that will plague the hacker for most of the season. His detached sense of identity and morality will help with the overall scheme, but not before other vulnerable targets are caught in the crossfire.
Over the course of the final season, festive lights provide the dramatic twinkly background for the majority of Elliot’s plan to bring down those behind the power imbalance, which has led to the pain (and in some cases, death) of many. Capitalism and corporate entities are at the heart of creator Sam Esmail’s examination of wealth and power, so placing the showdown around the busiest shopping period of the year is a bold statement. The contradictions of this time of "peace and goodwill to all men," the money spent, and the emotional toil are something most can relate to. Aesthetically, it gives each setting an illusion of joy or romance, which is often ruined by either violence or a manipulative monstrous act. No one is landing on Santa's nice list this year.
Thematically, the sparkly decorations also underscore the isolation of the main character, as well as his push-pull relationship with his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin), and how this time of year magnifies loneliness. Neither sibling is in the mood for decorations or festive cheer (and they likely never have been). Elliot has felt isolated for most of his life, but in the penultimate episode he has come to realize the true meaning of unconditional love. As with many festive-themed movies, this revelation doesn’t come easy or without some heartache.
The holiday season has a habit of dredging up painful family memories, but in a therapy session held under duress on Christmas Day, Elliot uncovers the real reason behind this manifestation of a figure who resembles his father. At the end of the third season, he found out his father hadn’t pushed him from his bedroom window when he was a child, as he had previously remembered. Instead, he leaped from the first floor to escape a man who had been sexually abusing him.
The weight of this realization, coupled with being held captive by a drug dealer called Fernando Vera (Elliot Villar), is framed by the Instagram-ready Christmas decorations, which only adds to the disturbing dichotomy of the scenario.
The warm glow of the lights illuminates a shaken Elliot, his tear-streaked face lit with a symbol of joy, further highlighting the sheer horror of this scene. An act of self-defense follows, again framed and lit by what should be a cozy Christmas Day celebration.
The holiday season isn't a joy-filled experience for all; instead, it is a reminder of what has been lost or what someone never had. For Elliot, he now realizes his entire childhood memories are an image of someone who wasn’t real. He created Mr. Robot to resemble the dad he wanted, and as a way to protect his psyche from the mental trauma. It wasn’t just his father who was abusive; his mother also put Elliot and Darlene through hell. They still have each other, but even this bond is put to the test by his detached emotional state. When their mother dies in the second episode, they have to collect her few possessions and make funeral arrangements. An event that isn’t made worse by the time of year — she treated them so badly she crushed the sentimentality out of them. However, it doesn’t exactly bring the siblings closer together. The constant reminder of the holidays via lavish decorations only underscores how disconnected the pair are.
For all the despair and tension, Mr. Robot is often darkly comedic, which is perhaps best demonstrated as the pair fight about their mother's passing. Darlene accuses her brother of not being present; he is distracted by the larger task at hand. A person dressed in a snowman suit sits next to them during this entire conversation. "Condolences,” offers the snowman when he stands up to get the next train. It's a surreal image, but one laced with sincerity and whimsy.
It is challenging devoting an entire season to the holidays, but creator Sam Esmail is not using this backdrop as a cheap trick. In the fifth episode, aside from one line uttered at the start and one at the end, it is dialogue-free (rivaling Buffy’s “Hush” for its audacious execution). Framed around a heist, Elliot ends up on a wild run across Manhattan, chased by cops. At one point he ends up skidding his way across the Central Park ice rink, looking like a burglar from Home Alone before ending up on a bus in the middle of a makeshift nativity scene. It is a hilarious visual in an exhilarating and tense episode that wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t Yuletide. ‘Tis the season to pack the frame with off-kilter lights and people in fancy dress. Halloween is only one night (OK, maybe one week), but the festive season stretches for at least a month.
The commercial aspect feeds into everything Elliot and Darlene despise; however, there are other elements they get pulled into. At a loss at what to do about her brother, Darlene ends up driving a drunk Santa home. She mistakes his slurred ramblings as a cry for help; the suicidal Jimmy he discusses is a reference to It's a Wonderful Life; his morbid goodbye is a quote from Steinbeck. It is Darlene who is the one who could do with some guidance, but instead of an angel in need of wings, she gets a wasted Tobias (Jon Glaser).
A festive miracle does take place; despite the many obstacles and near misses, the hack is a success. And just as everyone is getting back to the drudgery of everyday life again, Darlene puts a belated monetary deposit in everyone's Ecoin wallets. For all the festive buildup, the switch to reality is sharp and swift, so this end-of-year bonus is the perfect Robin Hood gift from Darlene to everyone who has been screwed over by a big conglomerate.
Before the two-part finale, Elliot entered the Washington Township nuclear facility, in which bodies and Christmas trees were strewn about the place. Violence mingles with the fantasy of the holiday once more. The twist that Elliot undergoes is waking up in an alt-reality. The festive period is over, but he is living in the ultimate distraction. In using the holidays for the majority of the final season, creator Sam Esmail has utilized the hope of this period as well as underscoring the misery it can bring with aplomb. Now Elliot has one more fight and decision to make before we all return to the normalcy of our lives when the holiday season ends.