'Mr. Robot' Season 2: TV Review

Peter Kramer/USA Network
A revolution of the mind, and of TV tropes.
7/13/2016

Don't bother guessing where the USA Network show starring Rami Malek and Christian Slater is heading in season two — just go along for the fascinating, disorienting ride.

If viewers learned anything about the beautiful breakout that was USA Network's Mr. Robot last season, it's that you don't really know what you think you know.

That's the nature of a show that has at its core an unreliable narrator (mental illness, drug addiction); that has visuals designed to maximize feelings of disorientation; that left a number of unresolved issues on the table from season one, including an unprecedented post-credits mindf— of a scene; and that doesn't really begin to address any of those issues in the first two hours of season two.

So don't worry about spoilers for the second season, but if you haven't watched season one (and why haven't you?) then you need to excuse yourself from here on out.

The much anticipated second season picks up about 30 days after the cyberattack on E Corp/Evil Corp by hacktivist group fsociety has erased everyone's debt and, not surprisingly, thrown the world financial markets into chaos. The fallout has begun and it's safe to say that season two will delve heavily into how that plays out. But Mr. Robot isn't really a series about hacking — it's primarily a character study touching on mental illness, loneliness, tech alienation and dubious parenting, not necessarily in that order.

Series creator and writer Esmail is also directing all 12 episodes, a Herculean feat that has the benefit of giving real unity to his vision. He proves, in the first two hours, that the expectations people have for narrative rhythms and familiar storytelling beats will be sidestepped or abandoned altogether. Not every character from season one is present in these first two episodes, loose ends about motive and outcome from events in season one remain loose, and a few new characters are introduced without Esmail revealing much about their importance or future impact.

In short, despite one or two decently big twists in the first two hours, what will happen as Mr. Robot examines the fsociety fallout remains, appropriately, totally unknowable.

What's clear is that Elliot (the superb Rami Malek) is trying to reboot his mental server pretty much by himself. Not one to rely on pills to address his social anxiety or the more problematic delusion that Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) was real and not a figment of his imagination in the guise of his late father, Elliot chooses to keep up a daily routine of staying offline and repeating the same tasks (including keeping a journal of all his thoughts). "It's the only way to keep my program running like it's supposed to." That compu-talk alone should clue you in that Elliot is not well and his "program" to weaken Mr. Robot's resolve to cause problems in Elliot's life has a bug in it. While "this analog nightmare," as Mr. Robot calls it, has worked for about a month, it's clearly fraught with peril — primarily because it can't possibly be sustained. Without meds, Mr. Robot can't be kept away.

Esmail has repeatedly said that season two will be "darker" — quite the promise given the bleakness of Elliot's condition in season one. But there's no real show if Mr. Robot disappears for good. And, frankly, Mr. Robot is at its creative best when we watch Elliott's mental unraveling, no matter how heartbreaking it is to witness. If season two will be "darker" it probably means that Elliot is subconsciously unwilling to let go of his connection to his father and the power that Mr. Robot gives Elliot by proxy is the twisted, not-fully-explained cherry on top.

Meaning once Elliot's aware that he's actually Mr. Robot — that cracks in his mind have let out delusions and those delusions have had an extraordinary impact on the world through his hacking, affecting an untold number of lives both close to him and scattered about New York and the world — Elliot needs to figure out how to live with himself.

And there lies darkness.

There are powerful scenes between Malek and Slater, and they hint that Esmail is grappling with the need for Elliot to get better and with the fact that if he actually did get better, there really isn't a show. The assumption is that Elliot actually can't get too much better, maybe ever — he's broken. His paranoia gets a brief respite in these first two hours but early signs of what's to come this season — an FBI agent (Grace Gummer) investigating the attack, a mysterious man named Ray (Craig Robinson) who befriends Elliot/Mr. Robot — hint at more trouble coming soon enough. And we know how he handles pressure.

Clearly Esmail has a plan for what could be a long run of Mr. Robot. What's encouraging is that the series is settling into the long haul by taking its time with story. When season one ended, we didn't know what happened to Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) and that has barely shifted early on in season two, while remaining a worry for Elliot. In a series that likes conspiracies, the one hinted at in that famous post-credits scene in last season's finale with Whiterose (BD Wong) goes untouched in the first two hours (which is kind of audacious). And while the aforementioned missing characters from season one — Romero, Trenton, Terry Colby, etc. — will likely get their share of scenes at some point, Esmail seems in no big hurry to bust them out.

Instead, Elliot's sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) has a major plot development during the month that Elliot has been rehabbing his psyche. If her exact role in the origins of the fsociety attack was muted in season one, her taking charge of the group's goals after the fallout is not. She's in charge. Elliot is journaling.

The introduction of three or four new characters will also build this world out a bit, post-hack. Intriguing figures like Evil Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) are still in play as well. Angela (Portia Doubleday), so central to Elliot's grip on reality and a fellow sufferer of Evil Corp's malfeasance, is also off on new, intriguing diversions.

Esmail's camerawork — characters tucked into corners of the frame, among other nontraditional compositions — continues to give the sense of disorientation and never feels tired. In fact, there are some flourishes in the first two hours that are brilliantly conceived and, with the show's strong sense of sound (both pop songs and smothered, slowed-down and manipulated background noise), contribute to what is one of the most visually remarkable hours on television.

Mr. Robot could have easily dragged out the pending cyberattack from fsociety for at least two seasons but Esmail chose to feature it as the finale. Where he goes now is extremely important to the series maintaining its intrigue and relevance.

It's best to sit back and let it soak in rather than guess at what Esmail has in mind. He already proved last season to be a master puppeteer, manipulating perception both on the screen and in Elliot's mind. Trying to outguess him in search of some logic or direction is foolish. As Mr. Robot himself says and Elliot frantically scribbles into his journal: "Control is an illusion."

Studio: Universal Cable Productions
Cast: Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday

Created, written and directed by: Sam Esmail

Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on USA Network.

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