[This review contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2, but none of any significance for season 3 of USA's Mr. Robot.]
For Mr. Robot, the complicated and ambitious USA series, perhaps the best and least complicated thing to say about it heading into season three is that it's back in a big way, creatively and energetically patching up many of the problems that hurt its slower second season.
In case your comprehension capacity glitched on that — Mr. Robot is must-watch again.
This should be very good news for TV fans, because Mr. Robot counts as one of those feel-good surprises (like Stranger Things) that hit the TV world and managed to leave its mark.
That Mr. Robot is one of the first scripted series to aggressively and directly go after — and mock — Donald Trump is just an added bonus. But maybe that's also a sign that creator Sam Esmail, who wrote three of the first six episodes that were available to critics and directs all 10 episodes once again this season, feels confidently in command of his story, his characters and the way the writing can ring alarmingly true about the perils of big business (and government) while also using the time lag (the series is currently taking place in 2015) to further agitate about what the Trump future holds.
Agitating about the tech-driven downfall of society is the key element of Mr. Robot (if you don't know about fsociety vs. Evil Corp, then it's just more proof you need to start this series from the beginning) — as manifested in the complex dissociative personality disorder that hacker and main character Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) has, battling Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the darker side of his disorder, who takes the shape of his father.
This conceit, which fueled all of season one, was both riveting and creative. Mr. Robot became an out-of-nowhere revelation in the summer of 2015 (garnering outstanding drama series and writing nominations and a win for Malek as lead actor at the Emmys in 2016). After that, the show fell off the Emmy radar and didn't resonate as much with critics and fans in season two, as Esmail widened the scope (and slowed the pace) of the series by focusing on more peripheral characters while trying to retain Elliot's disorder as a narrative tool and also fully utilize Malek and Slater. It was often a struggle. (At the same time, the series remained beautifully shot, one of the most visually inventive and creatively groundbreaking on television.)
There's no getting around the fact that season two didn't feel nearly as original, and the twisty impulses that drove season one were more muted — but mostly Mr. Robot was bogging down a bit as Esmail and his writing staff deepened the characters while Malek's Elliot was spending time in jail (which itself was supposed to be the big surprise of the sophomore season but ultimately ended up being just a dubious decision).
Through six thrilling episodes of season three, all systems are go.
Credit Esmail directly with two key elements. First, he cleverly retrofitted some of the less clear plot points and character decisions in season three by intelligently and entertainingly filling the audience in on the missing parts (even dating back to season ine, just to be cheeky and detailed) — all without making us feel like an anvil had dropped on our heads or giving off the whiff that the show was dumbing itself down. So high marks to Esmail there.
Secondly, as season three picks up and races forward, the series continues to poke fun at itself, mostly for the fact that defining the rules of when Elliot is himself or when he's Mr. Robot is confusing. Season three leans into that confusion in some episodes so strongly that you begin to wonder if it's a wise choice. Where you fall on that will depend on either your understanding of dissociative identity disorder or your willingness to just go with it in the service of the story (and the entire concept of the series, really). But at least by openly addressing that it's all a bit off, there's a wink that allows you to have some fun with it.
That wink is helpful, but if, after the first season reveal, you still can't abide by the identity confusion in season three, maybe it's the wrong show for you.
Beyond the Elliot/Mr. Robot divide, the series is at its best since the highs of season one.
Esmail has even managed to take Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) and make his story particularly good; it's almost a reinvention and Wallstrom does some excellent shape-shifting to pull that off. Bobby Cannavale joins the cast in a somewhat toned-down and tweaked version of the Cannavale who usually comes in and dominates a show (Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl). He's wonderful and retro.
Elsewhere, Esmail has made some big decisions for certain characters that are bound to cause a stir, but one that should be embraced is the greater screen time for B.D. Wong, whose duality as transgender, de facto Dark Army leader Whiterose and Minister Zheng, the Chinese Minister of State, has needed expanding for some time. Wong is excellent in all the material he's given.
The jaded but funny comedic underpinnings of the show remain, whether that manifests itself via a subway movie poster featuring Will Ferrell starring alongside Judi Dench, the casting of Wallace Shawn (who looks quite a bit like the fsociety mask), the use of Trunk Club clothes for Elliot to blend in when he gets a new job or Esmail's glee in going after Trump. The latter pops up in videos, is foreshadowed as a puppet candidate, mentioned as the "buffoon of an owner" of the utterly tasteless Mar-a-Lago resort, etc. There are many other Trump nods, including a "hide in the curtains" James Comey reference, some Russian names and other things you'll pick up.
Not all of them work, which is partly why comics and series like Veep don't try to tackle the man head-on; but give Esmail and Mr. Robot points for going right at it, because the bits work more often than not.
Mostly it's just a welcome relief to tune into Mr. Robot and have it take off immediately in creative, smart and adrenaline-fueling directions. The writing and plotting is spot-on, the directing brilliant and once again Malek proves, in almost every scene, how utterly essential he his to everything working.
In season two, what didn't work for Mr. Robot became the narrative of the series' existence. It was barely a consideration in this year's Emmys. But season three looks very strong and, through six episodes, has relatively few moments to question.
Most importantly, the series gets back to letting viewers dive into bigger questions of government control, corporate greed and malfeasance, the rights of citizens, the power and shortcomings of technology and whether human beings will choose good when presented with the sometimes alluring offerings of evil as society comes upon ever more morally challenging crossroads. In 2017 in America, those are relevant and revealing topics of discussion and Mr. Robot joins The Handmaid's Tale and arguably few others taking on the Trump Effect and the divide within.
Cast: Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Martin Wallstrom, B.D. Wong, Bobby Cannavale, Grace Gummer, Stephanie Corneliussen, Michael Cristofer
Written and directed by: Sam Esmail
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (USA)