Mr. Robot’s second season has been a pretty big departure from its first, dropping its tech-centric storylines for more character meditation (and a lot of deer-in-headlights looks), to mixed reviews. While Sam Esmail’s directing style remains impeccable the show’s expanded second season story (and its over-indulgence runtimes) has felt a lot like its treading water. After the big reveal that Elliot’s reality this season was all an illusion to help him cope with his prison sentence, the show took a break from Elliot altogether. In “eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12,” it instead pivoted towards its women characters to create one of the most powerful episodes of the season, and possibly the entire series. In “eps2.7_init_5.fve,” Elliot returned but more closely tied with Mr. Robot than ever before, to the point of not knowing which one is in charge.
There are two major themes at the heart of Mr. Robot that are not just about chaos and anarchy and bringing down The Man, but rather, a much quieter study of personal dichotomy and power. The easiest example is of course the main tension between Elliot and Robot: Elliot is less powerful, and his personality splits are a way to balance (however unevenly) his more reserved, tortured self and the part of him fueled by rage and power. But as we saw in last week’s “Successor,” those dueling natures are a part of every major character in Robot’s world. In the most striking story this season, Angela–who as a character has gone through major changes–has been largely a mystery when it comes to her dealings with Evil Corps. Is she being seduced by its power, or is she staying on message to bring it down from within?
“Init” seemed to answer that, in part, as she stole incriminating documents from work in order to implicate E Corps. When Philip Price had his conversation with WhiteRose (with the beautifully serene sounds of light rain acting as a soft background for a fraught conversation), he made it sound like the government’s impending takeover of the contaminated site meant the government had some actual power. Angela finds out this isn’t really true, as her being questioned in a fairly menacing way in the halls of the Nuclear Regulatory Office seemed to suggest that the higher-ups are bought and paid for, and whistle blowers will be dealt with accordingly. Later, she’s confronted by Dom who puts her cards out on the table for her, both unable to move forward without the other’s help.
Darlene, too, has had a fascinating arc this season that has touched upon some of the deep-seated rage that fuels her (like when she tased and killed the corporate attorney), and when it comes to power, she’s forced to take a step back when Elliot returns, and it’s strangely affecting. Is that what she wants? Is it fair? When Cisco asks Elliot if he’s more reliable than Darlene, it comes on the heels of one of his dissociative breaks. You choose!
As we head towards the season’s final episodes, one of the biggest questions revolves around those issues of dichotomy and power regarding Joanna Wellick. Joanna’s story hasn’t yet connected to the season at large, though from the previews that looks to change next week. But even though she’s been orbiting on her own, she’s remained an important connection not just to her husband Tyrell, but also as someone else fighting for power and pulling together two disparate natures. In one particularly telling scene, Joanna holds her baby lovingly while she explains how she wants a man to be killed. She’s both vicious and maternal. In her sex life, she both wants to be dominated, and be in control (like with her boy-toy, who she views with tenderness even though he’s ultimately disposable). Are these dueling personalities a key to where Season 2 might end up? In a bombastic, Mr-Robot-fueled firestorm, or a quieter Elliot-esque battle of internal triumph?
Mr. Robot has finally put Elliot in an interesting position this season with “Init.” Some fallout from him realizing that Mr. Robot is a part of his imagination needed to happen, but the pacing and self-reflection and occasionally endless monologues went beyond the pale. Now, finally, we see the next chapter: Elliot and Mr. Robot are fusing together in a way that’s creating a strange power vacuum. And as such, Elliot is unable to access his Robot memories that will allow him to know what Stage 2 is. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the visually stuttering effects for Elliot going back and forth between his Robot persona were akin to the brownout flickers to the electrical grid. Unlike the apocalyptic scene we might have imagined coming next after Season 1, the economic collapse after the 5/9 hack has been a slow burn. Again, it’s a parallel to Elliot’s mental state. It’s no longer a question then of what we can trust with Elliot–which is a game that has definitely been played out–but rather, what he trusts and knows of himself. That’s a far more interesting story at this point than even what the details of Stage 2 are since the show has kept the economic collapse in the background for most of the season.
In Season 2, Mr. Robot has kept its main characters apart. Elliot was in jail, Darlene was running fsociety, Angela and Elliot have only interacted once briefly, while other fsociety members are being killed off, taken, or exiled. A very loose connecting thread might be Dom. But with Elliot back at the head of fsociety, Joanna meeting up with Elliot again (who presented himself as Ollie last season to her), and WhiteRose and Philip Price’s gloomy conversation about the future of the world, it seems like these stories are finally starting to come back together. Last season culminated in a hack that caused a global financial crisis. But Season 2 hasn’t set up those same stakes this year, even with these Dark Army whispers of Stage 2. It’s been more about the internal battles of its leads rather than fighting against an internationally powerful evil. Regardless of the problems with urgency and pacing the series has faced in Season 2, if Mr. Robot is really bold, it will stay true to that internal focus and allow for a finale that is perhaps quieter and more intimate, but still as tense and riveting as the show has always been at its best.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesday nights on USA.