There is a scene fairly early on in Mr. Robot’s third season that shows off one side of the series’ personality exceptionally well. In it, Elliot (Rami Malek) embraces his inner corporate drone and gets a job at E Corps to try and clean it up from the inside. He takes meetings with middle managers, and if they are incompetents who dismiss his ideas about how to more efficiently move and store their data (which plays into a larger plan), he hacks them and brings their illicit actives to light. In a swirling montage we see Elliot awkwardly presenting his Power Point presentation, being ignored while a young manger scrolls through his phone and rushes off to a Soul Cycle class, and then the FBI alighting to haul that manager away after it’s been revealed they have been doing something illegal on the side. Even after Elliot’s plan is accepted, he still decides to clean through the company’s muck, excising those who are stealing from its employees, spying on them, or other transgressions.
There could have been a season’s worth of material there, but instead, it takes place in about five minutes. It’s a breathtakingly exciting break, too, from what is otherwise an extremely slow start to the show’s new season. After a bombastic premiere run of episodes (where a USA summer show somehow not only ended up being the best of the year, but one that hauntingly predicted the events of 2016), series creator Sam Esmail took over the series as a writer and director — a hugely ambitious move that had unintentional consequences for Season 2. The series doubled down on its indie sensibilities in terms of its visuals, but also slowed to a glacial pace. Interest in the series tapered off as audiences who had signed up for a show about a troubled hacktivist were instead dragged slowly through a world so muted and filled with large-eyed actors staring at each other that it no longer seemed to have a point.
And that is the other side of Mr. Robot, much like how Elliot shares his time with his alter-ego, played by Christian Slater. Elliot is our narrator and guide, and Mr. Robot increasingly becomes the corrupting influence. In Season 3, the two are increasingly at war, as Elliot is being manipulated by two sides who want him to go through with — or stop — Stage 2, a plan that would blow up a New York storage facility holding E Corps’ paper backups. Crucially, Elliot has realized that the 5/9 attack didn’t start a revolution, it quelled one. Instead of rallying against E Corps, it made Americans even more afraid and ready to give up their rights for security and protection. It gave E Corps more power, and the paper backups have allowed them to get back up on their feet. Stage 2’s major moral dilemma though, is that blowing up that building would kill hundreds of people, something Elliot is focused on avoiding, whereas Mr. Robot thinks it’s a necessary step.
USA sent critics six episodes of the third season to review, and for good reason. The season really doesn’t come together until Episode 5, which is shot (Birdman-style) like one long take. It’s a horror-filled nightmare in a high-rise, where we first follow Elliot and then Angela (Portia Doubleday) through an increasingly chaotic set of scenes. That chaos continues into the sixth episode, where the battle for Elliot’s soul, and the fate of Stage 2, is as thrilling as any sequence from the show’s first season.
Unfortunately, almost everything before that (save a few key moments, like the one I opened this review with) feels like the show is dragging its feet. Some mysteries are solved, some cases are unceremoniously closed, and it feels like the lesson Esmail learned from Season 2 was not about pace but about explanation. (Esmail again directs the entire season, though the writing is split up this time). Form over function is still far too prevalent in this new run of episodes, and a lot of the momentum is bogged down with a sudden desire to be completely transparent with audiences. That could be a response to backlash of Season 2’s twist where we find out Elliot was in prison for the first few episodes and living out a fantasy in his mind, but the result is that every character now takes a lot of time to spell out exactly what is going on, how, and why.
There are still some twists — including a very interesting one at the end of Episode 6 that could pivot the show in a new direction — but there’s also an episode completely devoted to where Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) was for the majority of Season 2. Do we really want to know? The reality isn’t as interesting as one might have hoped, as Wellick increasingly seems to be a character who wasn’t meant to have a long-term arc, and consequently, suffers from one of the most uneven narratives. Mr. Robot doesn’t necessarily thrive on mystery, but Season 3 has a problem figuring out what we actually need to know versus what might have been more interesting to keep hidden.
Speaking of which, though: hidden in the slog of the first few episodes are some real gems. There’s a sudden, deeply emotional moment that we spend with Elliot (and one that isn’t broached again), there are suggestions that Whiterose (BD Wong) might have helped the ascension of Trump, and we also see the formation of some unexpected alliances among the core cast. The show also broaches the intriguing subject of revolution corrupted by and coopted by the powerful it was meant to unseat, something that Elliot slowly starts to realize. And yet, subplots about the FBI’s involvement (as much as I love Grace Gummer’s Dom) and really anything to do with Darlene (Carly Chaikin) this year feel like ways to just kill time. The show has also given the boot to the original F Society and instead introduced more of the Dark Army, including Bobby Cannavale as a kind of middle manager in that organization. But though Cannavale works the hell out of the character, there’s not much there for him to go on, because he’s more or less just a walking connective plot point.
I went back and forth through these first six episode between writing the series off for good and letting it reel me back in. There is enough there, especially as the season gets going, to feel like Season 3 could ultimately rectify the issues of the past. The show is still exceptionally stylish, the cast is excellent (especially, once again, Malek, of whom much is asked and from whom much is given). But I found myself thinking something I have never thought while watching another drama: it would work better as a procedural. The moments where Elliot hacks into systems and works to bring down corruption in globe-spanning corporations is exciting, compelling, and intense. The show works hard to get those moments right, and it pays off. Much of the rest, though, can feel like when Elliot loses time to the obscure machinations of Mr. Robot before getting back to business. The important thing will be which side of him — and this show — ultimately prevails.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Mr. Robot premieres Wednesday, October 11th on USA