One thing that made Mr. Robot’s inaugural season so mesmerizing last summer was that it was impossible to pin down. That’s a rare thing in such a crowded TV landscape, where it’s increasingly difficult to be unique. But in a way, that speaks to everything Mr. Robot is about. Elliot (the fantastic Rami Malek) is himself unique, and doesn’t know how to — nor does he really want to — fit in with the crowd. He sees everything from a distance, but Season 2 doesn’t seem him battling those outside forces (or Evil Corps), but rather, battling himself.
Mr. Robot’s second season is written and directed solely by the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, which is a massive creative undertaking. But it pays off, as it lends a continuity to the narrative and visual style that pulls viewers in close while keeping us on our toes. That’s the fascinating thing about the series; because Elliot is an unreliable narrator, it’s impossible to guess where things are headed next.
What I can tell you is where things are now, which is 30 days after the attacks on Evil Corps wiped away everyone’s debt. In the wake of this, Elliot is attempting, somewhat in vain, to keep Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) at bay. Now that he knows Robot is a part of him and his personality, he sets a strict regiment to keep him out — primarily, that means keeping away from computers. At least, for now. It feeds the beast.
Mr. Robot remains a close character study of Elliot, who is haunted by his mental illness and his disconnect from society. The premiere episodes, which will run back-to-back with an intermission, don’t shy away from focusing in on this. Esmail promised the new season would be dark, and that’s absolutely apparent in these opening hours. But it’s also slow, deliberate, and meditative. There are long monologues and characters hidden in shadows, with Elliot’s hazy perceptions being called into question at every turn.
Because of that, many of Season 1’s characters don’t make an appearance until the second episode, if they do at all. One of the first season’s biggest mysteries — the disappearance of Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) — hasn’t yet been answered, and instead, there are only more clues. New characters (including Grace Gummer as an FBI agent and Craig Robinson as a would-be friend to Elliot) integrate seamlessly with the core cast, but Season 2 finds most of them in a place of uncertainty. Darlene (Carly Chaikin) has taken over fsociety, but isn’t happy with the way the movement is going in the wake of the hack, and Angela (Portia Doubleday) is being seduced by her job at E Corps, questioning herself over her decision to keep working there.
But even among such darkness, there is humor. Mr. Robot is as sly and clever as ever, calling out the shallow nature of a life controlled by advertising and the comfort of a life on auto-pilot. It challenges us, but also Elliot himself, and his choices, as he considers the harm he’s done his old boss, Gideon Goddard (Michel Gill), who is being investigated as one of the minds behind the hack. In the first episode back, an E Corps lawyer’s smart home turns on her (or at least, is programmed to), showing the unsteady relationship we have with our technology, and the power we give it to control our lives. A cycle of violence, spurred by the uncertainty after the hack, also rears its head in a few brutal and unsettling ways.
The first two episode of Season 2 focus a lot on the idea of control. Elliot wants to be able to control Robot, but also, the show explores E Corps’ control over citizens, fsociety’s control over E Corps, and related dynamics. Even Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliussen) illustrates control with her sado-masochistic desires. Mr. Robot is also very aware of how it controls viewers, by allowing us to see (or not see) certain things, and when, and how a scene is presented and the mood it holds. Yes these are basic elements of any visual medium, but Robot‘s style elevates it to something pointedly self-aware and deliberate.
“Is control an illusion?” Elliot ponders. It’s a weighty issue for a summer TV series to ponder, and occasionally in Mr. Robot’s opening hours, it gets a little too bogged down by such metaphysical musings. Though the series has never just been about hacking, keeping Elliot away from a computer takes away some of those incredibly fun and tense moments created by that hacking — both as a cyber vigilante and in his desire to bring down E Corps. So what’s next for him, given that he met his main goal to blow up the system?
Mr. Robot is clearly taking its time in answering that, which makes it lose some of the urgency and hypnotic appeal of Season 1. For longevity, the show has to start building a broader foundation than it did initially, which it seems to be achieving to start Season 2. But the core of the series remains unchanged — that is, the focus on Elliot’s confusion, loneliness, brilliance, and brokenness. Malek continues to be mesmerizing in the role, with Slater a fantastic foil for Elliot’s personality. Ultimately, Mr. Robot so up-ends our expectations that despite all of the uncertainty and violent acts and personal damage the first episodes show us, nothing is as terrifying as Elliot laughing. In the normal world, it might be a nice thing. But here, like everything Esmail reveals in the series, it is warped through an unsettling prism.
Rating: ★★★★ A very good start
Mr. Robot Season 2 premieres Wednesday, July 13th.