Last summer’s biggest surprise returns with a wider focus and style to burn.
Maybe truth doesn’t even exist. Maybe what we have is all we got.
What happens after the revolution? The incendiary first season of Mr. Robot ended with this first question hanging in the thickening air, as much for its characters as for the show itself. It had taken the world by storm, with Sam Esmail’s unique vision and Rami Malek’s skittery lead performance combining to make story beats you’ve seen before somehow feel fresh and exciting. It had answered the mystery that seemed to be at the heart of the show — who is Mr. Robot? — and thrilled as the hackers of fsociety were poised to execute their takedown of Evil Corp.
How do you follow that? If you’re Darlene, the answer is to keep going, harder. If you’re Elliot, you try to disappear. If you’re Esmail, you…direct every episode of Season 2 yourself. I’ll probably talk more about that last one as the season goes on, as we try to determine whether that was the idea of a mad genius, or the hubris of an inexperienced showrunner, but the two-part premiere doesn’t show any signs for concern. Mr. Robot is as eerily cinematic as ever — if anything, Esmail is utilizing a more active camera than last season’s parade of off-centered closeups, and lets a few early scenes play out in roving long takes.
I’m going to do my best to cover this show weekly, but these won’t be quite as in-depth as my Game of Thrones recaps (thank God, some of you are saying) — instead, here are three key takeaways from “unm4sk”:
1. Elliot’s Mental Status: DEFCON 2
He still can’t account for those first three days after the hack, he doesn’t “know” where Tyrell Wellick is, and he can’t fully rid himself of Mr. Robot. His best move, he thinks, is a full “reprogramming:” locking himself in a loop, a regimented routine, under the watchful eye of his mother (“better the devil you know,” he shrugs to Krista). He thinks the longer he can stay off the internet, the visits from the subconscious ghost of his father will grow fewer and farther between. And his new daily schedule is as un-Elliot as you can imagine: he has a new best friend of sorts in Leon (Joey Bada$$), who he eats with at a diner three times a day and follows to a park to watch pickup basketball. He keeps an almost hourly journal, writing down what the voice in his head is telling him. He’s back seeing his therapist, and trying to be more open. He’s even attending a support group at a church.
He’s not really getting anything out of this, of course. He’s hoping it will numb him to the point that Mr. Robot will just go away entirely. He’s not really looking for self-improvement, but pure monotony. To an active mind like Elliot’s it may be torture, but it’s also necessary. And the episode’s opening montage — with the precise overhead shots, quick cutting, and use of the chirpy “Daydream In Blue” that plays like the darkest Wes Anderson timeline — hits you over the head with the banality of it all. Leon can’t seem to talk about anything but Seinfeld, which to him makes no sense (“I tell you, the human condition is a straight up tragedy, cuz.”), and we know well as a “show about nothing.” In the park, a girl is burning a copy of Waiting for Godot. The chorus of the song playing, over and over. And Mr. Robot is still there, lurking in his bedroom, “shooting” Elliot in the head to get attention. “You done?” Elliot asks after Robot’s latest rant. Later, he laughs at him like a maniac, all the more unsettling because we’ve rarely seen Rami Malek so much as crack a smile.
He can’t trust Robot, understandably, but it’ll be a while before we can trust Elliot, either. His psyche is fractured in a thousand different ways, and his new “analog hell” is at best a temporary detente. And the episode ends with the revelation that his new routine is having the opposite effect of what he intended: a tightly scheduled day-to-day only provides a clear window for Robot to operate at night. “This is why I’m different,” Elliot muses in voiceover. “Sometimes my mask takes over.” He doesn’t remember talking to Ray (The Office’s Craig Robinson!?), because it happened late at night. He falls asleep at his church group, and wakes up at home, in the hallway, holding the phone. It’s Wellick. But who called who?
2. What is fsociety’s next move?
Darlene got everything she wanted, and it wasn’t enough. Evil Corp was never going to be destroyed in a single hack. And while the world has clearly been tilted off its axis — even President Obama is giving seemingly daily briefings on the “Five/Nine Attack” — the chaos of those early hours has since morphed into complacency. The new status quo, which was never clearly defined, is about to slip away for good. “Why does it feel like they’re still winning?” she asks Mobley. “That what we did made things worse, not better?” She realizes that what they did was only the opening salvo in a more protracted war, and it’s time to get all these millennials out of party mode.
Using the home of Evil Corp’s general counsel (lured away when her “smart house” system rebelled against her) as their new base, fsociety launches a new series of “ransomware” attacks. They even succeed in manipulating Knowles, Evil Corp’s CTO (and whose wife Wellick murdered, though everyone seems to have forgotten about that) into burning nearly six million in cash while wearing one of their masks, but that’s chump change. Price refuses to resign, even under federal pressure: “We all know the con doesn’t work without the con-fidence,” he says, inscrutably. Databases are being rebuilt. Most strangely, the repercussions of the initial hack aren’t being keenly presented or felt. We’re as insulated as Elliot, listening to news broadcasts echoing each other that Things Are Bad with little anecdotal evidence, save a woman who is unsuccessful in closing her bank account. No wonder we see Darlene having a nervous breakdown upstairs: she’s as shellshocked as a Brexit leader who won the vote, but has no actual exit strategy.
3. Enlarging the Ensemble
Elliot is still the center of the show, but to help prevent us feeling stuck in a similar repetitive loop, “unm4sk” spent a good bit of time away from him. Possible threads worth watching include: Wellick’s wife, who has a new whitebread lover and receives a mysterious phone (likely to be called by her husband, though she misses the first); a young FBI investigator played by an energetic Grace Gummer; Leon and Ray, who appear entirely normal, at least for now. We’re well over halfway through the episode before we return to our third wheel, Angela. And unless she’s playing a much longer game, it seems like she’s been completed absorbed by Evil Corp (the devil you know, or “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?”) She’s taking on random lovers, brushing off her lawyer, and showing brazen confidence as she plays hardball with TV producers. And yet, there’s still hope she hasn’t been completely brainwashed. “Are you alone?” asks the man at the bar, and the silence is deafening.
But as Mr. Robot adds characters, at least one story has clearly run its course. That ignominy belongs to Gideon, the public face of AllSafe and its failure, and now an FBI suspect. He blusters and threatens when Elliot, distracted by visions of Mr. Robot slitting the throat of the man he framed, refuses to help him. Then, in a bar, a stranger kills Gideon for real. “This is for our country,” the man says, as every misguided assassin says. The #PoorGideon watch only lasted one episode. Too bad.