Midseason Check-In: ‘MR. ROBOT’S’ Fall, and Rise

The second season of USA’s twisty drama got off to a slow start, but is now back in peak form.

All of us together, taking on the world — what could possibly go wrong?

–Mr. Alderson

Something happened in the year since Mr. Robot wrapped up its first season: the real world got weirder. What first felt on the bleeding edge of the zeitgeist, with our concerns about cyberterrorism, shaky global economies, and those Ashley Madison leaks, is now…just another Wednesday. Invasions of privacy? Russia hacked one wing of our political apparatus. Market swings? Brexit seemed impossible a year ago. Crises of leadership? I give you Donald J. Trump.

Suffice to say that Mr. Robot would have to raise its game to stay in front of similar revelations, in addition to the already difficult job of meeting critical expectations for its second season. Last year the series hit, out of nowhere, like a bucket of water to the face; critics (including myself) were enraptured by its twisty storytelling, unique visual style, and Rami Malek’s mesmerizing lead performance. Yet any series that runs on mysteries is always in mortal danger, and while Mr. Robot hardly has the plot-devouring pace of an Empire or Scandal, the revelation of the titular character’s identity — Elliot’s dead father, haunting our hacker’s subconscious — presented as many problems as it solved. What, now, is his function as a character?  And now that F Society has pulled off the hack, where is that momentum going to come from?

The first few episodes of Season 2, which were supposed to answer those questions, only set off warning bells. Creator Sam Esmail made the unprecedented decision this year of directing every episode himself (he only directed a few last year), which raised eyebrows around the industry. Even for a more cinematic series like Robot, which shoots scenes from across the whole season out of order, that would be a Herculean task for any director. And Esmail, despite a few indie credits, had never been tested in that way. So add the business of filming the show to his responsibilities as showrunner, and it’s a potential disaster in the making. Cary Joji Fukunaga and Stephen Soderbergh directed all of True Detective (the first season) and The Knick, respectively, but neither served as lead writers.

Sam Esmail
Sam Esmail

Why would Esmail do this? Why would he need end-to-end control (which is an illusion, after all)? According to an interview he gave in Variety, he was already on the set every day, and he has such a specific idea of how he wants the show to look, and which moments he wants to emphasize, that it was just “easier” for him to do it himself. The result has been auteur filmmaking, for better and for worse. There have been some great sequences, like Elliot’s adderral binge in “k3rnel_pan1c,” or a dreamy dinner party set to a plinky cover of Green Day’s “Basket Case.”* Esmail has flashed his directorial muscle with some intriguing long takes (Angela’s bathroom hack from this week’s “m4ster_s1ave” is a standout) and clever lighting cues, like how the room seemed to dim when Elliot returned to a console for the first time all season. Where it seemed like every scene last year was confined to the series’s now patented off-center closeups, Esmail has found openings to free up his camera as we shift away from Elliot’s warped perspective.

*Overall, the music cues have been on point — I particularly loved the use of composer Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” in the opening of that same episode. And like last season, Esmail’s deployment of that “MR. ROBOT” title card is a gleeful surprise each and every time.

But often, the downside of having your writer also be the director is that he doesn’t quite know when to stop. The first several episodes of Season 2 have been far too long, with some even pushing 90 minutes — and not 90 minutes of “wow,” but 90 minutes that would have been a better 60 minutes. (Edit thyself, Esmail!) There’s also the risk of Esmail getting high on his own supply; at the beginning of “unm4sk,” Elliot has essentially taken himself off the game board (more on that in a moment) in a cyclical, futile effort to rid himself of Mr. Robot. This wasn’t conducive to the kind of capers that thrilled us last season, and as each episode passed without real movement, frustration mounted that Esmail just had a different idea of what he found interesting about his main character. When Elliot rants about religion in “k3rnel_pan1c,” is it Esmail’s intention that we agree with him, or that we’re disturbed by it?

Portia Doubleday

Fortunately, as we’ve seen in recent episodes “logic-b0mb” and “m4ster_s1ave,” we don’t need Elliot to be at the center of the action for the story to be compelling. The slow-burning arcs of Angela, Darlene, and new FBI investigator Dom (Grace Gummer, terrific) have collided, giving the show a much-needed sense of urgency and unifying track. Angela’s motives, for her part, had been pretty opaque (and in a sense, they still are), but with her efforts to infiltrate Price’s inner circle going nowhere, she agrees to Darlene’s latest crazy hack-the-FBI scheme out of self-preservation. Her escalating adventure — from “drop this device” to “install this modem” to “execute several lines of complicated code” — was peak Robot, and cements Angela as the character to watch going forward. Similarly in the previous episode, Dom’s brief trip to China not only demonstrated her instincts as an investigator, but shed some light on the enigmatic White Rose, who seems to be the one manipulating Darlene from afar. Piece by piece, Esmail’s mosaic is taking shape.

But what of Elliot himself? Going unplugged didn’t work; a new drug regimen didn’t work; challenging Mr. Robot in chess for control resulted in a stalemate. There’s a popular theory out there (first floated by Abraham Riesman at Vulture, but this link goes into detail so beware potential spoilers?) that all is not as it appears with Elliot’s new living arrangements. Frankly, I hope it’s not true, because we had that kind of head-fake last season, and having to constantly guess whether what we’re seeing is real will be exhausting. But either way, “m4ster_s1ave” at least temporarily took the question off the table with an elaborate, gonzo opening act that reminded us of just how weird this show can get.

“Imagine a world gone insane…”

Reconfiguring Mr. Robot as a TGIF-style ’90s sitcom was a stroke of mad genius, even if — like most of the season — it went on a bit longer than it needed to. But Esmail had the little details nailed, from the ugly video look, the credits and theme song, the canned laughter at things that were absolutely not funny…even the first commercial break featured two “vintage” E Corp spots bookending a very real Bud Light ad. We’ve seen plenty of “hospital dream” TV episodes over the years — everything from The Sopranos to Mad Men to House of Cards has done it — but what made Mr. Robot’s special was the total commitment to its gimmick. We even had ALF show up, for Christ’s sake (there’s some NBC/Comcast synergy for you), just for the payoff of running over “Officer Gideon Goddard” with his car.

It’s Elliot’s aimlessness and fatal curiosity that got him into this mess by prying into the black market site run by Ray, who’s not as amiable as he appears on the surface. Whether Craig Robinson is really the right fit for this role is still an open question, but we’ve started to see some darker shades that could lead to an explosive confrontation down the line. Now Elliot’s body is as battered as his mind, and we seem to only be getting new information via flashback: the Monopoly mask’s origination in schlocky horror film “The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie” (fake, obviously, but Esmail and team went to surprising lengths to create it), and now the origin of the Mr. Robot store name itself. With all the looking backwards, it’s no wonder that Elliot’s place as the show’s off-kilter center of gravity has shifted. All that and we still don’t know what happened to Wellick, though Robot seems to be enjoying the teases: a memory; breathing on a phone line; as “the man in the trunk” in Elliot’s ALF-fueled coma dream.

Saying  Mr. Robot is back! on the strength of one episode alone, even one as grand and audacious as “m4ster_s1ave,” is certainly foolish for a show that could seemingly spin off the rails at any moment. But the uptick in focus and character development is encouraging for sure, and I hope — hope — to check in one more time at the season finale to say that we never should have doubted it.

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