After an inconsistent Season 2, USA's techno-thriller Mr. Robot returned to form in Wednesday's Season 3 premiere. The hour dispensed with Season 2's overcomplicated surrealist plotting and refocused on the taut, suspenseful storytelling and bleak social commentary that made Season 1 a surprise hit back in the summer of 2015.
The premiere found Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) mostly recovered from being shot by Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) while trying to stop the Dark Army's Stage 2, but not at all recovered from the shock of realizing that he-as-Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) was about to blow up E Corp's paper records depository in Manhattan, killing who knows how many people and thwarting E Corp's efforts to rebuild the global economy Elliot and his cohorts disrupted with the 5/9 hack. He closed the backdoor into E Corp's system, severed his partnership with Whiterose (BD Wong) (who it seems we're supposed to believe is developing time travel capabilities) and decided to get a job at so-called Evil Corp working on the recovery so he can fix things from the inside. Why? Because Elliot realized that he created fear and chaos that allowed the very people at the top he was trying to take down to consolidate their power even further. "5/9 didn't get rid of the Invisible Hand, it just made a fist that punched us in the d---," is how he put it.
Carly Chaikin, who plays Darlene, Elliot's sister and fsociety comrade who's going through a life reappraisal of her own, says that Season 2 was very focused on each character's internal struggles and Season 3 uses that deep bedrock of character as a foundation on which to build the reinvigorated story of the aftermath of the attack.
"Season 2 was everyone trying to cope with it, and now we're all trying to deal with it," she tells TV Guide.
The centerpiece of the episode is Elliot's soliloquy about how he created a world that allowed fear and weakness to flourish. The voiceover is intercut with flashes of Donald Trump giving a speech, directly confronting what's happened in the year that Mr. Robot's been off; namely, that America elected a President out of fear and weakness. Mr. Robot and the American left are both in the same place. The original mission has failed, and now everyone is trying to figure out a new way forward.
Chaikin says that the Trump injection is a "worst-case scenario of what could happen" in the world of the show, which is still set in the summer of 2015, when Trump was just a gathering dark cloud. "Even though we do live in the past, [the writers] still find a way to make it relevant to today," she says, adding that they don't try to find contrived ways to insert the real world into the show, it just happens.
For example, she notes that Season 1's tagline was "your democracy has been hacked" long before we knew that our democracy had literally been hacked. The Season 1 finale was postponed a week from its Aug. 26 premiere date because it contained a scene where someone shot himself on live TV, and two journalists were murdered on-air in real life earlier that day. The parallels in Season 3 aren't quite as spooky, but the show still manages to be eerily relevant almost to the moment — for example, this interview took place the same day news broke that Russian hackers had stolen top-secret data about American cyber defense from an NSA contractor's computer.
"I'd always tell [creator Sam Esmail] 'You need to start writing episodes where there's world peace and everyone's happy," Chaikin jokes.
Darlene is decidedly unhappy as Season 3 commences. Her only real confidant, Cisco (Michael Drayer), is dead, murdered by the Dark Army. She's being pressured by the FBI to cooperate. fsociety, of which she was the leader, is all but dissolved. She's having panic attacks. And Elliot is shutting her out. He kept Stage 2 a secret from her, his only family, co-founder and partner in crime. A lifetime of resentment against her brother is getting closer to the surface. After all, everything that happened to Elliot happened to Darlene, too, but it's always about her sensitive genius brother. He needs more help than she does, but she needs help, too, and she's not getting any of it. So she might do something to help that might not be what her brother wants.
"Everyone is doing what they think is the right thing to do, which isn't always the right thing to do," says Chaikin. "Or is the right thing for one person and not for the other."
Darlene's mental state is externalized by a stripped-down look. Chaikin wears sweatpants, no jewelry, no nail polish and almost no makeup this season. The only thing she still wears are her signature heart-shaped sunglasses. "She's surrendered to the extent of knowing how powerless she is in this situation, but also trying to not give up and lose all hope," Chaikin explains.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on USA.