Not to get too Hollywood on you, but everyone knows the second act of anything is harder to pull of than the first. That's the challenge USA's Mr. Robot, which came out of nowhere to become one of television's best dramas in its shockingly great first season, faces in Season 2. To be honest, I was plenty worried about this season after watching what was the most surprising series last year because so many things are working against it heading into the second chapter.
The reveal that Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) wasn't real and just a delusion created by Elliot (Rami Malek) takes one of the biggest twists off the table. The element of surprise that the series used so well is gone, meaning we look at each scene with extra scrutiny in anticipation of the next mind-melting shock. After winning a few Golden Globes and elbowing its way up Best of 2015 lists, it'll take that much more for Mr. Robot to impress us in Season 2.
Yet the Season 2 premiere, "Unmasked," found a way to make sure none of that mattered because it did what the show is so good at. That is, smacking us upside the head in ways we least expect it to. The trick to lead off Season 2 was a simple one: it barely answered any of the questions it asked in the late episodes of Season 1. The nerve of this show!
Who was at Elliot's door? We don't know. What happened to Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom)? You got me. Is Dark Army leader Whiterose (B.D. Wong) working with Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer)? Big huge shrug. It's like Mr. Robot didn't even care that we have been biting our fingernails down to nubs just to get our burning questions answered. But that's what Mr. Robot loves to do, it loves to stay a step ahead of its viewers and go in a completely different direction than where we expect.
So aside from a quick glimpse of Elliot, well, a Mr. Robot-controlled Elliot, enabling the 5/9 hack with Tyrell (and Elliot reaching into the popcorn machine for what might be the hidden gun!) and a flashback to young Elliot falling out of the window and going to the doctor, the premiere took place 30 days after the hack when the chaos had died down. It's another daring decision by creator Sam Esmail, but one that puts the focus on character, which, despite all the fake-outs and culture clashes of Mr. Robot, was what the show was really about. And no character is more fascinating than our unreliable-narrator friend Elliot Alderson.
Elliot spent most of the premiere locked in a mental standoff with Mr. Robot, throwing himself in a regimented loop that involved nothing but offline activities to keep Mr. Robot at bay. Working around his mom's house (oh btw, he's living with his mom, the source of many of his problems), eating meals at the same exact time every day with his friend Leon (Joey Bada$$, who is totally not real, right?), and attending church group meetings twice a week. The thinking was that if Elliot never went online, he could keep control of himself and therefore reduce the crazy. What Elliot doesn't realize, despite Mr. Robot's repeated warnings, is that Mr. Robot isn't going anywhere. In this territorial chess game for control of Elliot, both sides need to cooperate.
The conundrum Esmail created is a question of who needs who more. Though Mr. Robot can control Elliot, he still needs Elliot to be complicit with some of his requests. He can't control a revolution only between the hours of 10pm and 6am while Elliot's asleep. And there's a good chance that Elliot doesn't know how badly he needs Mr. Robot, too. Most genius requires a little bit of crazy, and without Mr. Robot, Elliot is sadly a fragment of who he can be. When Tyrell asked Elliot why he went through with the hack in Season 1, Elliot said, "I wanted to change the world." Now that the hack went through, the only thing Elliot wants to change is the amount of people in his head, and he's doing that by trying to make everything else the exact same. This obviously won't last long. It can't. Deep down he does want to change the world, that isn't exclusive to his Mr. Robot side. But he can't change it without Mr. Robot, who is, in a sense, his id.
Like us, Elliot has questions about what happened in those three days after the hack. Chiefly, where's Tyrell? It's the bargaining chip he used with Mr. Robot before they could even discuss getting back to business. And in the final moments of "Unmasked," Mr. Robot finally threw Elliot a bone. As Elliot drifted off to sleep in a church group meeting, Mr. Robot took over and gave Tyrell a call, waking Elliot up just as the phone began to ring. It's a huge moment for his relationship with Mr. Robot; Mr. Robot was consciously able to give Elliot what he asked for.
Their connection isn't a two-way street. Mr. Robot knows everything that Elliot does, but Elliot doesn't know everything that Mr. Robot does. The battle for control for Elliot would seem to be in Mr. Robot's favor, but here we saw things even out when Mr. Robot had no choice but to acquiesce to Elliot's needs. Despite what Elliot wrote in his journal, control IS an illusion; the twist here is that it's Mr. Robot's control that's the illusion. Elliot won this battle, but who will win the war? As long as Elliot doesn't completely give in to Mr. Robot, he'll retain the last bit of control over himself. The rub? You and I know that deep down Elliot wants what Mr. Robot has to offer.
It may not be ideal, but at least Elliot has someone in his life. One thing that stood out in the premiere was just how lonely and isolated everyone else was. Did you notice that none of the main characters — Elliot, Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and Angela (Portia Doubleday) — shared a scene together or had any communication with one another? The hack hit like an atom splitter, sending everyone into their own orbits.
Darlene continued fsociety's fight, but the weight of leading a revolution against an enemy that wasn't finished off took a toll on her, forcing her to do a 180 on what she thought in the Season 1 finale. Whereas previously she was content to celebrate the victory while everyone else asked what's next, she's now surrounded by a bunch of idiots who latched onto the fsociety movement like it was the next gluten-free, non-triggering fitness craze instead of devoting themselves to the real cause. And without Elliot — who she seemed to brush off when asked about him — she can barely control these jackals. But hey, that symbolic gesture of forcing Evil Corp CTO Scott Knowles to burn $5.9 million (5/9, get it?) while wearing an fsociety mask was sweet, huh? But like Evil Corp lead counsel Susan Jacobs said, they could find that cash in their couch cushions. Fsociety may have temporarily crippled Evil Corp, but corporate power and money have miraculous healing effects. The hacker club will need more than these stunts to turn the tide.
And sorry everyone, but I really love where Angela is going. Yeah, I know a lot of you don't like her, but — unpopular opinion incoming — she might be the most interesting character aside from Elliot. She's gone dark side, entrenching herself inside Evil Corp as a PR manager and acting like a boss while dominating press requests from big-time outlets. Mr. Robot wants everyone to know that freedom of the press isn't actually free, and the concessions Angela made Bloomberg take just get their foot in the door was another example of how Evil Corp still appears to be calling the shots despite apparently being on the mat. As for Angela herself, she's going to drown in this corporate culture, treading water with anonymous sex and self-help videos as a way of tearing herself apart and rebuilding herself each night just to tolerate who she's become. I've been looking forward to Angela's story ever since the Season 1 finale, and even though I know lots of you out there don't care for her, there's a great opportunity for Esmail and Mr. Robot to show how the sausage is made with her character as Evil Corp preys on her insecurity with wads of cash and whiffs of power. And there's always the possibility that she can be Elliot's inside woman when he needs her.
But for all the bad days characters were having, one had it the worst. Gideon (Michel Gill) was gunned down by a disgruntled and freshly broke citizen after being framed for the 5/9 hack that cost millions millions. It's an abrupt and undeserved end to one of the show's innocent sideline characters, but like everything else in this show, Gideon was meant to reflect back on Elliot. How? Well, Mr. Robot knew Gideon was a threat to expose Elliot — and therefore Mr. Robot, too — so it's entirely possible that Mr. Robot had something to do with Gideon's murder. Could he have told an angry mob where Gideon was going to be? All it takes is a check-in on a phone to know where Gideon's headed (which would also mean that Mr. Robot was getting online while Elliot was sleeping). How will Elliot react when he finds out that Gideon is dead? Will that cause more friction between him and Mr. Robot, or will it put fear into Elliot that if he doesn't cooperate with Mr. Robot more people will be hurt? Will Elliot became a prisoner to himself? So many great directions for this to go.
Mr. Robot may not have kicked off Season 2 with big answers to questions from Season 1 and the huge twists that we became accustomed to, but it returned with an even darker version of its bleak universe. Rather than rest on its laurels to try and duplicate its stellar first act, Season 2 so far continues to keep us all off balance by going toward the unexpected. I want more. Now.
- I didn't talk about Sam Esmail's direction, but wow. In addition to being a riveting story, Mr. Robot is also right up there with Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul) for the best cinematography and technical feats. That transition from Elliot's brain scan to the pattern on his composition book? Outstanding.
- Philip Price doesn't go to Washington D.C. asking for bailout money. He goes there demanding it. What a stud. And an a-hole. Another thing about Philip, which continues the idea of loneliness and isolation — the feds were so backlit that we couldn't even see their faces. Mr. Robot knows exactly how to make each scene about a particular character. More beautiful work from the Mr. Robot team.
- In the first scene, Tyrell was on the phone with someone named James. Who the eff is James? It's a clue, get on it, internet!
- Leon and his Seinfeld obsession is one of TV's truly great things.
- Ray (Craig Robinson) looks like he's going to be Elliot's way out of the loop. What do you think he wants Elliot's skills for?
- The QR code in Elliot's journal has already been checked out. It goes to a fake site called Confictura Industries, which is the same company that made Elliot's journal. The site is registered to NBCUniversal, the parent company of USA Network. And people have already dug through the source code and found the message "You are not alone." Man this show is great even when you aren't watching it. Step aside, Pokemon Go! (Just kidding, nothing can beat Pokemon Go.)
- Elliot constantly complains about Facebook. USA debuts the Season 2 premiere early on Facebook. LOL.
- Esmail has a future in horror movies if this TV thing doesn't work. That scene with the angry automated house was scary! It's like Maximum Overdrive meets House.
- Has Mobley always been an Evil Corp IT guy or was he just in there recently? And ha ha, his face when he was pretending to try to fix something. So good.
- I still have no idea what the heck is up with Joanna Wellick other than more fetish play with some himbo. But Tyrell is in contact with her, apparently?
- Mr. Robot does great things with costuming. Look at Angela, dressed in a white blouse at work, she practically blends into the walls as if she's become part of Evil Corp. Compare her to everyone else dressed in dark tones.