USA Network’s Mr. Robot is special to me. I’d make a clichéd pun that involves some variation of saying the show “hacked its way into my heart/my list of favorite series,” but I’ll spare you all the cringe. The sentiment behind that still stands, however. I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to creator, writer and now full-time director Sam Esmail, as he’s crafted something so captivating and so deserving of praise and of thanks. In TYF’s 2015 best in television round-up, Mr. Robot topped my list, and I gushed about it. The “hairpin plot turns, ultra-tight pacing, carefully written dialogue” and the “ineffable and spellbinding” performances had me captivated. I felt lucky to have watched it. The watching experience went beyond just an experience; it felt like a privileged sneak peek into someone’s brilliant dream. I could not wait for the second season to air.
But I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t worried before watching the season 2 première on July 13. Would the second time ’round be just as good — better, even? Would it, could it, hold up? These questions, ones I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves when diving into a new season of a show we dearly love, were answered delightfully quickly. Twenty minutes into the first half of the première — episode 1, “eps2.0_unm4sk-pt1.tc” — and I knew I had little to worry about as Mr. Robot entered its sophomore year.
Though the première was technically split into two halves, categorized as the first two episodes of the second season, I’ll be reviewing the première as a whole and rating each episode. Some spoilers are ahead.
The season 2 première was satisfying, one that burned slowly and sizzled with the kind of rich tension unique to the series. Fsociety, E Corp and AllSafe — and all their companions and combatants — are left to lay in the bed the attack (now known as the five/nine attack) on E Corp made. Elliot has gone analog: he’s moved in with his notoriously strict and frosty mother, scheduled each moment he spends awake in what he calls his “routine” and began working toward pushing Mr. Robot out of his head for good. He functions on a continuous loop, eating three square meals a day with new friend Leon (Joey Bada$$), doing two rounds of household chores and documenting the utterances and actions of Mr. Robot in a composition notebook. (It’s titled “REDWHEELBARROW,” which I hope gets addressed in some form or another in future episodes.) He’s gone offline entirely. What impresses me most about this “old-school” Elliot is a hinting toward progress, toward power. While the increasingly volatile and short-tempered Mr. Robot half of his brain steps up on a soapbox and preaches that a person can never be in control, that any semblance of it is all but an illusion, the actual Elliot Alderson side of his brain actively fights against such notions. After Mr. Robot shoots Elliot “in the head… again,” he doesn’t panic — he stays calm. I enjoy the cat-and-mouse-adjacent game they seem to be playing, and it’s certainly a fresh direction the dynamic takes. After the big twist in season 1, I’m pleased with the way the show has both handled the relationship and directed the post-revelation interactions. I like aware Elliot. I like pseudo-imprisoned Mr. Robot. It offers up something new in such a smart way. It feels like progress.
Over on the sister side, Darlene has taken the aftermath of five/nine with a heavy heart and a slightly cynical attitude. Season 1 saw her optimistic about fsociety’s efforts, and about her role in the revolution. But when faced with the magnitude of the fallout, and with Elliot completely unplugged, Darlene is less impassioned. Sure, she takes the throne as reigning monarch of fsociety (if they believed in that kind of stratified hierarchy) and leads the pack to a breaking-and-entering escapade, but the high-impact shine of her has faded. She still delivers speeches with gusto and grandeur, but she doesn’t believe in the words anymore. “We are in a war and we are on the losing side of it,” she says. That’s a side of the usually punchy Darlene I wasn’t expecting, and I’m curious about where her character is headed.
Angela’s also changed. Not exactly the way that I’d like her to have, but it’s a change nonetheless. And audiences can’t always get what they want, right? Though I’d loved to have Angela on the “f— society,” pro-fsociety side of the Mr. Robot dichotomy, I do have to admit that seeing her work at E Corp as the PR manager is oddly fascinating. From the sharp way she’s dressed to the sharp way she speaks to her colleagues, she’s transforming into someone — something — so completely unlike what we saw in season 1. There’s a lot of potential in this version of Angela, and whether it ends up used for good or less than, it definitely has enough kinetic energy to result in a massive consequence.
And then there’s the rest, the people outside of the three central Robot characters, left to pick up the pieces of their lives that were scattered across New York in the wake of the five/nine attack. E Corp’s head honchos are in hot water. With the company facing certain bankruptcy, CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) attempts to orchestrate an enormous bailout and infamously hard-hearted general counsel Susan Jacobs (Sandrine Holt) is hacked out of her smart house (by none other than Darlene for use as fsociety’s hacking home base) and forced to come to terms with reality. And things are not much better on the “good guy” side of things, as former owner of AllSafe Gideon Goddard (Michel Gill) is under FBI investigation for possible involvement in the five/nine attack. After (unsuccessfully) pleading Elliot to “do the right thing” and confess to his role in it all, Gideon is fatally shot at a bar by a man who claims to be a pro-America vigilante. The scene is reminiscent of Shayla’s murder in season 1. Her throat was slit, Gideon was shot through the neck. Both characters were arguably more morally sound than the people around them, and both were relatively innocent in the grand scheme of things. And like Shayla, Gideon was left without an opportunity to defend himself. This shakes the game up.
That scene pulled my mind back to E Corp, specifically to the newly-minted CTO Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell). Darlene bricks E Corp’s banking system and presents Knowles with an ultimatum: pay fsociety a ransom, or face the banks’ wells running dry. The scene in which it all takes place evoked nearly the same emotion that the opening scene of season 1 did. Watching Knowles burn almost $6 million in cash in the middle of Battery Park was one thing. One iconic thing. But to see it all go down while he’s wearing a fsociety mask, with Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” playing in the background? It tinged the whole experience with an instant cinematic feel. I had chills. It’s easily season 2’s equivalent to the all-around badass scene in which Elliot exposes Rohit Mehta’s underground child pornography ring at Ron’s Coffee Shop. And that’s the best part of the entire season 2 première, and what I suspect will be a strong element in episodes as the season progresses: It takes greatness from its first season and mirrors it ever so slightly, with a new lens in a new context. I dig it. (I also dig the soundtrack for this season SO MUCH already.)
Though things are noticeably different, Mr. Robot remains true to itself and the aspects that make it so unique. There’s still a focus, there’s still a drive and there’s still a palpable pulse that beats steadily on below the surface. And I suspect we’ll hear it get louder, stronger, as the cracks already present in the veneer get deeper and reveal more about the lives of our unholy trinity. The rest of the season could take many possible roads, and I’m so excited to see where we head next.
“eps2.0_unm4sk-pt1.tc” rating: 8/10
“eps2.0_unm4sk-pt2.tc” rating: 9/10
Overall season 2 première rating: 8.5/10
Mr. Robot airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on USA Network. Catch up on the season 2 première on the USA Network site here — and be sure to tune in to my weekly reviews here on TYF!