Mr. Robot: Season Premiere Review

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Less than 24 hours before the Emmy nominations were revealed, Mr. Robot returned to our lives. Sam Esmail’s series transformed USA’s blue-sky reputation and shifted it to a darker, critically acclaimed place where showrunners of all stripes began to take notice. After a strong, if flawed first season, the question was whether this was a show that could enhance its standing in its sophomore year.

It’s a shaky spot for a television staff, especially with the pile of failures we’ve seen through the years. Homeland couldn’t do it. Masters of Sex couldn’t do it. UnREAL, though the new season started well, is currently spiraling downward and trying to keep things together. For Mr. Robot, the subject matter was so unique and bordered on being unapproachable at its weirdest, so there were both advantages to use and challenges to dodge.  

The show that arrived on Wednesday night was more confident, even less interested in playing to the expected, and tighter in its presentation, which has always been exquisite. It was sure of itself, even if the audience is concerned with the wrong things. Watching the new season’s first two episodes, all of the unexplainable strangeness finally came together, and though we could go through all the events that took place, it’s the broader picture that refuses to stay dormant inside my head.

Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is unhappy, damaged, mentally unstable, and in a constant war with his own psyche for control and purpose. He hears the voice of his father, Edward (Christian Slater), sees a projection of the man, and fights to shut down and delete that piece of malicious code. Looking at the world itself, bad code can be found everywhere. Sam Esmail may not have intended to tell a story that defined the millennial culture, but that’s what he’s done.

fsociety isn’t about changing the world, even though its members might think that’s the case. These people are on a quest for meaning and the smallest hint of joy or peace. While Five Nine might have rocked Esmail’s universe, the byproduct for the hackers themselves is non-existent. None of them feel anything, for anyone. This is angst at its most dangerous, and unfortunately it’s the brand of attitude increasingly taking over our lives.

This lack of emotion is a byproduct of living life behind screens, hating as a hobby, ironic parties, and social media bile. Ours is a planet filled with cynicism in authority, rage against wealth and success, and selfish desires disguised as selfless acts. All of it stirs underground and explodes in a shower of negativity. Those hideous feelings are eventually replaced by numbness, and that’s where Mr. Robot comes in.

Every major character in the show behaves like an automaton. The emotions are few and far between, and every action is done to try and find self-worth. Where can someone find connection and revelation within his or her life? For all the talk of the evils of capitalism, the 99 percent, and social justice, it all breaks down to the same goal.

Make me feel something. Make me care. Give me something to believe in.

Elliot Alderson is Mr. Robot. But, as each character deals with the same battle and attempts to get to the root of achievement or accomplishment, it all changes. Yes, he’s Mr. Robot.

We’re all Mr. Robot, unless we find a way out.

It’s ice cold as a television show. The color palette is bland, the lighting is poor, the rooms drab, the scenery dull, and even the clothing unexpressive. It’s all by design, and it’s both affecting and unsettling. It replicates and reflects Esmail’s cast of characters. They’re searching for an antidote to the Novocain reality they find themselves in, generally due to their own doing. Five Nine didn’t make them feel any better. It just screwed up the world. It brought others to misery, but took no one to serenity.

Go back and take a look at Darlene (Carly Chaikin) as she looks down upon the party at the smart house. Is she smiling? Does she seem to be at peace in any way? When she sits down with another hacker and admits that her lofty rhetoric was meaningless jabble, she says it doesn’t matter because it riles up her army. Right there, the show inadvertently dissected the rise of Donald Trump. His detractors point to a lack of substance, but his supporters are intoxicated by the words, even though they may amount to nothing.

Darlene is ready to get back to work, because bringing E(vil) Corp down to its knees to fellate the ordinary man didn’t bring closure or revenge. She’s still pointing at a boogeyman that may or may not even exist, and she’s not ready to deal with the facts of her own irrelevance. fsociety makes people think they count, and that might be all they need.

What can take away the pain and allow relaxation? What can cure the disease of chronic ambivalence and desensitization?

Elliot can’t talk with anyone else, even if it’s a chatterbox at a basketball game in the park or his “friend” in a restaurant. He’s unable to engage in human interaction, and his routine is designed to provide order and to rid his mind of Mr. Robot, but he’s completely lost. Nothing about him is normal, and his hooded sweatshirt is his way to gracefully disappear into the background. He doesn’t know what life is, because he’s never lived it. He turned to pharmaceuticals, to therapy, and finally, to anarchy, but the pinprick doesn’t even register. His power may be in his willingness to destroy the world just to find normalcy, but he has no inner strength. He’s a robot, a computer that can’t feel, at least not without a catalyst that can set things in motion.

Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), and his wife, Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), are also caught in the trap, and they resort to BDSM and aggressive, sexually questionable behavior to capture a moment that might break the monotony of their lives. All of their actions are odd and disturbing (at least to me), but once you look at Mr. Robot through the prism of dulled or non-existent emotions, everything they’ve done begins to make sense. When one doesn’t feel, that one is capable of anything, from hacking to robbery to torture to strangulation.

Even Angela White (Portia Doubleday) has embraced the corporate culture as she tries to trick herself into confidence she doesn’t have. She listens to self-help tapes, goes to work, and is entirely expressionless with coworkers, supervisors, and television executives. Her scenes, which were absolutely riveting, showed a young woman whose innocence has vaporized into the abyss that absorbs everything in Esmail’s story. She is not the same person we met last year. This new individual has no qualms and no restrictions when it comes to her own self-interest. She drops the lawsuit because she likes this new drug of actualized power.

Everything we see, as detached as it appears, fits the Bret Easton Ellis motif of unflinching, bleak randomness, and it all matches up with the overwhelming desire to avoid putting the barrel of a revolver into your mouth. Tyler Durden couldn’t quite get there, and Fight Club was another cry for release, using violence and crime to justify one’s existence. While so many will pay attention to the individual stories, it’s the broader truth that makes Mr. Robot so special. It has hit upon a sect of society that no longer relates to the general populace. The technology and E Corp and Christian Slater and strange happenings in bed with knives, all of these pieces play a role in the nihilism of the series.

Nietzsche always spoke of nihilism as the condition of the world that must be overcome to progress and grow. Elliot Alderson may see that possibility as fiction, as may his sister, their friend, and others they encounter on a daily basis. Season 2 of Mr. Robot is far more open ended than its predecessor, and the story could go in a variety of directions, but the mission must be to defy expectation and continually take the path spoken of by Robert Frost, where Esmail owns his every decision.

Rami Malek continues to be the gold standard as a television actor, and his cast-mates are starting to show their stuff as well. Doubleday was fabulous in the opener, Chaikin made the most of her brief screen time, Slater was phenomenal, and Michael Cristofer is awesome at playing a duplicitous executive. He did it on Rubicon, and here, he’s able to be vile from the get-go, as E Corp is anything but sympathetic. Visually, it’s arresting and off-kilter, filled with shadows and never quite right. It’s artistically flawless, and the feel is exactly as it should be. The entire show is askew.

Sam may well have a plan to tie every event together, and if so, it will be a bonus, but the real brilliance of Mr. Robot is in the obviousness of its unconventionality, and the conclusions that come from a tacit acceptance of the most uncomfortable sequences it provides. The fun story will continue to be fun, but never forget to see everything through lenses that depict numbness to human emotion. It was definitely tough to see Gideon (Michel Gill) take Brock’s bullet in the bar, but the murderer did it with no reservations and for the same reasons everything else happens in the show. Just because. Maybe this time the endorphins will kick in.

There’s no logic behind it all until you discover the secret to the entire series. There are no long-term teams here. There are people trying to find a reason to give a damn, about anything. Even the sex is loveless. It’s all means to an end, and it fails continuously. At its essence, for every character in the series, it’s about creating a villain, and using that construct to drive individual choices, propping themselves up a few inches. For fsociety, it’s E Corp, and vice versa. Elliot’s villain is Mr. Robot. Everyone wants to be a hero, and Batman makes us all pine to be vigilantes and Robin Hoods. But, there’s a reason why those stories resonate so much. It’s because they’re fantasies, which is something Elliot Alderson learned long ago.

Who knows where Sam Esmail and his team are headed with Mr. Robot. Thus far, his second season is proving it’s worth it to turn off the antivirus software and allow Elliot and the crew to take over our entertainment mainframe. It’s unlike anything else on television, and now that it’s willing to give in and reveal some of its mistakes as they happen, it’s a better show. It’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun to hack in and chat with you about it every week. We’re off and running.

I’m @GuyNamedJason on Twitter. Craig Robinson’s dog also likes me more than you.

Written by Jason Martin