One of last year’s most daring and most challenging TV shows, ‘Mr. Robot’ was a very unusual change of pace for programming on the USA Network. Nonetheless, the network execs were so pleased with it that they renewed the series for a second season before the first episode even aired. Fortunately, it proved successful enough to justify that enthusiasm. Now that it’s back, the second season premiere is just as thrilling and confounding as the best of the first.
Over the course of the first season, we learned that the title character, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), was in fact a Tyler Durden-like illusion in Elliot’s mind, a projection of memories of his dead father and a product of his worsening schizophrenia. Elliot himself, or rather that side of his personality, was the leader of the hacker group called fsociety. He was Mr. Robot all along and didn’t know it. The season ended with fsociety successfully hacking the powerful mega-conglomerate ECorp and bringing the company to its knees, the point of which was allegedly to disrupt or destroy the nation’s entire consumer credit industry and free all the 99 Percenters in the populace from the oppressive shackles of debt.
In a way, this mirrors the basic plot of ‘Fight Club’, just substituting computer hacking for underground brawling. However, ‘Mr. Robot’ quickly found its own unique voice. Now that it has a second season, it will also have to answer the question: “What the hell happens next?”
The two-part premiere picks up a few months after the ECorp hack. The nation’s economy is in shambles. Customers at Bank of E (the country’s largest bank) have no way to access their money. It seems that the hack actually hurt the people it was supposed to help. Meanwhile, the corporate power players who pull strings behind the scenes face very few repercussions for their own crimes. They expect the government to bail them out and everything to return to normal soon enough. They have enough wealth hidden overseas to ride out any economic turbulence.
Elliot has abandoned fsociety and moved back with his mother. He embraces the rigid conformity of an unchanging daily routine to control his mental illness. He does the same thing day after day, meeting with the same friend (“friend” being a loose description), listening to the same conversation, and sitting to watch the same street basketball game he has no interest in. There are no computers in his house and he avoids them elsewhere. When Mr. Robot appears again to berate him into returning to his other life, Elliot struggles to ignore him.
Allsafe, the cyber security firm that Elliot used to work for, has gone under. Elliot’s boss Gideon Goddard was framed for the ECorp hack and is a figure of great notoriety. (Elliot isn’t sure whether he’s responsible for the frame.) Eventually, Gideon is murdered in a bar by a man who believes he’ll be a hero for killing him.
Darlene, whom we learned is Elliot’s sister, is now in charge of fsociety. As the rest of the group party over their success, she remains angry and serious. She worries that their actions have only made things worse and feels compelled to finish what they started by destroying what’s left of ECorp.
After fsociety locks out the Bank of E computer network with a ransomware virus, the board of directors agree to pay the $5.9 million ransom (pocket change for them), to be delivered in a duffel bag in the middle of a crowded public park by the company’s new CTO. When he gets there and waits for something to happen or someone to contact him, a bike messenger rides up and delivers a package. Inside is a Mr. Robot mask, a bottle of lighter fluid, and instructions to immediately dump all the cash on the ground and set it on fire. Naturally, cell phone video of the event becomes a huge social media sensation.
Elliot’s former friend Angela now works as a Public Relations manager for ECorp – surely the worst job in the world. She has turned into a hardass super-bitch whose cutthroat negotiations with the news media ensure that the company’s talking points deliver the appropriate message of reassurance to the public. Angela claims to like her job and refuses to quit when pressured by the lawyer she’s secretly working with. However, she spends all of her free time watching ridiculous “affirmation” self-help videos to cope with the stress.
Tyrell Wellick, the evil douchebag ECorp executive who tried to climb the corporate ladder by murdering a business rival’s wife, has fled the city and is in the wind. His cold-hearted wife has already taken up with a new S&M boytoy. When Elliot finally breaks down and talks to Mr. Robot again, it’s to demand that he tell him where Wellick is. The second half of the premiere ends with Elliot losing time (having lost control of himself to Mr. Robot) and waking up on the phone with Wellick.
Among the new characters introduced this season are Grace Gummer as an FBI agent investigating the ECorp hack, Sandrine Holt as the ECorp General Counsel whose smarthome is hacked and taken over by Darlene, and Craig Robinson as an overly-talkative and friendly stranger who keeps trying to strike up a friendship with Elliot. None of these characters gets enough screen time in the premiere to tell where their storylines are going.
‘Mr. Robot’ is pretty far from the usual dopey procedural crime dramas that otherwise populate the USA Network’s schedule. As a result, the first season was fairly divisive among viewers who were either passionate in loving it or found it a bunch of pretentious rubbish. I fall in the former category.
Based on the premiere, the second season won’t convince anyone to change their opinions of the show either way. It still has the same conceit of an unreliable narrator to confuse viewers, the same cold and intellectual tone, and the same deliberately alienating stylistic gimmicks – such as unusual camera angles that frame characters in the corner or in the lower half of the screen with a lot of empty space oppressively surrounding them. If you were on board with that before, I see no reason not to be excited for the new season.