With the second season of Mr Robot premiering on Lightbox this week, Aaron Yap is drawn back into the show’s elusive, murky world.
Mr. Robot was one of the buzziest, most intoxicating television events of 2015. Thematically and formally, it was an inspired blend. The show wedded a heady study of mental illness to a wickedly cynical view of our hyperconnected digital age and all its troubled Orwellian implications. And it did so with a chilly assuredness that belied the fairly newbie status of its showrunner Sam Esmail. His commitment to technical authenticity and up-to-the-minute timeliness was exhilarating to watch – the show often barely felt like fiction at all. Imagining the hacker as a 21st century vigilante superhero, Mr. Robot resembled a paranoia-wracked ‘70s political thriller redressed with the high-tech geekery of modern-day hacktivism.
At the close of season one, the mission of its mentally unbalanced, morphine-addled protagonist Elliot Alderson (breakout star Rami Malek) appeared to be completed. As the leader of the Coney Island-dwelling hacker collective fsociety, Elliot had been feverishly plotting to take down the world’s largest conglomerate, Evil Corp, and cause a global financial meltdown. Throughout the season, Elliot battled a raging drug habit and a dissociative personality disorder, the latter leading to the not-so-surprising reveal that the mysterious, mentor-like figure of Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) was actually his dead father, and only a figment of his imagination. While these key plot points were addressed, a smattering of loose threads were left dangling in the air, chiefly the disappearance of E Corp’s Patrick Bateman-esque ex-CTO Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), whom teamed up with Elliot for the big hack – dubbed “5/9”. And what the hell happened to Elliot in those three days of lost time?
The good news is that season two of Mr. Robot is here and we can find out; the bad news is Esmail, who’s taken on board the ambitious task of writing and directing the whole freaking season, isn’t in a rush to give us all the answers immediately. It’s slightly concerning in that the massive stress placed on these mysteries now require developments of equal weight to satisfactorily pay off the time we’ve invested in them. But for now, the meandering, crumb-like plotting of the two-part opener serves as a sufficiently intriguing, if relatively sedate easing back into the universe. Esmail has asserted that this will be a fairly different season to the first, with more emphasis on Elliot’s “emotional journey”, and these episodes find him holding his cards very close to his chest with scant indication of where things will be heading.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Elliot/Mr. Robot split will evolve now that the truth is out, for both Elliot and the viewer. Occasionally it verges on stagnating into a hokey Jekyll-and-Hyde devil-on-the-shoulder-type dynamic, but thanks to consistently terrific playing from Malek and Slater, and Esmail’s sharp direction, the scenes with Elliot and Mr. Robot still retain the same surreal, hallucinatory punch and psychological beats the show has perfected (a brief flashback to Elliot’s childhood suggests there’s more father-son baggage to unpack soon). Elliot continues to wrestle with his Id, but there are hints that he’s getting better at controlling and manipulating it. One month on from E Corp’s downfall, he’s staying out of the muck and sans computer, retreating into a self-imposed daily routine (“a perfectly constructed loop”) of journal entries, clockwork meals, mundane chores and church group meetings. “Stick to the regiment,” he tells himself, in a rolling, rambling monologue that has become the show’s uncompromisingly subjective, unreliable-narrator aesthetic.
The rest of the two-parter checks in on various principal characters and sifts through the aftermath of the “Cyber Pearl Harbour”, complete with deftly edited Obama and Leon Panetta cameos. Elliot’s sister Darlene (Charly Chaikin), who laments that 5/9 might have exacerbated problems instead of solving them, is currently running point for fsociety operations, which seems to have expanded from hacking to anti-establishment vandalism. E Corp CEO Philip Price (Michael Cristofer) is attempting to finagle a government bailout while faced with a ransomware attack on his banks. Elliot’s childhood bestie Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) has settled into her role as E Corp’s PR ice-queen, spending her hours off work listening to confidence-boosting, motivational recordings. With Wellick MIA, his wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) is indulging her BDSM fantasies with a new toyboy.
The newcomers are welcome additions: rapper Joey Bada$$ adds a spot of levity as Elliot’s new buddy, Craig Robinson intrigues as an enigmatic neighbourhood dog-walker, and Grace Gummer swaggers wonderfully into the mix as a potential FBI threat. The overarching vibe here is deliberately murky, with plenty of throat-clearing downtime and recalibrating character arcs for an inevitable band-getting-back-together episode. But it’s still very much the Mr. Robot we know and love: the dark, seductive atmosphere, the wonky, queasy compositions, the killer music supervision (Phil Collins and Sonic Youth in one ep!), those BIG RED FONT TITLES.
I have no clue what’s in store, but it feels good to be plugged back in.
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