Warning: The following article contains spoilers for Season 1 of Mr. Robot and the premiere of Season 2.
When Mr. Robot debuted in the summer of 2015, most of the surprise was that a network like USA, previously known for amiable comedies and detective shows, could produce such a dark, nihilistic and edgy work. Much was made of its stylistic and narrative debt owed to David Fincher’s Fight Club, and to the show's winking nods to Gen X totems like Pulp Fiction and The Cure. Tech communities roundly praised the show for its accuracy and its up-to-the-second understanding of the larger issues surrounding the intersection of privacy, security and personal liberty.
But the main question that was asked when the show wrapped its first season was what could they possibly do to follow that up? When you end a season with an Anonymous-like hacker group destroying the world’s entire financial record system, plunging society into chaos--that’s a tough act to follow.
If the season 2 premiere is any indication, then show runner Sam Esmail (who is writing and directing every episode in the second season) is in no way daunted by the challenge.
Let’s be clear, this show shouldn’t work at all. Its dialogue can be ponderous and too on-the-nose, its philosophy a blender of Reddit threads and Bernie Bro banter, its shout-outs to the the 80s and 90s nerd culture too specific, and its stylistic debts to Twin Peaks too obvious. But in Esmail’s very capable hands none of this matters.
Take last night’s stand-out moment, where a high-level bank executive is lured into public and then coerced into setting nearly $6 million ablaze in the middle of Battery Park. Esmail builds suspense wonderfully through an interminable wait as the exec stands in the middle of the park with the duffel bags full of money. Kids have sparklers and a man with a boombox is playing Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” through tinny speakers. The tension builds and builds, till the exec gets his instructions, then everything happens so fast the audience is disoriented. The song that started as an indistinguishable bit of background noise starts to dominate the soundtrack. And then there’s a blaze.
It's in moments like this that the show shines, where Esmail’s off-kilter visual style and clever use of pop music can cause the viewer to see even the most clichéd of scenes through fresh eyes and ears. (The first season somehow managed to breathe fresh pathos into “Pictures of You,” and is there more of an avatar of “uncool” than Phil Freaking Collins?)
The first season’s central twist, that Elliot IS Mr. Robot, was not meant to be a surprise to the audience. The tension came not from the reveal, but from the fact that the audience knew something the main character did not. The climax was not the reveal to you, it was the reveal to Elliot.
And now that the cat’s out of the bag, the new season begins with Elliot in self-imposed exile. His attempt to cut off Mr. Robot by simply staying away from computers leaves him isolated from the larger story. Rami Malik and Christian Slater (as Mr. Robot’s projection) both play out a literal version of a theme that is reflected in every other characters’ plot -- the attempt to appear sane and normal in a world that is increasingly descending into madness.
And so Darlene, Elliot’s sister and defacto leader of the revolution in his absence, cries in the shower before taking the stage to deliver an exercise in demagoguery. Her righteous anger curdled by a newfound taste for power. Angela, who spent most of last season as a somewhat tiresome crusader for justice, falls deeper and deeper under the spell of E-corp, heartbreakingly teaching herself to fake self-confidence as she chips away more and more of her soul. Gideon Goddard, the show’s one truly moral character begins the show in turmoil and ends up dead.
And then there is whatever the hell is going on with the Wellicks…a fresh entry in the world of television’s great creepy couples, the ice-cold Scandinavian social climbers with few qualms about murder, whose motives go beyond opaque, while remaining morbidly fascinating.
But beyond the wild and oversized ambitions of its creator, beyond the crackerjack cast and stylish direction, the show’s most effective weapon is the real world in which it is shown. As crazy as the show can be, it would have a hard time competing with the world of 2016 with our political, social and financial worlds seemingly on the edge of disarray and our fears of technology growing ever more pressing.
One new character is introduced through a horror movie vignette as her smart home is hijacked and used as a weapon against her, surely causing every owner of Google Nest to have second thoughts. It’s hard to imagine a show that could be more simultaneously horrifying and thrilling at the same time. If Esmail can keep the narrative under control for a second season, he’ll be remembered for this.