Written by Matt Haviland
Mr. Robot Season 2 Premiere Part One, ‘eps2.0_unm4sk-pt1.tc’ Plot Summary:
After the events of last season, Elliot (Rami Malek) is back at home, recovering with his psychoses intact. Elsewhere, fsociety battles E Corp, and society at large recovers from their hacking operations.
Mr. Robot feels new. This whole series feels like Requiem for a Dream, and that’s high praise. Gorgeous, cold-sweat cinematography, some great characters, soothing trance music, and the transcendent quality that makes everything pulse; this is some of the freshest, most advanced television around. While season one does struggle with unbalanced plotting, lesser characters, and stakes, everything is forgiven. Season two is where those issues will need to be resolved. While part one of its premiere struggles with similar problems, it drips with genius.
We’re back in love right from the beginning, with the camera moving freely through fsociety’s abandoned arcade as Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) contemplates business and Elliot (Rami Malek) sits at the computer. We zoom past Elliot to show his computer screen, where we stay while his chat box closes, Tyrell’s voice comes in behind us, and work gets done, like watching yourself work without sweating. Another noteworthy shot follows Elliot’s formative fall through the window. We’re in his hospital room, where his mother (Vaishnavi Sharma) responds to the doctor’s somewhat positive report by demanding to know the copay and snarling at his father (Christian Slater). This all happens behind Elliot, who takes up most of the screen, gazing under the bandage on his head. Withholding our view of his parents puts us in his position, feeling the financial burden, mostly removed from the conversation going on behind him, and zoning out.
After these opening scenes, we’ve given some of the funniest Mr. Robot yet. In a spellbinding sequence showing Elliot’s new routine, we see him living with mom, decompressing after his world crashed last season. He’s tucked under the blankets, then he’s sitting in the corner of his room, then he’s journaling (his remarks are gold, Malek’s narration ever laconic), then having breakfast, lunch, and dinner with his friend Leon (Joey Bada$$), who’s discovered Seinfeld and sits across from him, sighing about how the show doesn’t mean anything.
These chats are hilarious, Bada$$ laconic himself while referring to “Costanza” and “that guy Kramer.” The repeated framing of Leon while he leans back and vibes is great. This sequence also includes a hypnotic vignette where they watch community basketball, Elliot questioning everyone’s engagement with the game and then drawling that he enjoys the system of rules underneath the chaos. As always, Elliot’s narration is one of the strongest parts of the show. Moreover, the writing is strong, with funny, dreamy observations about the world that feel fresh. It’s a joy. If last year’s premiere was a subway train through paranoia, this is a gurney through recovery. Did I mention that the sequence is underscored by a memorable flower-era anthem? It’s ebullient in the best way.
Of course, recovery often means suppressing rather than healing, and before long, we see that fantasy or not, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) is still around. The interplay between Elliot and him now that we know he’s illusory is entertaining but weakened, due to lowered stakes. What was once a threatening, mysterious presence is now an interactive dream sequence (not even with the gravity of, say, the ghosts in Rescue Me or Six Feet Under, because we’ve been guaranteed that he’s just in Elliot’s mind). However, the show wisely increases Mr. Robot’s stakes by having him distract and dismay Elliot, causing real-world complications, like during Elliot’s bewildered conversation with Gideon (Michel Gill). The former boss seems sympathetic at first, but given Elliot’s monosyllabic responses actually addressed to Mr. Robot, Gideon stops being nice. We’re wondering whether he will name Elliot for last year’s corporate subterfuge. While Mr. Robot is a delusion, he creates a barrier between them while Elliot could be fortifying their relationship.
Mr. Robot also undercuts Gideon’s perceived power by predicting that he’s going to play the cornered animal who makes himself seem bigger than he is. Does Gideon’s subsequent threat have teeth? More interesting still, given that Mr. Robot basically says, “Presto!” before Gideon reacts exactly as he predicts, we wonder whether (A) Mr. Robot knew what Gideon would say before he said it, making him supernatural, (B) Elliot understands human nature well enough for Mr. Robot to predict Gideon’s response with cinematic flourish, or (C) Elliot’s perception of time is off, and Gideon threatened him before Elliot realized what happened, thus having Mr. Robot double back and comment on his words, in Elliot’s perception, before they happened. This may be overanalyzing the magical realism of the psychology, but nonetheless, if Mr. Robot predicted how Gideon would respond and when, that gives this walking, talking delusion some all-knowingness, raising the stakes and letting him play with more agency, perhaps telling Elliot things he doesn’t know. The stakes are also increased by Mr. Robot’s violence, which Elliot is horrified by, because who’s to say Elliot won’t actually cut Gideon’s throat while watching Mr. Robot do it?
What’s going on with fsociety? Well, after an incredible sequence where E Corp advisor Susan Jacobs (Sandrine Holt), another mysteriously one-off character, battles with her Smart House (deactivating the misfiring burglar alarm, blared at by both obnoxious news pundit and classical music, burned by hot water in the shower), Mr. Robot’s tranquility making this feel like a short film, Black Mirror meets Force Majeure, Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and the suddenly teeming fsociety barge into the house and set up shop. Their partying seems congenial at first, but when the fratty recruits start taking angry photos with Wall Street’s bull’s bronze balls, the vibe gets scary and the shouting and raised hands seem threatening more than fun. But Darlene is now boss, and after hiding from the commotion in a vulnerable take, she storms out, stomps the guy’s phone until the screen beautifully puddles with liquid, and gets them back on track.
After Darlene questions their success in the wake of their big hack, the action switches to what feels like a long time with characters who aren’t characters—a customer at E Corp’s Bank of E battling the teller over her compromised account while others stand lined up behind her. There is avant garde verve in giving us not a montage to show how fsociety’s triumph affected society but an actual scene. While this episode’s problems stem from focusing on characters we’re not invested in (more on that next), paradoxically, one of its strongest scenes (almost) exclusively features anonymous people but makes them compelling. I would welcome more interludes like this, even (perhaps especially) if, like this one, they’re punctuated by the appearance of fsociety lurking behind name tags. This could make for a Charles Dickens sprawl that explores otherwise unexplored consequences of fsociety. This show could become something even more refreshing by doing so, perhaps inspiring televised panorama dramas.
While Elliot’s daily grind, the Smart House trials of Susan Jacobs, and the microdrama at the bank are captivating, the scenes between Darlene and her hackers and E Corp’s executive trio in the clouds don’t have enough engagement or characterization to be compelling. We’re still meh about fsociety, which really feels like overzealous anarchists throwing stones at a building (emphasized by Susan telling the E Corp higher-ups they could find a multimillion-dollar ransom in their couch cushions). Maybe we don’t feel invested in fsociety because they’re nothing next to their opponents. So we would benefit from higher stakes. We also need deeper investment in Darlene (who’s been somewhat undeveloped), her crew, and E Corp. We know there can be compelling characters on either side from Elliot’s and Tyrell’s stories, so how about more? And where are Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliussen) and Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday)? Given that they, the best characters aside from Elliot, the almost-absent Tyrell, and Mr. Robot, were missing, it’s no wonder things felt slight. With the always welcome Grace Gummer joining the cast, we’ll have enough character power either way. Despite this episode’s shortcomings, Mr. Robot offers the most intoxicating hour this summer. This Wednesday, we get two.
Rating: 8.5/10 (Spellbinding)