BY DARREN FRANICH
You remember the moments from Mr. Robot season 2. The gunfight in Beijing and the gunspray in SoHo, both shootouts shot in long unbroken camera takes, one swirling and one static. Joey Bada$$ was talking about Seinfeld, and Joey Bada$$ was killin’ Nazis. One week the show was a ’90s sitcom. Another week it conjured up a long-ago slasher film called The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie, a fake film rendered with dreamy Borgesian authenticity, even just that title alone dripping with Corman-does-Poe gutter pretension. There was a decadent smarthouse hacked stupid, a taser fired like a gun. Portia Doubleday sang “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and she flirted with Duck Phillips, and she conducted a PR negotiation filmed with Cuban Missile Crisis tension.
New cast member Grace Gummer arrived to play Dominique DiPierro, a woman of the law. She was filmed lonely in her apartment, bot-butler Alexa her only friend. Director Sam Esmail constructed a whole montage sequence around Dom drinking too much coffee and putting on makeup, all of it set to the Highwaymen singing “Highwayman,” all of it going on for way too long but then somehow just long enough for the act of applying makeup to become swagger-ish and morally affirming, sure as John Wayne holstering his gun before walking out the tavern doors to the meanest street in town.
Esmail created Mr. Robot, had cleverly conceived the first season with twin narrative surprises. What could’ve been a grimdark take on the USA quirky procedural (who’s Elliot hacking this week?) revealed itself as the saga of a revolution. What seemed like a burgeoning bromance was actually narcissism gone mad. Then Esmail directed every episode of season 2, which swelled to 12 episodes that could swell past the hour mark. You felt the excitement of a filmmaker unloading a lifetime of image notions. How about a malevolent CEO pontificating over Franz Ferdinand? Or an assassination where the victim sits paralyzed through his own murder? And what will happen when the fish have no water? Chess, I like chess!
Season 2 depended, maybe, on a storytelling gambit that just didn’t work. (TV writers: Never send your characters to prison, unless your show is about prison, in which case they must never leave.) It turned a key character, Martin Wallström’s unglued Tyrell Wellick, into a ghostly presence in the story machine. Then the finale fit all the plot into one final table-setting climax. The postmodern computer terrorists were revealed as old-fashioned explosion terrorists, with big plans to blow up a big building. And then the lights went out in New York City.
Esmail’s not the show’s only writer, but it still felt like Esmail the storyteller was wrestling against Esmail the vision-maker. That sounds a bit cute, since “The Duality of Man” is so obviously some central idea of Mr. Robot. I grooved so much onto Esmail’s scene-setting. But there was that moment when Elliot (Rami Malek) and own-personal-Durden Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) played chess. The twist ending, appropriate for a season set in post-traumatic neon stasis: Nobody won.
So let me pluck one line of Elliot dialogue from season 3 to give you hope: “This isn’t one of our bulls—t stalemate prison chess games.”
Damn right it’s not. Season 3 of Mr. Robot is a masterpiece, ballasting the global ambitions of season 2 while sharpening back to the meticulous build of season 1. Wednesday’s premiere picks up with our characters in a powerless Manhattan, apartments candle-lit, streets dark except for cars going nowhere good. Elliot is still confused, and the supporting cast has confusingly reoriented around him. His sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) was once a bullish rebel sidekick, the Raúl to Elliot’s Fidel if not the Joshua to his Moses. Now she’s lingering scared, hunted by the Dark Army and the FBI. But Angela, formerly the show’s Envoy From The Land Of Regular People, is embroiled deep in the further-flung conspiracies of the show, with intentions much stranger than anything Elliot ever hid from himself.
And Mr. Robot is here, in a strange new way that lets Christian Slater add deeper shades to his phantom. At this point, you either accept Mr. Robot or you don’t — the show long ago slipstreamed from any notional Multiple Personality Disorder reality to full-fledged Mr. Hyde superhero logic. It’s a leap you should take: Slater’s first introduction in season 3 is one of the show’s most quietly awe-inspiring shots, eerie and grand.
The premiere introduces new cast member Bobby Cannavale, whose Irving is some Platonic Ideal of an old New York used car salesman. He’s almost a cartoon character — a three-quarter Gyp Rosetti — but Esmail has a better handle on how to energize his cartoon instincts with weird gravitas. Remember last season, when the whole world seemed to be quoting William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”? A key setting this season is a barbecue franchise named after that poem, cute animals lit neon, interior as red-splashed as the bathroom from The Shining. It’s a self-aware gag — we know, we know, wasn’t that poetry a bit much? — but it also embeds deeper meaning in the reference. Williams’ poem, as your English teacher told you, was about America: red wheelbarrow, white chickens, (blue) rainwater. So Red Wheelbarrow BBQ is Esmail’s uniquely American vision: A poem gone corporate, and maybe the chicken isn’t even chicken, but the food is tasty.
Speaking of America! Season 3 is still set in 2015, an eon ago. That time-locked setting felt hermetic last year, like Esmail had backed himself into a downbeat Newsroom reboot. But you remember that, when Mr. Robot debuted two years ago, it uncannily captured a mood that few people recognized then, a mood that is everywhere now. Hacker group fsociety vibed like Anonymous, but it filled in for all the revolutionary sensibility that consumed 2016. In season 3, you can spot a Bernie bumper sticker, and on the television, there’s a billionaire running for president. Current events interact with the alterna-2015 in troubling, hilarious, thinkpiece-baiting ways. You sense the fury, but also an appreciation: How nice to realize the world really was going mad!
There’s a standout scene in the premiere when Elliot’s inner monologue starts pouring out of his mouth. He’s walking down a dark street, passing homeless people, his city downward spiraling; at this point, the economic situation of Mr. Robot‘s New York suggests a natural disaster and an economic collapse, Puerto Rico atop Occupy Wall Street, but the energizing rage of Mr. Robot was that some Americans already live that way, and most Americans feel like they live that way.
“Did my revolution just bury our minds instead of freeing them?” Elliot ponders. He talks about Adam Smith, and he talks about exchanging dignity for safety. “I didn’t start a revolution,” he tells us. “I just made us docile enough for our slaughtering.”
It’s a great scene, restating the show’s premise, deconstructing it, undercutting that deconstruction. Here’s Elliot the hero realizing his villainy and choosing to undo his terrible work. But in the process, he’s somehow attacking his Messiah Complex and affirming it. “The truth is,” he says, with prideful loathing, “I’m the one to blame.” Can he fix what he’s broken? What if he only makes it worse? Didn’t his problems begin when he decided he was powerful enough to change the world? There’s a lot of god talk in season 3, much of it emanating from crazed Tyrell, but the show seems to be edging closer to something genuinely cosmic: spiritual, or science fictional, or something in between.
The premiere features one of Esmail’s now-trademark long takes, a hallucinatory walk through an underground hacker club. Part of the pleasure of season 3 is how Esmail resets the show’s psycho-thriller interiority in recognizably modern surroundings. There’s a montage in episode 2 where someone starts a new corporate job, and the music is “New Sensation” by INXS, and the song’s chirpy pep runs wonderfully counter to the seemingly banal setting. It gets to that Scorsese place, man, where you hope the montage goes on long enough that the band starts to invent new verses.
You wonder if season 2 was always a kind of laboratory for Esmail. As a filmmaker, he’s got a lot more in his toolkit now. Episode 2 has another scene, staged in just a few careful camera shots, which circles from tension to shock to deeper shock to horror and then eerie humor. That scene also implies that Esmail and his writers have thought long and hard about just how sprawling this show can be, and it’s telling that the main characters feel in much closer orbit this season.
Looming over all is Whiterose, another dual identity hacker Messiah, by day the Chinese Minister of State Security, in fact a transgender woman leading the stateless Dark Army. Whiterose has mysterious plans, and I hope you’re not tired of the nuclear stuff and the alternate reality stuff. But whereas last season Whiterose largely seemed to exist largely as a delivery system for the great BD Wong, now she has some clearer motivation. Maybe Esmail just decided to stop messing around and make Whiterose the show’s Lex Luthor, a capital-S Supervillain. Her motivations seem florid until you remember there are real-life billionaires seeking immortality in space.
Mr. Robot came on strong like a postmodern Fight Club redo, but the show’s storytelling instincts now feel deeply rooted in an older pulp tradition. I’ve seen the first six episodes of season 3, and they remind me a lot of Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. Fuller was a low-budget gutter dramatist with an eye for grit andphantasmagoria; Pickup on South Street stages a crowded subway pickpocketing like a love confession, captures the flavor of the New York streets but also shoots an unlikely shack under the Brooklyn Bridge like a Dick Tracy panel brought to impressionist life.
Like Esmail, Fuller’s work sparkles with gonzo camera moves, has the same weirdly humane way of laser-focusing on characters mid-soliloquy. Half the characters on the show seem to be Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street, slouching with tragic awareness toward confusing oblivion. There’s actually a scene this season featuring a pickpocket on the subway; I can’t believe that’s an intentional reference, but Esmail’s ability to embed hypertextual meaning in the show is approaching Tarantino levels. (Keep an eye on all the movie posters, and mark down whatever’s playing on television.)
There was an energy to Fuller’s work, a willingness to blend noir-ish amorality with madcap slice-of-the-headline storytelling. Pickup on South Street is about regular criminals in New York and also, like, the Soviets. Shock Corridor is about a scary insane asylum where people only talk about racism and the Bomb.
In its third and best season, Mr. Robot finds that same just-right mix of straight thrills and Big Idea texture. And then, episode 5 — wow! The standout hour of the season so far is a hallucinatory filmmaking highwire act, a playfully sick Dilbert cartoon gone Fury Road. You’ll never look at those annoying elevator TV screens without feeling anxious. The whole show’s like that, imbuing all the techno-banalities of modern life with fearful grandeur. When you live in a dystopia, future noir is just noir. Mr. Robot‘s third season is noir as a blackout, and as sparkling as the stars over a city gone dark enough to see the sky.