BY SCOTT MESLOW
I spent much of Mr. Robot’s second season being frustrated by Mr. Robot’s second season. After a buzzy freshman run that dazzled critics and audiences, Season Two had begun by stranding Elliot (Rami Malek) in a self-contained subplot with a too-predictable twist, and it eschewed forward momentum for a series of nested flashbacks and surreal experiments. Audiences quickly grew frustrated, and the show shed millions of viewers over the course of its second season. Many once-passionate champions, in both the critical community and the TV industry, abandoned it as well. Rami Malek won an Emmy for his work in Mr. Robot’s first season. He wasn’t even nominated for Season Two.
At the time, I shared the viewpoint that Season Two had been a minor letdown. By the time the Season Two finale aired, near the end of September 2016, I had concluded that the show’s sophomore run had been both impressively ambitious and fatally flawed—too meandering and nihilistic to live up to the promise of the pulpier, more focused Season One.
And then the election happened. Suddenly Mr. Robot started looking like the only show that had been cynical enough to see what was coming.
I’m not saying Mr. Robot knew Donald Trump was about to become president—but it was certainly the only show that was prescient enough to account for the grim possibility. At a time when even the most daring TV shows tend to avoid explicit modern-day political references, Mr. Robot makes modern-day politics a key part of its backdrop. The events of the second season premiere take place on June 15, 2015—just hours before the morning of June 16, when Donald Trump announced he was running for president. Barack Obama appeared in Season Two, in a clever bit of editing that made it sound like he was giving a speech about the 5/9 hack. Donald Trump himself appears in Season Three, glimpsed grinning in the midst of Elliot’s long rant about the nightmarish, inescapable loop in which all of America is ensnared.
No other modern TV has so compellingly captured the sense of futility and exhaustion that has so thoroughly penetrated American life in 2017. The world of Mr. Robot, like the world of today, is corrupt and stupid and cruel—and the people who might be able to change things refuse, because the corruption and stupidity and cruelty of the system is what enabled them to reach positions of power in the first place.
Mr. Robot isn’t completely cynical; many of the characters act on personal, idealistic beliefs. They just discover that their earnest efforts to make a difference will inevitably snuffed out by the people on top. Take Dom, an FBI agent who spent all of Season Two obsessively investigating the Chinese government’s collusion in the 5/9 hack. In the end, Dom is forced to drop the case by the U.S. government, which has just accepted a $2 trillion E Corp bailout from the Chinese government. This is a particularly sinister conspiracy: a foreign government using underhanded tactics to weaken the integrity of the United States, then insinuating itself as the solution to the problem it helped to create. Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
By the end of Season Two, Dom has endured an almost incomprehensible personal toll. She watched her coworkers gunned down in front of her, and survived another shootout in a New York diner. Her dedication to the work means that she has no life outside of the investigation. But when it comes to the Dark Army, Dom still crashes up against an unscalable wall. "They can’t get away with this," Dom pleads. "They’re going to get away with this," her superior officer shrugs. In the end, Dom settles for investigating the scrappy members of fsociety and the already-disgraced E-Corp executive Tyrell Wellick, who were practically gift-wrapped as a consolation prize for the FBI by the people who are actually pulling the strings.
And if Dom’s failed mission to take down the real force behind the 5/9 hack is disappointing, the aftermath for the idealistic anarchism of fsociety has been nightmarish. Just months after the 5/9 hack, the fsociety "revolution" hasn’t just proven to be ineffective. It has been utterly co-opted: by opportunistic marketers selling fsociety t-shirts, and by massive companies who can use the 5/9 hack to increase people’s reliance on them.
A foreign government uses underhanded tactics to weaken the integrity of the United States, then insinuates itself as the solution to the problem it helped to create. Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
"This is what they wanted. For us to buy into our worst selves. And I just made it easier for them," frets Elliot in the Season Three premiere. And when you look at things from that perspective, the 5/9 hack—which Elliot spearheaded, as he once shyly admitted, because he wanted to save the world—only made the oppressors more powerful. The knowledge that America’s biggest corporation could be taken down by a team of hackers didn’t make people feel free. It made them feel afraid. And by the end of Season Two, when the U.S. government and E Corp have teamed up to assure people that they’re the solution to the problem, people are lining up for the promised (but dubious) security of a new, E Corp-backed currency, which will only strengthen the company’s role in American life.
Who wouldn’t be scared? Mr. Robot understands, and underscores, that we’re all deeply vulnerable all the time. Hackers from all around the world can easily steal as much of your personal information as they desire. Mass shootings are so inescapable that they’re starting to feel routine. We’re all victim to the whims of massive powerful corporations staffed by obscenely wealthy people, and the government is too dependent on those corporations and people to protect us from them. And at a time when there are literally dozens of things American citizens should be outraged about, the biggest controversy of the day is whether McDonald’s should have stocked more of that fucking Rick & Morty sauce.
These are the kinds of problems, Mr. Robot’s second season argued, that might drive a person to drown out her interior monologue in an endless stream of bland, recorded affirmations. Or lead an insomniac to ask her Amazon Echo when the world is going to end. Or voluntarily end up in prison to protect himself, and the world, from his own darkest impulses.
So yeah, Mr. Robot is a pretty goddamn depressing show to watch right now. But it’s also the only show that taps into the very real nihilism that comes with simply existing as an American citizen today. It’s too bleak to be described as cathartic—but given the times we’re living in, I’ll settle for relatable.