BY JASON RHODE
What if they gave a re-launch, and everybody went along for the ride? That’s the case in the second episode of Season Three of USA’s Mr. Robot. “Ever wish you could hit undo?” asks Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), our protagonist. And why not? It’s Elliot, so we give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s hacked our hearts, hasn’t he? Elliot tells us that he’s decided to take a job at Evil Corp to undo the damage he did in the first and second season. No more knavish tricks, no more displays of anarcho-hacking. I’ve called E-Corp evil, he informs us, but “maybe they’re a necessary evil” he tells us, as Linda, the corporate spokesperson, talks to Elliot via a hiring video. “Maybe calling them evil was just my dorm-room philosophizing run amok.” Linda agrees, cheerfully announcing: “I’d like to say welcome to the Evil Corp family. We’re happy to have you here!”
INXS’ “New Sensation” plays over an otherworldly montage that shows Elliot learning how to fit in. It’s eerie. Alterna-Elliot. “I’m not selling out,” he says. “I’m growing up.” He explains how he’s chosen a 401K, an HMO plan, he joined Trunk Club, and is popping Zoloft. New sensation, new sensation.
He dedicates himself to undoing the leet hacks of 5/9. Elliot discovers that Evil Corp has delivered a lot of their paper records to the New York facility, so the first act of the episode is Elliot hacking Evil Corp so they can avoid a single point of failure. If he can convince the corporation to digitize their records, then the Dark Army’s plans for cataclysm can be avoided. See, all of Elliot’s coworkers are dipshits, and don’t realize that all the batteries in the New York facility could be weaponized into bombs.
Elliot’s doing well. Except he isn’t. Loneliness and banality still rule his life. He felt shitty before, and he feels terrible now. “What’s wrong with me? I’m really starting to lose it.”
It’s almost as if the first season never ended. This gets back to Matt Christman’s observation that the single scariest feature of our society isn’t its enmeshed oppressive capitalist structures or our buffoonish government. It’s that we’ve lost the ability to envision alternative futures for ourselves. Our culture can’t imagine anything but dystopia, can’t see a single feature beyond the reign of Trump.
Esmail and his show weren’t ready with a vision of what the world would look like after fSociety won. So, we have this. Maybe it’s to make a larger point about revolution, change, the hero narrative, etc., but for a show so gleefully innovative and playful in other respects, it rings hollow. The return to form is welcome—Season One was legendary—but it’s hard to read it any way but as an impoverishment of vision.
Cut to Elliot at a conference with his court-appointed therapist, Krista (Gloria Reuben). It’s Elliot’s birthday!
How are you feeling about your birthday today, Krista asks. Elliot’s response:
Shit. She’s right. Totally forgot. It is my birthday today.
And critical distance be damned, Elliot Alderson is the biggest woobie in the world, and I want to hug the guy, even though he hates hugs and would avoid human touch. To be honest, Reader, maybe Mr. Robot isn’t a drama at all. Maybe it’s a very, very tongue-in-cheek comedy, dry as the dust on the mantel place. Maybe all these trappings—the net, the world, the economy, the postmodernism, the anarcho-philosophy—is just a character study around our special boy. The superhuman hacker as a portrait of the artist as a young man: a grail knight with a bandaged paw. Elliot Alderson is designed to be a plush toy, if any edgy TV show protagonist ever was. We hear Elliot tell his psychiatrist that he thinks Mr. Robot is gone.
There’s a callback to the time he built a snowman with Darlene (Carly Chaikin). Because this is Mr. Robot, every single moment is scored with Trent Reznor-like beats from The Social Network, and every memory is freighted with emotional significance. Snowman Day was the day Elliot’s father, the original Mr. Alderson, pushed Elliot out a window, and the shrink says he’s never talked about it before. Elliot stares off to the side, and ruminates for a bit while the camera sweet-chariots in close.
Meanwhile, Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliussen) is on a cable news show. Gone Girl has nothing on Fair Lady Wellick, who plays Razor Mommy to the full advantage. She tells the cable talking head what he wants to hear: Of course I miss my husband, I love him, she tells the interviewer. She’s an obsidian knife in pale silk sheath. fSociety releases another video: There’s going to be an attack of some kind.
Meanwhile, Darlene is being harassed by the FBI. Where’s Tyrell? Darlene doesn’t give an avalanche of shits, and so they’re upset. Dom (Grace Gummer) is peeved. What about the Tyrell-E connection? Darlene says there’s no common junction. A-ha! Dom plays a recording of Elliot talking to Tyrell, the prison phone call we heard in Season Two. Cut to Joanna leaving the studio in her SUV. But what’s this? Joanna’s boyfriend from Season Two, the bartender Derek (Chris Conroy), is stalking their SUV. Remember, Derek lied on Joanna’s behalf to get Tyrell in the clear. Now he’s a tad upset. Mr. Sutherland (Jeremy Holm), the Wellick bodyguard, stops the car and confronts Derek, who promptly starts Stanning about Joanna: She said we were gonna be together! Sutherland roughs him up—but wait! Derrick’s got a gun, and shoots Sutherland. Joanna struggles to grab Sutherland’s pistol—she would—but all’s too brief. Derek shoots her in the head, before the dying Sutherland shoots him back. At least the baby’s okay.
As is typical with Mr. Robot, there’s a deep cut of le ironic eighties pop undergirding the entire blood-drenched scene. This is the world that the cinematography of The Social Network made, that House of Cards perfected, and that Mr. Robot practices: desperate, dark-souled urban professionals committing acts of cold-blooded passion on cobblestoned city streets. Next there’s a scene in the morgue where the top of Joanna’s head is literally sawed off, followed by Dom referring to her as “the body.” My impulse is to say she’s as gone as Jacob Marley. Dom and her supervisor talk it out: Dom believes Darlene’s protests. Cut to the amusement park boardwalk. Elliot and Darlene meet up and have a sibling chat in front of the neon lights. “What am I, in a fucking therapy session?” Darlene complains. Oh my dear Darlene, this is Mr. Robot, and the entire world around you is raised roofbeam-high on the back of neuroses, symbolic or literal. She tells Elliot she’s leaving town, and the real reason she did any of this hacking stuff was to get close to him again. Stay with me tonight, he says. “I don’t want to be alone.”
In the next scene, Evil Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) is talking at some big-bastard global gathering—it could be any of a hundred Davos or IMF or WTO summits. E-Coin will be the unified currency for all the Earth. Except, Price says, China. China has embraced the false god of BitCoin. As soon as Price speaks these fighting words, the camera cuts to Chinese Minister Zhang, aka Whiterose (BD Wong), aka Your New Antagonist. Whiterose is none too happy; for some reason, he is dressed like an Angry Priest. Price and Whiterose meet in a room with the Turkish flag, and like every set-piece in this show, the air is shot through a milky-white filter, so every piece of air appears to be filled with aerosolized remains of teeth ground down by a dentist’s drill. Check out the 30:32 mark in the episode and tell me I’m lying. Another note to make about this show: Although the shooting style says “Cold”—the people stand at a distance, the set design is uninviting, it’s rare for two people to share a frame—everybody in this world is emotionally demonstrative in a way that you never see in House of Cards. Darlene is, Price is, Tyrell is. Elliot is, in his voiceovers. Joanna isn’t, but she’s the exception. In the Whiterose-Price powwow, the E-Corp CEO raises his voice at Whiterose, right off the bat.
There’s a confrontation, and then we cut to Darlene in Elliot’s apartment, where she’s messing around with his computer. He catches her doing it. Elliot changes into Mr. Robot halfway through their confrontation; there’s yelling involved. Which leads me to think: Maybe he really isn’t our hero. Maybe he’s Heisenberg, or Rick Sanchez—the man we should not love. Could it be that the serial nature of Mr. Robot fools us into thinking he’s a wounded knight, when he’s just poison in a hoodie?
Another therapy session. Krista asks Elliot to let Mr. Robot out. Bring forth ye dragon. And then there’s a scary-as-shit moment where Rami Malek leans forward and does an unnerving Christian Slater imitation. Halloween is suddenly very fucking real—the music stops, and Elliot’s face turns predatory. A snake on the verge of mouse-eating, shot in dark tones. It’s undeniably freaky, even if you’re watching the show in your office in mid-day Decatur. This show; this show makes us wait, and then out pops the jaws. The audio engineer modulates Malek’s voice in the subtlest way, so it comes across like the Voice of Sauron speaking. The closest rendering I can make through the medium of text is:
“YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT NOTHING’S GOING TO COME FROM THIS. WE WERE DOING just fine.”
Cut to Krista, shocked. Cut back and it’s Christian Slater. Krista and Mr. Robot have an exchange, and it’s straight from Good Will Hunting’s strong-boy intimidation match, but done better, because the show Mr. Robot is nothing if not a reliable upgrader of everyone else’s ideas.
Elliot Alderson walks home, sits in front of his computer, runs rootkit on it. The scene moves to the FBI HQ. Sure enough, Darlene put a trace on her brother’s desktop. The FBI can see everything Elliot does on his machine.
Next, we see Whiterose in his supervillain car. I want Phase 2 to happen on the day of the UN vote, he says. Dom goes back to the safehouse. She sees that Elliot sent a message to a mysterious address. Is it for Tyrell, Dom asks? They download the encrypted file, just as Elliot appears to have gained physical access to the apartment below their headquarters.
“It’s not a message for Tyrell,” Dom says. “It’s a message for us.” Dun, dun, dun. That’s where Mr. Robot leaves us, at the end of the second episode.
As an artifact of TV, Mr. Robot is as amazing as ever. But the great, wide-open horizon of form and narrative that Mr. Robot promised back during its first run seems less likely now. This narrative is settling down into astounding, first-rate prestige television, but I no longer imagine it will overturn the medium, as I did back in 2016. It is no small thing to be the lead dog in a long race: a dark techno-thriller with left-leanings is fine fare indeed. Mr. Robot continues to be a top-tier show, in every respect. But think what it might have been.
Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich writes that the show “seems to be edging closer to something genuinely cosmic: spiritual, or science fictional, or something in between.” I’ve felt that way about Mr. Robot, too, and I expect a lot of viewers share my estimations. I remember the genuinely startling and touching moment in Season One, where Elliott shows Tyrell the arcade where fSociety gathered, and Tyrell asked Elliot why he did it. The slow piano rendition of “Where Is My Mind” plays, and Elliot, big-eyed and boyish, explains his motivations to Tyrell, the secret broken antihero of the Robot-verse:
Tyrell: Well, now it’s you and me. I’ve always told we’d end up working together, Elliot. But still, I have to know. Why did you do it? What did you hope to accomplish by doing all of this?
Elliot: I don’t know. I wanted to save the world.
We all want our beloved TV show, Mr. Robot, to save the world—or at least change it. So far, it’s like the most inventive liar on late night—unconventional, but in unconventional in the most conventional way. And yet it’s early in the season: Anything can happen. Please tell me you’re seeing this, too.