BY KEVIN YEOMAN
At the start of season 3, Mr. Robot makes several hints that the show’s world, and Elliot Alderson’s fractured, reality-questioning perception of it, is on the verge of revealing something much weirder. It’s a familiar promise for a series that started out with little more than a seemingly goofy name, a talented young actor in Rami Malek, and an exciting role for Christian Slater, to quickly become a summertime sensation for USA Network once audiences caught a whiff that its twisty, mutinous narrative about a hacker collective striking a blow for the 99 percent was also hiding a secret: Elliot and the show’s titular Mr. Robot were one in the same – on the outside, at least. The idea that the two characters resided within Elliot’s mind, like a partitioned hard drive running two separate operating systems, sparked an immediate interest in the series (and an quest to solve it) that had so much more to offer than its main character’s Fight Club–like psychological schism. But now, after a bumpy and somewhat unfulfilling second season that overestimated the value of its own cleverness and underestimated the internet brain trust’s ability to decipher twists well in advance, Mr. Robot returns with a clearer sense of purpose and renewed outward focus on the world beyond Elliot’s mind. And it may be preparing to go way beyond even that.
The fourth-wall-breaking antics of the show’s protagonist are still on display, as are the stylistic flourishes and on-point music cues from creator Sam Esmail (who again writes and directs every episode this season) that make up the show’s unique identity. And yes, some of those flourishes, like Elliot’s stark-raving monologue about the damage the E Corp 5/9 hack has done to the world, and the character’s muting of the ambient noise in a den full of hackers, followed by the question, “Isn’t that better?” (directed at the audience inside his head), teeter so close to the brink of bald-faced self-praise that visions of half-digested Adderall will dance in your head. But it’s all so much a part of what makes Mr. Robot such an enticing experience, you’ll hard pressed not to give in and simply enjoy the ride. That is especially true after the season 3 premiere, ‘eps3.0_power_saver_mode.h’, repeatedly insinuates some impossible, potentially sci-fi-leaning things.
After season 2 ended with Elliot being shot by the recently returned Tyrell Wellick, on the orders of Mr. Robot, for attempting to prevent the total destruction of E Corp, many may have expected there to be a prolonged, Sopranos season 6-like dream sequence in which the presumably mortally wounded hacker roamed a nebulous space between life and death. (And maybe that’s exactly what’s going on here.) But instead of lingering on Elliot’s injuries and milking the cliffhanger for all it’s worth, Esmail is far more interested in exploring the consequences of what his hood-wearing hacker has wrought, and, outlandish as it may seem, talk of parallel dimensions and undoing the wrongs of the past — literally.
That’s not to say Mr. Robot is absolutely going to go there (it almost certainly will not), but overhearing a discussion of parallel dimensions from a supervisor at an E Corp-owned nuclear power plant, as well as the sight of Whiterose discussing her plans for Elliot (and past association with Elliot’s father) in what appears to be the (or a) Large Hadron Collider, and Angela’s tempting offer of the chance to undo everything bad that’s ever happened to them, it’s hard not to want to follow where Esmail is pointing. For now, though, such teases will remain just that as Esmail’s established penchant for obfuscation justifies any and all suspicion that it’s all distraction while he works some narrative sleight of hand.
But like watching a magician’s trick, it’s hard not to want to put some stock in the possibility of it all being real. Remember when all the talk of the Yellow King made it seem like True Detective season 1 was going to end with a Lovecraftian descent into supernatural madness? It’s sort of the same thing: a wild, genre-bending swerve could reclassify the series in a heartbeat. Who knows whether or not that’s what’s going on, but it’s a lot of fun just the same seeing how far Mr. Robot is willing to push things in the first hour of season 3.
That’s especially true thanks to the amusing introduction of Bobby Cannavale’s Irving. From a ubiquitous Bluetooth earpiece to his nasally voice, outdated glasses, and distinctive choice in facial hair, it’s like all the show’s eccentricities spontaneously generated their own avatar. Irving’s arrival also heralds the series’ attempt to look beyond Elliot’s troubled mind and move outward as world descends into an ever-worsening nightmare where everything feels distorted and wrong. The normally unflappable Darlene is a frantic mess following the murder of Cisco, while Angela is now a cool customer conspiring with Mr. Robot to her childhood friend’s face. It’s only when Elliot dons his trademark black hoodie, which Esmail films like he’s watching Batman pull his cowl over the Bruce Wayne façade, that there is some semblance of normalcy.
Like its characters, Mr. Robot thrives on chaos and disruption, making ‘eps3.0_power_saver_mode.h’ a welcome return to the appealing brand of disorder that made the series so engaging to begin with. There’s every reason to think Mr. Robot may wind up tripping over its own ambition and cleverness again, but Esmail has lined up so many alluring possibilities for season 3 that even if it tries and fails, the results are likely going to be stunning and unlike anything else on television.