BY MAUREEN RYAN
Spoiler alert: Do not read unless you’ve watched the season premiere of “Mr. Robot,” titled “eps3.0_power-saver-mode.h.”
What a relief. That was my thought as the first episode of the new season of “Mr. Robot” entered its final minutes. It reflected the world’s darkness, and yet it seemed to set its protagonist on a path toward some kind of evolution, toward compassion and away from isolation. (And it clearly shifted the show itself away from the kind of overly elaborate opening gambit that made the first half of Season Two more than a bit unwieldy.)
It’s always been difficult to disentangle “Mr. Robot” from current events, by design. The drama is a cracked mirror in which we can view our society from the slightly — or sometimes substantially — warped perspective of Elliot Alderson, who wanted to change the world from behind a computer screen.
Elliot (Rami Malek) got what he wanted. And like many characters in the darkest fairytales, he had cause to repent his wish.
Of course, the season premiere of “Mr. Robot” did not look like a fairytale, though its tone was off-kilter and dream-like, which lent it a certain lyricism. One of the show’s signal accomplishments is the way it seems vehemently of our world but, at the same time, a few degrees away from it and a few years ahead of it (or behind it). There’s often a fable-like quality to the story: Wizards appear and utter gnomic phrases; unpredictable forces are unleashed and people die; codes and riddles must be unlocked. Elliot is a hobbit and a resident of The Matrix, all at once.
That said, at many different moments, “Power Saver Mode” resembled a horror movie. There was a clammy, surreal atmosphere of danger in the dim rooms and unlighted streets Elliot navigated. Even in brighter spaces, like the city bus, the greenish quality of the light made everything feel unhealthy and off. In the fast-food restaurant in which he met Irving (Bobby Cannavale), a neon red sign felt like a premonition of a violent death, or a reminder of the blood that flowed from Elliot’s bullet wound.
And yet, despite all those dislocating elements — all deployed masterfully to reflect and amplify Elliot’s anxiety — there was hope at the center of this episode. At a key moment, Elliot got out of his head, and into reality. He still wants to change the world — not just to save himself, but to save everyone else from the chaos he unleashed.
After the season premiere caught viewers up on what they may have forgotten from Season Two, we got to the meat of the hour. Elliot began walking down a dirty, disordered street in New York, monologuing to himself — but then there was a shift. We were no longer hearing a voiceover; he was talking out loud. He looked straight at the camera. He took responsibility for the 5/9 hack, and refused to evade the consequences of his choices by tossing them into the paranoid maelstrom of a “Wake up, sheeple” rant.
“I’m the one to blame,” he declared.
Of course, he wasn’t really in the street at all. The scene cut back to the fast-food restaurant, where an employee finally threw out Elliot. He had apparently been stuck in a reverie in a corner of the burger joint. It’s very “Mr. Robot”-like to reveal that what we thought we saw wasn’t quite what we assumed it was. Yet that direct address to the camera was still quite meaningful.
“Mr. Robot” is rarely on the nose, just as Elliot rarely looks people in the eye or makes physical contact with them. It mattered that the moment in the street was direct, heartfelt and earnest. Elliot really does want to fix what he broke, and in his own slightly evasive way, he told us that. The question is, is that possible?
Even if it were, the team assembled against him is extremely formidable. Whiterose, Angela, Tyrell Wellick and Elliot’s own Mr. Robot persona have all come together to make sure Elliot doesn’t screw up Phase 2, which will involve death, destruction and a few more complications that we’re probably not even aware of yet.
His quest is going to be incredibly challenging. He can’t count on Trenton and Mobley, of course; Darlene is in danger and not necessarily able or willing to help him; the FBI is still hunting both Aldersons; finally, Angela and Irving are clearly going to keep on manipulating Mr. Robot to do their bidding. And once he’s done with the tasks Whiterose wants completed, she is going to kill him, just as E Corp took the life of Elliot and Angela’s parents years ago.
Whiterose, who was standing in the middle of a gigantic power plant in an opening scene, may well have convinced Angela that she can open a portal to another world, one in which her mother is still alive. It sounds fantastical, but this is a tale in which dreams and nightmares come true. And people tired of waiting often try to just take what they want: Angela may simply want vengeance.
The path ahead doesn’t look promising for the hoodie-wearing hobbit. And yet I’m very excited about the new season. This week has been hard, 2017 as a whole has been a trash fire, and goodness knows what bad news is coming next. The semi-apocalyptic scenes in the season premiere reflect realities we’re seeing in post-hurricane cities and communities affected by raging wildfires. Everything feels unstable, and turning on the news or looking at social media often makes us flinch.
In this environment, if “Mr. Robot” had used its considerable thematic and aesthetic powers to double down on the potential nihilism of Elliot’s story, that would have been…dispiriting. It would have been one more depressing thing in a world already chock-full of darkness.
But Elliot has a purpose, a noble one at that. And knowing that a task is difficult doesn’t mean you don’t try. Despite his aversion to excessive interpersonal contact and his dislike of so many of the people in the world, Elliot’s going to try to save it.
As the episode came to a close, if you squinted, Elliot started to look like a combination of Neo, Frodo and a lesser-known Marvel Avenger. In a dark time, I’ll take it.
"Mr. Robot” airs 10 p.m. Wednesdays on USA.