BY WILL ASHTON
This review is based on the first episode.
Through its intelligent, engrossing, impressively-handled first two seasons, USA Network’s respectable, highly acclaimed hacker drama-thriller Mr. Robot became a resolute, purposeful, grandiose television achievement, an intensive, game-changing series for the creatively-fumbling cable channel with the honest potential for great timeliness, immediacy, and relevancy for our perpetually wavering times. But it wasn’t masterful. Not yet, at least.
The first two seasons of creator Sam Esmail’s nihilistic, challenging TV program were bold, audacious works. It’d be hard to argue otherwise. Mr. Robot is quick to stress upon its self-importance and dramatic theatrics, yet with its richly nuanced performances, dynamic plotting, and stunningly stark direction, Esmail’s series became an invigorating, unmissable sensation, one that thankfully only grew more confident, inspired, innovative and undaunted as it continued. The first season was surprising and slickly entertaining, even if it borrowed too heavily from Fight Club, even down to its third-act twist. Season 2, however, was more independent and unbridled, with Esmail directing every episode and providing an authoritative, un-compromised vision, even as the show’s style grew more repetitive and, frankly, too dreary. Not to mention bizarre, in ways both great and not.
Both seasons had their strengths and their annoying, tedious flaws. They propelled a compelling series liberally filled with ambition, determination, and big ideas, and it was quickly — and persistently — on the verge of being great. But with its astounding, immersive third season premiere, Mr. Robot suggests that the third time might, indeed, be the charm.
More self-contained with its narrative, much like the first season, while still expanding upon its rising sense of style and visual flair which makes the vibrant series so distinctive, especially on the USA Network, not unlike the second season, Mr. Robot season 3 combines the best, most compelling elements of its first two years to finally produce the awe-inspiring series we were promised from the very beginning. Building on its themes of paranoia, societal pressures, and mental illness, while less afraid to be bold or boundary-pushing than ever before, Mr. Robot is back, and it’s better and braver than ever before.
Season 1 saw the collapse of the fictional Evil Corp and the rise of fsociety. Season 2 saw the fallout of such an extensive operation, with the ballooning involvement of the FBI and the Dark Army. Season 3, at least so far, is concentrated on undoing the mistakes of the past, and how our central characters can fix the damage (assuming they actually can, of course) which lead them to their current dilemmas.
Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek, once again impeccably good in this intense role), the ringleader of the revolution who struggles who combat the forces inside him (namely Christian Slater’s menacing, imaginary Mr. Robot), now understands the gravity of the situation, and that there’s little he can do to stop it himself. Afraid of putting anyone else in danger, including himself, he continues to allow his moral compasses, his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and his childhood friend/potential lover Angela (Portia Doubleday, who doesn’t get enough credit for being as good as she is here), to guide him and to help him use his demons to his utmost advantage.
Through the more introspective second season, Elliot learned the layers of his own inter-dimensions, and how dangerous he can be to those he wishes to protect. Season 3 wisely sees him moving forward with actions and accountability, making a more constrained effort to better himself and help those around him before they ended up being captured or killed in the line of fire.
The heaviness of the first two seasons ultimately weighed it down, almost to the point of self-parody. With the exception of one spectacular episode in the middle of the run, season 2 was too gloomy and melancholy for its own good. Thankfully, season 3 shows progressive strides towards showcasing the sense of humor that was lost in the first two years. This sense of humor is mostly found in the newest addition to the main cast.
One such example is Bobby Cannavale’s delightfully dorky, mustachioed Irving, who comes into the scene to help Elliot and Darlene in their pursuit. He’s a resourceful, insightful character, never merely there strictly for comedic relief, yet he’s often thankfully amusing and witty enough that he breathes new life into the series and helps give it more personality. It’s easy to see how this new wise-cracking character could’ve been annoying or overbearing in a weaker actor’s hands. Through Cannavale’s more-than-capable hands, however, Irving proves to be as funny and charming as he is mysterious and absurd.
This season premiere is also much better paced, allowing itself plenty of time to breathe without interrupting the main plot at hand. It helps that the show is more plot focused than message focused, although there’s an extended monologue on the state of the world (mostly regarding Donald Trump, as seen through a particularly flashy montage) that comes across as too preachy. The show is effective as it is at feeling contemporary and socially meaningful. Forcing current, unforgotten politics into the scene feels desperate and overbearing. That’s not to suggest that it’s completely out-of-step; it just feels a little too tacked on in this particular episode.
But even with its faults in mind, Mr. Robot season 3 is quick to prove its building excellence. It’s apparent that Esmail learned from the mistakes he made in his strong, if frankly overloaded, second season, and that he understands what it is that drew fans into his show in the first place. It appreciates what worked before while building on what needs to be better, ultimately making itself the series it should’ve been long before. With that, here’s to Mr. Robot for pulling it off. Now more heightened and necessary than ever, the show proves itself to be up to the challenge, resulting in possibly its finest season to date.