There’s a moment in the season premiere of “Mr. Robot” when the show full-on embraces a key element of its iconography: Elliot’s (Rami Malek) distinctive black hoodie. Watching it get zipped up is a moment on par with watching Superman emerge from the phone booth, except Elliot isn’t a superhero. Instead, the main character of the USA Network hacker drama is a split personality gone amuck, even more so in the chaos of Season 3.
For a certain kind of brain, diving into a new season of “Mr. Robot” is truly fun. This might be an odd thing to say about a show mired in an increasingly quasi-apocalyptic reality, one rife with suspicion and mystery, but creator Sam Esmail’s imagination has always given the show a lively energy, and the first six episodes reveal an intense game plan along with a number of new dynamics.
If it’s been a while since you checked in with “Mr. Robot,” here’s a quick recap from Season 2: Following the economic collapse triggered by what’s become known as “the Five/Nine hack,” Elliot has been at active war with his alter ego Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), hoping to restore something resembling civilization to a world in decline, but just similar enough to our own to be haunting. Meanwhile, the authorities, represented primarily by FBI Agent Dominique Dipierro (Grace Gummer), try to track down the culprits — though the conspiracy behind this descent into madness goes far deeper than anyone knows.
Season 3 digs deeper into those emerging struggles, along with the surfacing of “Stage 2,” the next attack planned by Whiterose (B.D. Wong) and her associates — which may include Mr. Robot? The fact that this is a question speaks to one of the most interesting elements of the new season. Now that it’s understood who, exactly, Mr. Robot is, how does that affect the show’s portrayal of his interactions with other characters?
The answer is one of the show’s most exciting twists: By establishing that Elliot and Mr. Robot are individual personalities, a whole new dynamic between those characters and others in their sphere has been established, one which takes the base level “Fight Club”-esque relationship introduced in Season 1 and really goes to town. It’s like watching an adrenaline junkie borrow a buddy’s jet ski and drive toward a thirty-foot wave. This isn’t a new idea, but you’ve never seen it implemented to this degree before.
It also means that Malek and Slater are more united than ever as actors, because they’re called to dip into each other’s performance tics in specific scenes. We’ve always known that Elliot and Mr. Robot exist within the same physical space. But now, we truly see it, and it’s one of the year’s most fascinating acting feats, for Malek especially.
The supporting cast, including Wong, Gummer, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Martin Wallström, Michael Cristofer, and new addition Bobby Cannavale, remain stellar. And on a filmmaking level, meanwhile, this is a show which moves its cameras like no other, plays with reality like no other, blends timelines across seasons like no other. Esmail directs every episode, and his love of long one-take shots could be considered ostentatious were it not so affecting. It helps that the technique is saved for moments so dramatic you’re not necessarily looking for the cut (though you should be, because goddamn does “Mr. Robot” find fresh approaches to the single shot). There’s some groundbreaking work on display here…should you choose to engage.
The season’s biggest misstep might be this: While Season 3 still technically takes place in the year 2015, don’t tune in expecting a reprieve from the political scene in 2017. From a key monologue in the first episode, followed by many subsequent elements, Esmail ensures that Trump’s presence is felt on a deep, almost self-indulgent level.
This sort of hyper-relevant reference is jarring, but we will come to terms with it as long as it’s accompanied by the show’s hyper-attention to detail, especially when it comes to deeply embedded Internet references. No spoilers, but as just one example: At one point a character is seen torrenting the film “Shazaam” (1996), starring Sinbad — a film which does not exist.
More often than not, “Mr. Robot” is not a show which invites you to buy in. It’s standoffish, reticent, only willing to make you care when prodded to do so, and even then it will resist. Yet if you are willing to engage, willing to challenge yourself, it’s some of the most fascinating television happening right now. Though given the past two seasons, that’s hardly at all a twist.
“Mr. Robot” Season 3 premieres Wednesday, October 11 at 10 p.m. on USA Network.