SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: ‘Mr. Robot’ Season 2 Stays True to Its Weird Self
Last year, the debut season of “Mr. Robot” dominated the television conversation, but serialized television is still a “what have you done for me lately?” enterprise, and a great beginning only leads to heightened expectations for season two. The two-hour premiere does a brisk job of re-setting the pieces on the board and introducing new ones. Eliot, still missing three days of memory during which the Five/Nine hack shook the world’s financial stability, has gone home to live with his mother; he stays away from all computers and lives a strictly regimented life that is designed to keep Mr. Robot from causing any more trouble. Darlene is running fsociety actions, although she despairs that they’re only making things worse. Angela is ensconced in her new Evil Corp PR job, although it seems to be killing her soul. And Tyrell Wellick, having been named the mastermind of the hack, has gone missing.
Once the show exploded its “Fight Club”-esque reveal of Mr. Robot’s true identity as a projection of Eliot’s psyche, it naturally led to speculation and questions about how the character would be used going forward. The start of the second season makes it clear that Mr. Robot is not going anywhere, even if Eliot has rearranged his entire life in an attempt to maintain control and prevent him from hurting anyone else. Among many other things, Rami Malek excels at portraying the desperation churning under Eliot’s placid demeanor, as he tries everything in his power to ignore the voice screaming — and sometimes shooting — at him. And even after we know that Mr. Robot isn’t real, the show keeps us on our toes by withholding the rules of just how he works. So we get an incredible moment where he shoots Eliot point blank in the head… and Eliot sits right back up afterwards. How does that work? What does it mean? Why does Eliot bandage his head when he doesn’t really need to? Do we even need to know? It’s better that the show keeps us guessing and unbalanced.
Although it’s not much of a stretch to figure out that Eliot’s carefully crafted plan will crumble, especially when he meets the talkative Ray, played by Craig Robinson. One of the biggest questions coming into this season was how they would use Robinson; he’s a very funny performer, but he usually works in a very different tone than this show’s icy remove. So far, it seems to be working pretty well, and Robinson’s comedic energy burbles just below the surface, promising hidden depths. If anything the weirdest, most discomfiting thing in the premiere is when Eliot begins laughing uncontrollably at Mr. Robot, a rictus smile spreading across his face.
Darlene’s have a tough time. With Eliot gone, she’s running fsociety, which seems to be settling for self-satisfied pranks. When they cut the balls off the Wall Street bull, its the first of many moments to posit the difference between symbolic action and making real change. But Darlene can be much nastier, hijacking the home of Evil Corp general counsel Susan Jacobs – played by Sandrine Holt, as the show attempts to complete the full set of supporting actors from “House of Cards.” After turning Jacobs’s home into the new fsociety party house, Darlene riles up her troops like she’s some kind of Kwisatz Haderach, driving them to more pointed attacks on Evil Corp. But her KLF-echoing plan to dupe Evil Corp into setting $6 million on fire may also just be an empty symbolic gesture — witness the bystanders watching the bonfire in stunned silence.
At least Darlene is still free to move around; since Five/Nine, a manhunt for Tyrell Wellick has come up empty. As we learned in last year’s season finale, Wellick was working with Mr. Robot all along, while thinking he was really talking to Eliot, and tonight we get to see Mr. Robot!Eliot go for the gun hidden in the popcorn at the arcade.
We don’t see him use it, but the heavy implication is that he’s dead, and Tyrell’s wife Joanna, now on the front of fashion magazines and tabloids, is forced to outsource her domination to an unsatisfying fill-in with poor knife skills and questionable taste in television. But after two hours of thinking Tyrell may have fallen victim to the popcorn-gun, Eliot wakes from a Mr. Robot fugue to find himself in the middle of dialing what sounds like an overseas phone number… which Wellick answers. It’s good we’ve gotten that out of the way – they clearly weren’t going the kill off such an intriguing character, so pretending like he was gone would have smacked a bit of false jeopardy, had they tried to play it out any longer.
READ MORE: ‘Mr. Robot’ Season 2: Five Reasons Why You Can’t Look Away
Angela’s plan to use her new position at Evil Corp to compile more damaging information has died pretty quickly, along with much of Angela’s soul. We see her undertake hardball negotiations — using Sonic Youth to calm her nerves — and face down the co-workers who loathe her with barely a hitch in her step. But she’s stifling a deep resentment and unease which can’t be blocked out by random hookups or late night affirmation videos. Her increasing dissociation makes her start to resemble Eliot’s detachment, hardly a good sign for her mental health.
The political and civilian authorities were mostly confined to television screens in Season 1, but they’re starting to make their presence felt. We get one scene with Grace Gummer’s chipper FBI agent DiPierro, who knows how to say “dickhead” in what was maybe Farsi. And Evil Corp CEO Phillip Price, played with satanic glee by the great Michael Cristofer, makes an emergency trip to Washington to bully high federal officials into bailing out his company with a delightful — if a tad on-the-nose — monologue about the nature of the confidence game.
One thing this show does very well is incorporate lots of real-world touches to make what could seem like an abstract, heady, psychological affair feel grounded and real. In the premiere, we get references to Nancy Grace, Gawker and some very good Obama lip-dubbing. Meanwhile, the federal officials that Price meets with are actors portraying the real-world Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen and Head of the SEC Mary Jo White. And we get a nice closeup of Eliot executing the Five/Nine hack, using the real-world Social-Engineer Toolkit.
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