Now that the secrets of “Mr. Robot” are known — its hallucinations identified, its faces unmasked, its world markets burned to ashes — the show’s second season faces a historically difficult task: writing the next chapter after the first tore the story’s universe to shreds. Precisely because the first season was so thorough and brilliant, the task for the second stands to be monumental; what comes next will necessarily lack the propulsive quality of last year’s unraveling mystery, and on top of that, there are many loose ends to stitch together.
But if any show could make the prospect of that task more thrilling than daunting, it’s “Mr. Robot,” last summer’s sleeper hit. The USA cyber-thriller deftly walks the line between macho intellectual exercise and nuts-and-bolts techno-corporate re-creation. It continues to astonish that the show is unafraid to name brand names, or to hack in actual lines of code. And the criminally wonderful music direction and haunting cinematography of New York City’s seediest underbelly mixed with its most rarified penthouses make for a series that’s a joy to get lost in. Peak TV has bloated the television offerings of seemingly every marginal cable network and streaming platform in the universe; “Mr. Robot” is a rare success story amid dozens of copycats.
Some of the success of creator-writer-director Sam Esmail’s vision is one of timing, too. The show’s underground movement “f society” has flavors of Anonymous and #Gamergate, Occupy, and Brexit, both copying and anticipating a festering resentment. F society, and Esmail, know that viewers feel something is wrong with the world, but don’t quite know what to do about it.
This summer — with British politics a conflagration, the looming specter of President Donald Trump, and the 11.5 million documents comprising the Panama Papers just three months old — the series’ cyberpunk meditations on society and the self, on enfranchisement and alienation, on the haves and the have-nots, seem more vital than ever.
And now that the first season has finally outed itself as a “Fight Club” homage (with a swaggering Christian Slater playing the show’s version of Tyler Durden), the second season can hopefully move away from derivative dude-cinema to engage more fully with what it means to be driven mad by this particular world. “Mr. Robot” is much more than just another narrative of the male ego’s will-to-power, but it let on to its complexity late in the game.
The key is in Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot Alderson, the quintessential unreliable narrator. Esmail executed a taut, technically beautiful season — one of the most confident and complete first seasons in recent memory — but it’s Malek’s soulful eyes and silent pathos that give “Mr. Robot” its unexpected warmth, as the viewer is lured into Elliot’s chaos and confusion. Throughout, Elliot’s narration creates a fraught relationship with the unseen audience — at times accusatory, at times conspiring, but always implicated in the growing secrecy and madness, always both a part of the system and a part of breaking free of it.
Elliot’s confidence in dismantling the system makes him the smug, oppositional crypto-vigilante, saving and patronizing the masses in equal measure. But his conviction is undermined by the affection he feels for his own vulnerable “sheeple,” notably Angela (Portia Doubleday) and Gideon (Michel Gill), innocent bystanders made flesh, who serve as crucial foils to Elliot’s flights of anarchic fantasy. In the opening two episodes of the show’s second season, their suffering exemplifies how much pain Elliot so quickly swept in at the end of the first season. Because while the corporations that create the modern economy are unfairly influential, so is Elliot — a disaffected and even disturbed young man with the skills to dismantle the fragile lines of code holding the world together. Watching the economy as we know it implode under Elliot’s tapping keys is both happy ending and tragedy: Our hero, who professed to want to save the world, is the agent of our ruin.
Season two opens on a world that looks mostly the same, but hides a certain inexpressible panic at its core — belied by hushed meetings behind closed doors, nervous talking heads on the news, and the blank expressions of powerless bank tellers, as yet another customer is told they can’t cash out their life savings. In the way that a server is down, the entire American economy out of commission. The streets are too crowded in the middle of the day, and in the background of some shots, there are tents of the kind that pop up during disaster relief. Though the fabric of the modern economic system was an uncomfortable, unfair, and largely unknown, it was at least some kind of fabric, some kind of security blanket.
What’s left is terrifying. For the viewing public, the horror of a zero bank balance, or lost documents that prove home ownership, or every electronic device in the house tweaking out simultaneously impart far more fear than visions of flying dragons or marauding zombies. “Mr. Robot” leans into these curves, revealing its deep ambivalence toward Elliot’s actions, even as it extends him the sympathy and dry humor of an outsider perpetually looking in. (There’s a bit about “Seinfeld” that is entirely unexpected and totally hilarious, even in the midst of insanity and/or anarchy.) With just two episodes made available for review, it’s difficult to say yet whether or not “Mr. Robot” will be able to produce a second season as wild and seductive as the first. But the show remains an artfully constructed receptacle for our cyber-paranoia, whether directed at the government, or capitalism, or technology, or most pressingly, one’s ability to betray oneself, with hallucinations or selective memory or — worst of all — a self-serving notion of the right thing to do.