“Hello, friend.” Rami Malek’s first words as Elliot Alderson in the pilot for Mr. Robot, USA’s mind-bending Rubik’s cube of a drama, welcomed us into his damaged mind like silent spectators. Through addiction, mental illness, depression, and delusion, we were Elliot’s confidantes, his imaginary “friend”—an impassive ally in a rapidly accelerating sequence of chaos that erupts into a revolution.
Not so anymore. Season 2 of writer-director Sam Esmail’s surprise summer hit takes the cynicism Elliot lives by—the kind he scathingly directs at both banks and corporations, and latte-sipping, Instagram-hearting plebeians—and aims it directly at us, his “friend.” We’ve betrayed his trust, you see: “You kept things from me, and I don’t know if I can tell you secrets like before,” Malek murmurs in one of Elliot’s fourth wall-breaking monologues.
The result, at least in Wednesday night’s two-part premiere, is a Mr. Robot even bleaker, more claustrophobic, and more deranged than before. It keeps us trapped in the mind of an unreliable narrator who mistrusts us as much as he does himself and the world around him. The aforementioned revolution, which much of season one led up to, is reduced to a question mark: Did these so-called heroes really change the world? And if they did, is it worse than before?
It sounds all doom and gloom but in fact it’s kind of a miracle. In the 10 months since its last finale, there had been (justifiable) doubt about whether Mr. Robot could ever replicate the magic of its first season, now that it had given away its biggest secret: Mr. Robot’s identity. The joy of the Season 2 premiere then is seeing that the drama has lost none of the vision, tension, or ambition that make this series so special. Even better, now it’s free to move on to less Fight Club-gimmicky explorations of isolation, identity, and our broken society, the topics it already handles so well.
We pick up about a month after Elliot discovers that the man he knows as Mr. Robot, the leader of a handful of vigilante hackers who successfully wipe the world’s debt clean and crash the global economy, isn’t real, but rather a symptom of his own split personality who looks and sounds like Elliot’s dead father. We know he’s an illusion, but his control over Elliot is not. The best he can do is unplug and detox: away from drugs, the internet, and fsociety, in the hopes of keeping Mr. Robot at bay.
In doing so, Elliot keeps to a strict routine of mundane tasks to ensure that none of his time goes unaccounted for. (Lost time often indicates that Mr. Robot is meddling again.) He journals. He cleans. He watches sports. And he spends time with friends—if you could call sitting in silence while another person drones on and on “spending time with friends.” (Though of course, that’s what viewers’ relationship with Elliot has always been like, and he considers us a “friend.”)
If last season was the story of an outsider realizing the world-changing, destructive potential of his own mind, Season 2 is the story of a man now struggling for control over it. That allows Malek, the most strikingly gifted actor to grace our screens this past season, room to delve even further into the twisted paranoia of Elliot’s delusion. (You think that confrontation between him and Mr. Robot at the internet cafe last season was rough? Wait ’til you see what goes down here.) And it allows Mr. Robot himself, Christian Slater, to harden his performance into violent, more audacious, more recklessly villainous ground.
While Elliot unplugs, secluding himself at his mom’s place—an “analog nightmare,” as Mr. Robot calls it—two of the show’s other characters are finally given room to develop beyond their one-dimensionality. Angela (Portia Doubleday), Elliot’s childhood friend, inhabits a chilly fierceness in her new role inside Evil Corp’s PR department. Elliot’s sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin), a character who was always more interesting than the screen time she was given, also finally gets the chance to lead her own storyline independent of Elliot.
Grace Gummer joins the cast as an FBI agent tracking down the architect of what’s now known as the “5/9” attack that imploded the economy. Rapper Joey Bada$$ brings levity as a friend of Elliot’s who just discovered Seinfeld. And The Office’s Craig Robinson appears as a dog-loving, garrulous beacon of light intent on warming up to Elliot, whether he likes it or not.
That said, Esmail’s writing and camerawork (the man, only two years into his first TV gig, has taken on the Herculean task of directing all 12 episodes this season) keep us firmly rooted in Elliot’s warped perspective. Characters are often shoved into small corners of the screen, disorienting the viewer. Colors are drained for a cold, antiseptic effect. And Elliot’s monologues are also no less heavy-handed in their anti-capitalistic, anti-modernity rhetoric—sometimes inducing eye rolls.
“Maybe after wiping away the thick, grimy film of Facebook friend requests and Vine stars, we can all see the light of day,” Elliot rambles on at one point, like a disillusioned 18-year-old who just discovered the term “woke.” Agreeing with Elliot isn’t necessary to understanding or appreciating Mr. Robot, but you don’t have to disagree to cringe over its sometimes-clunkiness.
It’s impossible to guess at this early point where the season will go; Esmail showed a knack last year for constructing labyrinthine plots that stayed unpredictable to the end. Still, there are a number of questions the two-part premiere leaves unanswered: Where is Tyrell Wellick, the type-A corporate foil to Elliot’s anxious vigilante? Did Mr. Robot have anything to do with his disappearance? What happened in the three days before Elliot woke up in an SUV? And did fsociety’s revolution help the world or only hasten its demise?
The episodes to come will answer some of those questions, while likely posing others that feel, against all odds, less and less hypothetical. After all, Elliot’s is now a world where what was thought to be impossible happened: a group of hackers took down the world’s financial system, plunging banks and governments into panic and inciting anarchy. Our world, we like to think, is a little more stable—until we look around and realize that nothing feels impossible anymore.