“Control is an illusion” but in the dizzyingly uncertain world of Mr. Robot, how much else is, too?
The reality-bending USA thriller made a name for itself in its first season by flawlessly executing an elaborate, brain-melting plot twist: the leader of a group of anti-capitalist hackers, Mr. Robot, was a delusion all along, a figment of protagonist Elliot’s broken mind manifested in the shape of his dead father. Now, four episodes into Season Two, another earth-shattering twist may be imminent: According to some astute fan theories, the home Elliot’s been staying in while distancing himself from the financial revolution he birthed isn’t a home at all, but rather a prison, a mental institution or a halfway house of sorts, disguised in his deranged mind as the home he grew up in.
If this holds true, the friends and (maybe) new enemies Elliot’s made this season could be yet another batch of delusions—or, alternately, fellow inmates or patients, corrupt prison guards or orderlies; the possibilities go on. The theories, mostly pieced together on sites like Reddit, make a lot of sense, given the evidence, which we’ll get to in a minute. But in a season that’s taken pains to flesh out characters who remained mostly one-dimensional in Season One, it’s worth wondering if the apparent buildup to another mind-bending “gotcha” moment is more distracting than spellbinding this time around. Hypothetically, how many twists is a gimmick too many?
Before we get too deep into what another Finchian plot maneuver might mean for the show, let’s examine the evidence. Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail is directing every single episode of Season Two, meticulously injecting each frame with detailed hints, easter eggs, and possible red herrings (He’s a big fan of Stanley Kubrick’s, so no reading is too close here.) We open with Elliot—whom we last saw answering a mysterious knock at his apartment door—in a self-imposed digital detox at his “mom’s” house, an “analog nightmare” with no internet connection.
He stays in a tiny, bare, one-window room with thick glass doors that slide apart, like in a jail cell. We never hear his mother speak—which is ludicrous enough four episodes in, given how immensely she figured into Elliot’s abused psyche in Season One—apart from one time when she barks “What’s going on over there?” as Elliot’s former boss Gideon visits. (Anytime a visitor comes in and talks to Elliot, they sit opposite him at a table, as if it’s visiting hours.)
Elliot’s only tool for communication with the outside world is an old-fashioned phone plugged directly into the wall—again, like at a prison or hospital. When Darlene calls him on that phone in Episode Four to plead for his help, she’s careful not to detail what kind of “trouble” she’s in exactly, as if she knows someone might be listening. (She does tell him she “will never understand why you did this,” as if he voluntarily checked himself into wherever he is.) And everywhere Elliot goes, bar-like imagery seems to follow: in the fence behind the basketball court, in the wallpaper and staircase of his mom’s house.
And then there’s Elliot’s strict daily routine, which includes extremely candid journaling (something a counselor or mental health doctor might have asked him to do), religious group meetings, watching local basketball games, and his daily breakfast/lunch/dinner with Leon, the Seinfeld-obsessed amateur philosopher who yammers on and on with little to no reciprocation from Elliot. We haven’t learned how the two met yet, but their friendship is definitely based more on circumstance than personal chemistry.
It goes on from there: Ray, played by The Office’s Craig Robinson, seems to be a figure of authority in whatever world Elliot’s immersed himself in. Others address him as “sir” on the basketball court, where he breaks up a fight, for instance. He knows Elliot is good with computers before ever meeting him, and he’s able to get ahold of the journal Elliot keeps in his bedroom, as if he’s a guard or supervisor with easy access to Elliot’s sleeping quarters.
Most crucially, Ray’s office computer is treated as Elliot’s only internet access point. When Darlene calls him for help with fsociety’s “life or death” situation, begging him to log back into the secure chat room they’d always used, Elliot at first assumes helplessness, telling her, “It’s not like I can go back to my place.” But we soon see him go to extremes to help his little sister: he brokers a deal with Ray to help him with his shady online business (probably some Silk Road-type deal) and begins hacking the freaking FBI to see what dirt they’ve got on fsociety. Elliot is willing to go that far, but entering his old apartment is off the table?
There are, of course, unresolved complications. If Elliot is in a mental ward, for instance, how is he able to still see Krista, his old therapist? And if he’s in a literal prison and already in the law’s hands, wouldn't fsociety would have bigger problems than a bullet found in an arcade? Elliot is also apparently able to go outside, into (what appears to be) a park-like area to face off against Mr. Robot in a high-stakes game of chess—though, suspiciously, theirs is the only table around and trees in the park are framed to look like more bars in a prison.
But really, what would another “surprise! you were inside Elliot’s delusion all along!”-type twist actually add to the show? As it already stands, watching Mr. Robot has become an exercise in half unconsciously jotting down evidence for pet theories, half actually paying attention to the nuance and emotion of character interactions. Season Two is going out of its way to finally add depth to characters like tough-chick Darlene and newly aspiring Sith lord Angela. But with all the obvious signaling of a major plot twist ahead, scenes that have nothing to do with Elliot—like Joanna Wellick’s oddly touching admission of her own vulnerabilities, or Angela’s behind-the-scenes scheming—begin to feel more ancillary, even duller than they should.
More, if the show dives into another status quo-changing twist, should we expect one every season? (Esmail has said he envisions the show going on for a “max” of five seasons.) The show is indelible as an exploration of disillusionment and isolation; pulling off one neat trick after another risks reducing it to a chain of gimmicks or “gotcha” moments. Not every season has to be a Fight Club or a Memento; Taxi Driver—another Mr. Robot influence—tells just as powerful a story.
But then, it’s hard to to believe that Esmail doesn’t already know this. He purportedly envisioned the series as a whole from the start (it was originally a movie). And considering how tech savvy and Reddit stalkery he is—he once dropped in on the Mr. Robot subreddit to ask users what they thought of an episode—he likely hasn’t been blindsided by how much viewers think they’ve already figured out. He may have even wanted it this way. Most of the scenes he directs are shot to create a sense of confusion; characters are often squeezed off-center, inciting uncertainty and even paranoia (should I be looking at the character or that window behind them? is something about to pop out?). Maybe this mad scramble to outguess the season is a deliberate part of that confusion. If it is, it’s genius—but if it isn’t, it’s a damn shame.