I Like to Watch: Plugging Into Season 2 of Mr. Robot
The story of the asocial, radicalized hacker continues
By Jacob Clifton,
12:15PM, Tue. Jul. 19, 2016
There has always been a smart-ass didacticism lurking in the shadows of Mr. Robot (which premiered its first two season 2 episodes last week on USA).
As the story of an asocial, radicalized hacker, those frequent Generation X-by-way-of Fight Club speeches about the hollowness of corporatized surveillance culture made a certain amount of sense.
Protagonist Elliot is exactly the kind of person who would harp on these points on conversation after conversation, because a man like Elliot is exactly the kind of man who believes that he invented them. The “Wake Up, Sheeple!” inherent in his worldview provided a lot of the key momentum throughout the first season, but always veiled with slight dubiousness.
As a drug addict whose life is a permanent shambles and who poisons his every intimate relationship with suspicion and self-annihilation, what else does he have to cling to? There is an overwhelming power fantasy inherent in any young radical’s understanding of his own revealed knowledge, which is why the dorm-room pothead, the Bernie Bro, the anti-advertising leftist never stop talking about the thing they have figured out. Because if they just keep sermonizing, eventually everyone will agree. All the rest of us benighted sheeple.
For those of us who lived through this moment – the Clinton administration, Fight Club, The Invisibles, The Matrix – the first time, the delights of the show have always lain in its artistry, not its brilliant dance between societal critique and critique of itself. One of the most reliably beautiful shows on television, in visuals, sound design, and pacing, its always-almost unbelievable character moments always stuck their landing, mystifyingly.
But still, this thing in the back of the head, growing louder until the season’s final hours stripped away the puzzles and tricks and twists (which the show, to its credit, constantly told us were not the point) and left us with an Elliot and Mr. Robot in complete control of the show’s moral code. All those speeches about complacency – as quaint and reductive as Weeds’ weekly opening complaint about the “Little Boxes,” and honestly, every bit in service of the status quo – stopped having two sides, two faces, and the show cohered, in Magic Eye clarity, to the well-meaning, gorgeously destructive ravings of a very smart, very naïve young person. (Or did it!? As the show had by this point trained us to ask.)
We’re reminded that season 1 was designed as a sort of prequel to the show itself. The conscious conflict between Elliot and Mr. Robot was originally designed as the narrative’s driving energy, and it was in the development process that season 1’s exquisite dance in its own smoke came to be. That’s interesting to think about now that the show is into its second season swing, having declared its new territory soundly in the first two hours.
Elliot is in an unplugged holding pattern, having metaphorically air-gapped himself to prevent Mr. Robot from taking control – not from hurting people, notably, but really for his own survival – and only Elliot (and yours truly, deeply, madly) seems interested in tracking down Tyrell Wellick, the show’s most magnetic pole. Wellick’s creepy wife is up to some tricks; we know not what they are. Tyrell and Elliot’s long-suffering boss Gideon are being held up as sacrificial lambs in the wake of what we’re now calling the “5/9 Attacks.”
We're also invited into the hardcore, fascinating lives of two new power players, played by two incredible actresses: Sandrine Holt as an implacable and funny corporate monster, and Grace Gummer as a snake-in-the-grass FBI agent with stars in her eyes and knives in her boots. The always disarming (but not usually as chatty, a side to his charisma we don't usually get to see) Craig Robinson also joins the cast as a mysterious friend of Mr. Robot's, and a huge fan of Elliot to boot.
On the sister side, Angela is trapped in a simulacrum of her own making, possibly irretrievably stuck in her cover story as a PR agent for Evil Corp itself. And our beloved Darlene (what is up with her legs?) is now the sole leader of fSociety, moving toward a new radicalism after the true, actual apocalypse of season 1 proved insufficient for her purposes.
In the premiere’s most beautiful sequence, an E Corp flunky is forced by a data-hostage scenario to bring $5.9 million to a public place ... and then set it aflame, while a crowd watches, unmoving, phones up to bear witness.
It’s one of the most transgressive, transformative, incredible images you’ll see this year – and, perhaps inevitably, vastly more eloquent, producing the exactly vertiginous, giddy, scary moment the rest of this brilliant show can’t stop screaming at you to feel.