Mr. Robot Season Premiere Recap: Behind the Mask

Mr. Robot

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Season 2 Episodes 1 and 2
Editor’s Rating *****
Mr. Robot - Season 2
Rami Malek as Eliot Alderson. Photo: Peter Kramer/USA Network

The first and last lines of Mr. Robot’s season premiere are spoken by Tyrell Wellick, a man whose presence hangs heavy over everything, despite him having almost no real screen time to speak of. His lone scene is in an opening flashback that returns us to fsociety’s arcade digs, just as Elliot executes the fatal keystrokes that will bring Evil Corp, and by extension much of capitalist society, to its knees. It’s a moment that was lost to the black hole of Elliot’s mind in season one, which skipped right to the fallout in its finale; returning to it here fills in a gap or two, but also raises a host of new questions. The biggest of those questions forms in the few seconds after Elliot hits the “enter” key, as Tyrell marvels at the code doing its dirty work, saying, “It’s almost as if something’s come alive …” Elliot, in characteristically haunted fashion, reaches into the popcorn machine, presumably for Darlene’s hidden gun.

Smash cut to an even flashback-ier flashback: the moment in Elliot’s childhood when his father accidentally pushed him out the window. But wait, slow down! Did Elliot shoot Tyrell? Was that the straw that broke his psyche’s back? Or did Tyrell escape and go into hiding? The questions hidden in that unseen millisecond between flashbacks informs much of what happens in these two episodes, and help account for Elliot’s state when we meet up with him again in the present.

It’s approximately one month after the hack, and fsociety’s not-so-fearless leader has retreated into a self-imposed “loop” of steady, analog activity, under the watchful eye of his ultra-strict mother. We eventually learn, through Elliot’s dependably skewed narration, that he’s locked in a battle for his own mind with Mr. Robot. (“It’s almost as if something’s come alive …”) Like us, Elliot has no idea what happened in those unseen moments after he reached into the popcorn machine, and he believes Mr. Robot holds the key. Mr. Robot responds to Elliot’s demand that he reveal what happened to Tyrell by shooting Elliot in the head. Sure, it may seem like a bit of an overreaction, but you can’t blame a hallucination for getting a bit testy when the brain that contains him has studiously ignored him for weeks on end.

As always, whatever the hell is going on inside Elliot’s head is the most confounding aspect of Mr. Robot. Showrunner Sam Esmail is pushing the unreliable-narrator conceit as far as he can here, even getting a little meta with it when Elliot shifts the narrative focus from his session with Krista to us. (“Hello, again. Yes, I’m talking to you this time.”) Elliot’s narration is always targeted at us, the viewers, but who he’s actually talking to at any given time is an open question. Mr. Robot mines this ambiguity for much of its mindfuckery. The presumed target of Elliot’s internal ire, Mr. Robot, spends this episode glowering at him from the edges of the frame, an increasingly agitated presence representing the chaos Elliot has unleashed on the world. It’s calling to him to finish what he started, but Elliot has assumed a mask of placid detachment.

Which brings us back to Tyrell, and his opening lines: “Why this mask?” He’s referring to the plastic lovechild of Rich Uncle Pennybags and Guy Fawkes that fsociety has assumed as its public face (“It’s a bit silly, isn’t it?”), but he’s also posing the season premiere’s big thematic question. In the wake of the hack, Elliot isn’t the only Mr. Robot character donning a mask to cope with their new reality.

Darlene, who accounts for much of the first episode’s non-Elliot time, has assumed the Fearless Leader mask that her brother cast aside, acting as a capable but frustrated general to the dwindling troops attempting to continue fsociety’s work. (Work that includes cutting the balls off the Wall Street Bull.) In her private moments, we see that Darlene is struggling, presumably overwhelmed and worried about her AWOL brother, but as she stands on the balcony of the not-so-smart house that fsociety has claimed as its lair, she’s a phone-stomping, primal-screaming generalissima.

Angela, who enters the proceedings in part two, has also assumed a mask of strength, one built on a shaky-seeming foundation of self-affirmations and Successories. No character is exactly doing well at this point, but Angela’s current state is somehow the most alarming: She’s still working for Terry Colby at Evil Corp, negotiating a Bloomberg exclusive with the dead-eyed efficiency of a shark on the hunt. She appears to be thriving professionally — and decides to bow out of the Evil Corp lawsuit — but she looks like a shell of herself. The scene where Portia Doubleday flatly repeats Angela’s self-affirmations in the dark is one of the most chilling moments in the entire two-part premiere, which has no shortage of them.

But really, the world of Mr. Robot is plenty chilling even without all these tortured characters staring dead-eyed into the middle distance. (Add to that list Joanna Wellick, whose mask apparently involves midday knife play.) The fallout from the hack plays out in the background, mostly via seemingly inescapable TV news reports. We see glimpses of unrest, protests, possibly rioting. There’s a strong sense that the world is slowly, methodically crumbling, and no one knows how to repair things. Because the world of Mr. Robot is our own — right down to the presence of President Obama and Nancy Grace — it almost feels like an extension of the societal unrest we’re currently experiencing in the real real world. The source of that unrest is quite different, but the general vibe of unfocused anger, terror, and injustice feels very timely.

But Mr. Robot is far from documentary, as exemplified in the outrageous but wondrous scene that opens part two. Darlene and fsociety have continued their symbolic approach to warfare, luring an Evil Corp “chief” — Scott Knowles, who volunteers — to a park at night with a bag containing $5.9 million, the declared ransom for Evil Corp’s encrypted files. The staging of this scene is heightened even by Mr. Robot standards, beginning with the creeping insistence of Phil Collins’s “Take Me Home.” (“There’s a fire that’s been burning / Right outside my door / I can’t see but I feel it / And it helps to keep me warm.”) One World Trade Center looms behind Knowles as he scans the park for whomever is supposed to meet him, looking more like the Final Girl in a horror movie than the interim CTO of the world’s most evil corporation. The unease in this scene is palpable, aided by Mr. Robot’s signature off-center framing, and the payoff is wildly cathartic: A bike messenger hands Knowles a package, which contains a Rich Uncle Guy Fawkes mask that reads “Wear me and burn the money.” The blaze erupts, the music swells, the camera centers on Knowles and a circle of bemused onlookers, while the lights of the Freedom Tower twinkle in the background. How’s that for symbolic warfare?

But what does it really mean? This is supposedly Darlene’s KO blow to Evil Corp, but as legal counsel Susan “Madame Executioner” Jacobs informs Price and Knowles, Evil Corp can find $5.9 million “between our couch cushions.” It’s a large-scale public shaming, yes — one Angela must navigate in her negotiation with Bloomberg — but it’s ultimately a tiny scratch in the company’s financial armor. Meanwhile, the bystanders in that scene who film the burning money with their phones are the ones losing their jobs, their mortgages, their life savings. (Seriously, not one person tried to dart in and grab a lightly singed cash-wad before it was too late?) Then again, the scene drives home an alarming idea: When you get down to it, paper money is a symbolic construct. With no financial records left, what value does it really have? What value does anything have?

That question applies, in a slightly different way, to one Gideon Goddard, who meets his untimely end in the closing moments of part two. The former Allsafe Security CEO has lost everything in the wake of the attack, at the hands of Elliot. As Mr. Robot reminds Elliot, Gideon’s a threat, but he’s also powerless to redeem himself in any meaningful way — the most he can do is make things worse. He’s been consigned to the role of “patsy,” as symbolic and empty as that pile of burning cash. It’s a mask he can’t take off, and one he’ll wear even in death.

Orphan Code:

  • Given that this is Mr. Robot, we have to entertain the possibility that Elliot did kill Tyrell and the red-phone moment (“Bonsoir, Elliot”) at the end is another hallucination. Will Mr. Robot have to make way for a third persona in Elliot’s brain?
  • While we’re theorizing, did Mr. Robot/Elliot play a role in Gideon’s death? The killer’s use of the phrase “crisis actor” makes me think he was a rogue conspiracy theorist, but the premiere takes great pains to set up the danger Gideon poses to Elliot.
  • Let’s give it up for some fun new characters I couldn’t work into the main review, but I look forward to getting to know this season: amateur Seinfeld recapper Leon (Joey Bada$$, a welcome addition to the credits); basketball philosopher and dog whisperer Ray (Craig Robinson, characteristically great); and suspiciously friendly FBI agent Dominique “Dom” DiPierro (Grace Gummer, adding some Streep DNA to the mix). Together, this trio represents 90 percent of the premiere’s levity.
  • The remaining 10 percent belongs to the haywire smart-house sequence, which, like the money-burning sequence, marries visuals and sound to tremendous effect. Plus, it’s hilarious.
  • Okay, Price’s eff-you to Jack Lew, Janet Yellen, and Mary Jo White is also pretty amusing, thanks mostly to the swagger with which Michael Cristofer delivers it. After all, a con doesn’t work without the confidence!
  • Maxine seems like a good dog. I hope we see more of her.
  • No one would accuse Mr. Robot of being subtle, but biblical recitation in the closing moments is super-mega-ultra-unsubtle. The alpha and the omega? The beginning and the end? God and son? Yeah, this all checks out.

Mr. Robot Season Premiere Recap: Behind the Mask