Those are the first words of narration in the first episode of Sam Esmail’s USA drama Mr. Robot. They’re spoken by the show’s brilliant hero, Elliot Alderson, an ethnically mixed vigilante hacker who suffers from depression and social-anxiety disorder. Elliot’s asides and confessions break the fourth wall and draw us into complicity with the character. Grappling with his demons and estranged from the values, or “values,” that others hold dear, he’s on the inside of a very important company (the Manhattan-based cybersecurity firm AllSafe, which protects major corporations from hackers), but he feels like an outsider.
To anyone in the same room with Elliot, he’s a smeary blank slate, obviously talented but maybe a premature burnout. His default unresponsiveness and judging-you eyes put his co-workers in the awkward position of resenting him while craving his approval. Unbeknownst to all, he’s the leader of fsociety, a Coney Island–based cyberterrorism collective. It’s plotting to attack AllSafe’s biggest client, E Corp (Elliot calls it Evil Corp, because the world of Mr. Robot is presented as the hero’s subjective vision). In the season-one finale, fsociety succeeded in its plot, rattling E Corp, a sinister conglomerate that makes phones and laptops and has banking and consumer-credit divisions; the attack set off a global financial panic on the order of the 2008 meltdown, introduced us to a cabal of Illuminati- or Masons-like puppetmasters, and transformed Mr. Robot, previously a sleek, chilly thriller with splashes of satire, into science fiction. Season two expands the show’s scope and gives the detail-obsessed Esmail the chance to exercise even more control by directing the entire season himself, something that hasn’t happened on a TV drama since Steven Soderbergh helmed 20 consecutive episodes of The Knick. It also fleshes out Elliot’s emotional interior, a crowded place with a lot of doors marked DO NOT ENTER.
By the end of season one, I thought Mr. Robot hadn’t delivered on its initial promise, mainly because of its big revelations about Elliot’s past. From frame one, he had established himself as one of the richest lead characters in TV history. His anesthetized outrage at the world’s inequities and shallowness was brilliantly acted by Rami Malek and passionately written by Esmail, who peppered every script with quotable phrases like “We’re all living in each other’s paranoia”; the first six episodes felt bracingly fresh, even though Esmail and his collaborators made no secret of what they’d borrowed from the pantheon of male-skewing badass auteurs, in particular Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, and Stanley Kubrick. But in the last three episodes, the story indulged in seemingly blatant homage, mashing up twists from Fight Club and the original Star Wars films: We learned that Elliot’s closest confidante in fsociety, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), was actually his sister; that the title character (Christian Slater), a snarling hepcat instigator, was a Tyler Durden–type hallucination of Elliot’s deceased dad, a failed computer-store salesman and domestic abuser who was fired by E Corp and died of leukemia; and that Elliot wasn’t aware of any of this because his disorder suppressed it. These developments didn’t appear out of nowhere, but they made the show seem less special than it was — more tediously plot-driven, more about the “Wow!” factor than about the characters and their world.
Season two doesn’t so much correct course as fill out our sense of what Mr. Robot is: a meditation on what the information-age society does to the construction of the self, woven around a conspiracy-laden thriller plot. Alternating long, serene, ominously scored dialogue scenes and kinetic, wryly narrated montages that go full Trainspotting, Esmail delves deeper into his hero and the world reimagined by his damaged psyche. When the tale resumes, Elliot has withdrawn from the internet and moved in with his mother to decompress and do a bit of journaling, the better to decode his personality (“I am in control,” he writes over and over, à la The Shining’s Jack Torrance) and protect the world from his destructive tendencies. Interim E Corp CTO and rotter supreme Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) is likewise off-radar, evading cops who are investigating his murder of a co-worker’s wife. Tyrell’s very first scene is a close-up of him removing a Mr. Robot mask (at first we think he’s Elliot) and intoning, “Why this mask? It’s a bit silly, isn’t it?”
Esmail is genuinely interested in answering that question. The opening montage includes a flashback to Elliot’s childhood, reenacting the moment when his dad pushed him through a window and then following the boy’s cash-strapped parents into an emergency room. Is this a Rosebud moment? Maybe, maybe not. But it definitely grounds Esmail’s sinuous mix of homage and straight-up theft, off-center compositions, and needle-drop music cues, so that we see the whole show as a grandiose character sketch. The show loses steam when it leaves Elliot to concentrate on other characters, many of whom speak in grad-student aphorisms about power and delusion; in my private parallel universe, Mr. Robot is the greatest half-hour drama in TV history, focusing exclusively on its hero.
But the result is still riveting, sinister fun. Mr. Robot has a bouncy energy and an exhilarating sense of verbal, visual, and musical play that makes its bleakness palatable. The characters’ seemingly ironclad patterns of destructive behavior (what Elliot calls “my perfect loop”) are acknowledged in another pop-culture reference, the citations of Seinfeld by Elliot’s new best friend, Leon (Joey Bada$$), who goes from pronouncing the sitcom amusing but pointless to confessing that it haunts him. “I tell you, the human condition is a straight-up tragedy, cuz,” he tells Elliot. “Word.”
Slater’s casting makes so much extra-dramatic sense in his season-two scenes with Malek that to dismiss the invisible-dad bit as a mere Fight Club reference feels reductive. Elliot Alderson is the next-generation, nonwhite version of the anti-Establishment wiseasses that Slater played in the ’80s and ’90s, a period that coincides with the hero’s childhood — which means he’s Elliot’s father in more ways than one. Because the show’s pop-culture references are tethered to Elliot’s worldview, even the Marianas Trench deep cuts on the soundtrack (such as when a sinister monologue by Michael Cristofer’s E Corp CEO is scored with the main theme to The Parallax View) feel more playful than pretentious. The narration has a different vibe as well: Now that Mr. Robot is out of the closet as a manifestation of Elliot’s issues, we think of ourselves that way, too — as another of the hero’s multiple personalities. At one point, Elliot calls the viewer “my invisible friend,” but how friendly are we, really? What do we truly want from him? To reaffirm “the invisible code of chaos” that prevents society from self-destructing? Or to light another match and make the world burn again? “Sometimes I wonder what mask you hide behind, my friend,” Elliot tells us, with a smile in his voice.
*This article appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.