tv review

In Season Two, Mr. Robot’s Biggest Weakness Is Trying to Be Too Clever

Mr. Robot - Season 2
Photo: Michael Parmelee/USA Network

“All we have is a garbled reality, a fuzzy picture we will never make out.”

Our fourth-wall-breaking antihero Elliot Alderson says that in the season-two finale of Mr. Robot, and it sounds equally like a self-diagnosis and an instruction to viewers on how to watch the show. But if it’s the latter, where does that leave us, Elliot’s invisible friends, as we head into season three?

With questions. Lots and lots of questions. Some seem urgent and necessary, others arbitrary and baffling and suggestive of a series that has a tremendous amount of confidence but no discernible plan going forward.

Is Elliot in control of his own destiny? Did he really mastermind the 5/9 hack, or was he just a pawn manipulated by the Dark Army in cahoots with Tyrell? What’s Tyrell’s role in the show’s drama? And is it actually Tyrell that we’re seeing in conversation with Elliot, and later, Elliot and Mr. Robot, or another bug in Elliot’s program, another of the voices he hears in his head? Tyrell shoots Elliot to stop him from interfering with his attempt to destroy E-Corp’s paper records (I guess they’ve been blasted back to 20th-century record keeping by the hack?), but is it actually Tyrell shooting him, and was that an actual bullet that entered Elliot’s body, or are both Tyrell and his bullet symbolic of psychic forces rattling around inside the hero’s subconscious, like Mr. Robot repeatedly shooting Elliot near the start of the season? “You’re both the same,” Elliot tells Tyrell and Mr. Robot in the warehouse, then adds in voice-over, “This is another of Mr. Robot’s mind tricks,” but does that mean what we assume it means — that Mr. Robot, never shy about its Fight Club allegiance, is on the verge of being able to change its title to All My Tyler Durdens?

Probably Tyrell is real — otherwise why would series creator and writer-director Sam Esmail have ended the warehouse scene with that low-angled point-of-view shot from Elliot’s perspective showing Tyrell remaining solid while Mr. Robot flickers like a streaming video losing its connection to the internet? But if he is: whoooo, boy. Setting aside the mundane but valid questions of where presumably real Tyrell lives whenever he’s not plotting in that warehouse with tented fingers, and why he’s still wearing a sharp business suit everywhere instead of wearing something less attention-grabbing like, say, a hoodie (his suit probably smells terrible by this point, yes? Or does he still have access to a closet-full?), Esmail is looking at some pretty severe narrative-management issues in season three. If that was a real bullet that Tyrell shot into the hero’s body, I hope the story will skip ahead in time to Elliot’s recovery; otherwise we’re in for an even longer-haul version of the first half of season two, which sidelined Elliot from the show’s main action while shifting focus to supporting characters that ultimately weren’t anywhere near as fascinating as him.

And then there are subsidiary plot-character questions — maybe I should say “issues”— that will need to be resolved, and that won’t be easy to resolve without making Mr. Robot feel less like the new Breaking Bad, an audience-tormenting potboiler that nearly always played fair and maintained psychological plausibility in its characters from start to finish, than the new Lost, which kept dropping new and increasingly contrived revelations about its people to help the show’s writers dig their way out of deep holes, and that routinely tried to solve large storytelling problems by pulling a rabbit out of a hat, then producing new hats with new rabbits the following week. I adore Lost, and being another Lost is not the worst fate for a TV show, but you know what I’m getting at.

Still: Is Darlene going to become a (reluctant) tool of the FBI? The show went in that direction during those scenes between Darlene and Dom, but I don’t believe she’d deceive Elliot in that particular way (she’s been portrayed as even more of a fanatic for the cause than her brother). I guess Angela is in cahoots with Whiterose and in league with the Dark Army, but the conversion required to get her there seems to have occurred mostly offscreen (a pity, because their conversation in that room with the fish tank was such a highlight of the penultimate episode that I wouldn’t have minded a whole hour set there; between the fish tank, the minute-by-minute beeping of Whiterose’s timer, the allusions to Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff test, and the cutaway shot of Lolita, and B.D. Wong’s delightfully haughty interaction with Portia Doubleday, the scene represented the show at its most gleefully David Lynchian).

Speaking of Lolita: The show’s references to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel have been just frequent enough to make me wonder if the show won’t ultimately reveal Elliot’s father as a child molester. If so, it’ll be a rare instance of Mr. Robot referencing a Stanley Kubrick film (he adapted the novel in 1962) not merely to tip its hat to Kubrick but to pay allegiance to one of his sources, a novel about a secret sexual predator who doubles as the book’s charming but thoroughly unreliable narrator. The seeds of a Lolita reveal certainly have been planted: Tyrell’s anguished monologue in the season-two finale is about his own miserable failure of a father, and the series opens (literally, in its very first scene) with Elliot vigilante terrorizing a pedophile. And there are a number of throwaway lines scattered throughout the story to date that would seem to point in this direction, including Tyrell’s allusion to Elliot’s “dirty little secret … there are people close to you who wouldn’t be happy that I know what you know.”

Am I up or down on Mr. Robot? Neither. It annoys and frustrates me, not always for good reasons, but I can’t stop watching it because even at its least coherent, it’s more assured, more mysterious, and more viscerally intense than any other drama on commercial television. That, and Rami Malek’s now Emmy-winning performance in the lead role. He’s the most original lead actor on television, and he’s playing a character who, culturally and generationally, means something.  I’m still fascinated by his adventures, even though the second season of Mr. Robot felt much more scattered than season one, and I had plenty of reservations about the first season. The show feels increasingly scattered even as it insists to us that it knows exactly what it’s doing at all times. At key moments it seems to forget where and even what it is — as its heavily medicated hero sometimes does — and once it wakes up, it appears to improvise a hasty solution to whatever problem it created before.

One example, I suspect, is all that business with Brian Stokes Mitchell’s chief technology officer, Scott Knowles. He was revealed to have been the mastermind behind the torment of Tyrell’s wife, Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), but he hasn’t been around much this season, so his sudden, very important appearance here (climaxing in Scott’s savage, if strategically provoked, beating of Joanna) had a rabbit-from-the-hat quality. Who cares about either of them, really? Who ultimately cares about any other recurring character except Elliot, and maybe Darlene and Angela, who are established as having deep roots in Elliot’s past? One of my previous observations, that somewhere inside Mr. Robot is the greatest half-hour drama of all time, is admittedly snarky, but I don’t think it’s wrong.

My chief complaint about Mr. Robot is that it continues to botch the basics while doing seemingly impossible things with great assurance — such as building an alternate universe of apocalyptic decay that is just like ours but more desperate and creating a great lead character with one of the richest, most allusive voice-overs this side of a Don DeLillo novel, and carving out a safe harbor on commercial TV where anti-capitalist satire and warnings can flower. I can’t think of another American series that’s not merely concerned with the flow of large sums of money, but with how individuals in the private sector and the U.S. government (and international governments, too) angle for their piece.

Too often, though, the show expends great energy on narrative strategies that have a played-out cliché quality. What was the point of waiting until more than midway through season one to reveal that Mr. Robot is Elliot’s Tyler Durden? What was the point of waiting until halfway through season two to reveal that Elliot was in Riker’s Island the whole time, even though he told us he was living with his mother and decompressing from the internet? If we’d known from the jump that Mr. Robot was a figment of Elliot’s subconscious, that Darlene was actually his sister, and that he was incarcerated throughout the first half of season two, the show wouldn’t have been any less compelling, and it could have been just as visually clever (see NBC’s late, lamented Hannibal).

There’s imaginative and there’s clever, and it strikes me as strange that Mr. Robot so often choose to be clever, when being imaginative is so much more impressive, and also neutralizes that section of the audience that’s obsessed with guessing what’s coming next, the better to prove that they’re smarter than the show. No individual who watches Mr. Robot is actually smarter than Mr. Robot, a heartfelt, occasionally insightful, always visually and aurally brilliant show; but thousands or millions of people all making individual guesses about what’s “really” happening are guaranteed to be smarter, because they’re operating in a hive mind where at least one of them is bound to be correct in their guesses.

I am vastly less impressed by shallow plot twists that tell us, basically, “That thing you thought was X was actually Y the whole time!” than by scenes like the one between Whiterose and Angela, which teetered on the edge of metaphor or dream logic without  tipping over. That sort of balancing act is much harder to pull off than “X was really Y,” and it has the added virtue of being impossible to “solve” by viewers because it’s not a puzzle; it’s more of a vibe. Mr. Robot might travel this route more often in season three; at least I hope it will. There’s been talk of lucid dreaming (“Mind awake, body asleep”), which seems to tie into that old psychologist’s adage “Everyone in a dream is you,” or a reflection in a “Hall of Mirrors,” to invoke the Kraftwerk song that played at the start of the season-two finale. The most exciting scene in the entire season, for me anyway, was the bit where Elliot seemed to stand over the shoulder of Mr. Robot at his computer and eavesdrop on his thoughts. You don’t get much more dreamlike and lucid than that: One invisible friend eavesdropping on another eavesdropping on another. I’d rather the show delve even further into this kind of storytelling strategy, embracing a deeper kind of misdirection, and championing complexity and ambiguity — all in the name of doing what the show keeps purporting to be doing, even when it isn’t: giving us a highly subjective portrait of a reality that is impossible to fully perceive.

Robot’s Big Weakness Is Trying to Be Too Clever