“Yeah, I fucked society alright. I reset it to zero. And if I don’t do anything about it, it’ll continue to grow in this malignant way, and that’s what I’m afraid of the most. This dark future that I’ve set into motion. Who knows what can come from this?”
So says Elliot Alderson, six days after suffering a gunshot wound at the hands of Tyrell Wellick. He wakes up in Angela Moss’s apartment amid a citywide blackout. With the help of Darlene, Elliot’s sister and now possible FBI informant, he closes backdoor access to E Corp in order to stop an explosion that would destroy all of their financial records and kill thousands. Elliot receives assurance from used car salesman and Dark Army stooge Irving (Bobby Cannavale, the show’s newest cast member) that Stage 2 has subsequently folded. However, Darlene believes that the Dark Army is not to be trusted and that they’re still under threat of attack. After she leaves, Elliot is left to ponder the consequences of his actions.
The result is a patented Mr. Robot monologue delivered by Rami Malek, still holding up the series on his shoulders like Atlas (though his character would despise the connotations of that reference), that stands as the centerpiece of the third-season premiere. Elliot bemoans how the 5/9 hack, an attempt to redistribute power and wealth from E Corp to the masses, has counteractively left people powerless and afraid. Meanwhile, those in power have packaged fsociety’s resistance into products and intellectual property, and those on the ground are more divided and broken than ever.
“What if instead of fighting back, we cave? Give away our privacy for security, exchange dignity for safety, trade in revolution for repression? What if we choose weakness over strength?” he wonders aloud.
Stop me when this sounds familiar.
Look, Mr. Robot is a flawed enterprise. During its mostly great debut season, creator Sam Esmail often relied on labored writing and spot-the-reference visual and aural storytelling that demonstrated little else but his capacity for posturing. Not that it’s a major crime, especially considering how much other television disregards style entirely. Yet, in its occasionally compelling, fitfully lousy second season, this strategy was compounded by an abundance of mystery and plot that led to obvious conclusions or frustrating misdirects. I’d wager all but the most attentive fans couldn’t tell you everything that happened in the second season, because it was too much for too much’s sake. Too much conspiracy, too many references, too much voice-over, too many characters, and too many threads, all for a nebulous purpose. It didn’t jump the shark, but it came too close for comfort.
However, the one thing that you can’t take away from Mr. Robot is its Zeitgeist-capturing tone, a borderline-prescient belief that the alienation and despair that afflict its protagonist will soon come to dominate the world. Mr. Robot was preaching a Marxist critique of our systemically rotten society long before Donald Trump rose to power. Since Trump’s administration began in earnest, it’s hard not to look back on the second season’s malaise with softer eyes, even when it overwhelmed the narrative. It’s hard not to look back on all of Elliot’s political monologues, even the most pretentious ones that conjure images of annoying dorm-room philosophers, with more generosity.
With that in mind, Elliot’s rant in the premiere hits like bricks in the chest precisely because his concerns haven’t changed. Esmail, who wrote and directed the episode, cuts between Elliot walking on New York streets, rambling to himself about the damage he’s caused, and scenes of utter chaos around him. At first the chaos is specific to the 5/9 hack, but then Esmail intercuts Elliot’s speech with real-life footage from the past year, mainly Trump’s inauguration and scenes from his rallies. Elliot resented society for selling the people a bad bill of goods and he resented people for buying it without question; now, everyone is awake and the world has gone to shit. The cut from Elliot wondering, “Who knows what can come from this?” to a shot of Trump feels especially damning.
It’s then that Elliot decides to stop the Dark Army from burning society down even further. He convinces Angela to help him get a job at E Corp so he can fix his mistakes from the inside and to watch him so he doesn’t become Mr. Robot again. He kisses her, but she rebuffs his advances, claiming their earlier kiss was a mistake. Heartbroken, Elliot accepts this answer. “This is what she does,” he says. “She doesn’t love the people who love her, but loves the people who don’t.”
Esmail later reveals the full extent of Angela’s nefarious motives. She is now a Dark Army agent, collaborating with Tyrell, Irving, and Mr. Robot, who still intends to execute Elliot’s original Stage 2 plan. Angela takes Mr. Robot to an underground bunker harboring Tyrell, where they presumably reestablish the backdoor into E Corp’s database. On the ride back, Mr. Robot asks Angela why she’s doing this, and how she can just lie to Elliot without remorse. She says she wants justice for her mother’s death, but didn’t know how until she met Whiterose. “When we succeed, a whole new world will be born,” she catatonically says.
In essence, Angela has become a late version of Elliot, a person slowly radicalized by her futile attempts to bring down E Corp through legitimate means. The Dark Army got to her before the FBI, but Elliot knows something that Angela doesn’t: The Dark Army doesn’t offer solace or relief. They aren’t an alternative, but just the same type of villains moving in a different direction. They won’t love her, which in turn means she’ll love them.
“eps3.0_power-saver-mode.h” goes a long way toward narrowing the scope of the season just enough to clarify the action. The episode largely stays on one track and doesn’t cut to the series’ myriad subplots or characters — still no sign of Agent DiPierro, Phillip Price, Krista Gordon, Joanna Wellick, Trenton, Mobley, or Scott Knowles — and also reestablishes the motives of its primary characters in more comprehensible terms. Esmail folds in new information carefully and without overwhelming the frame, seemingly learning from the most confused moments in past episodes. He’s also kept the things that work, mainly the production design (the look of the hacker warehouse is on point), the cheeky humor (e.g. the mute button on life), the eerie lighting scheme, and, yes, an eagerness to highlight good performances. In short, this is a promising premiere that suggests a steadier, more absorbing season going forward. I’ve been burned before, but ironically enough, I’m somewhat convinced that Mr. Robot needed to travel up its own ass so it could gloriously tunnel its way out.
• Funniest sight gag of the episode is Elliot in Angela’s Josh Groban T-shirt. But it’s not long before he dons his hoodie like a superhero costume.
• The Red Wheelbarrow, a motif in the second season, shows up again, but this time it takes the form of a BBQ restaurant.
• Whiterose and her assistant discuss their plans for Elliot, presumably below the ground of the power plant. She’s still in cahoots with Phillip Price, and it’s unclear if any of her various soldiers know that.
• Music corner: The song over the opening credits is “Whistling Away the Dark” by Henry Mancini & His Orchestra, and the song at the end is “Touch” by Daft Punk, featuring Paul Williams’s vocals, off of their excellent album Random Access Memories.