Computer hacking; rage-against-the-system anarchy; split personalities; secret societies; evil corporations; the FBI…these are just some of the elements in the two-part season premier of Mr. Robot, (Both episodes aired back-to-back on Wednesday night), written and directed by series creator/showrunner Sam Esmail. Rami Malik is back as the psychologically broken Elliot Alderson, and Christian Slater returns as the eponymous Mr. Robot.
The show starts off by strangely but smartly not answering the “Whose knocking at the door” cliffhanger from last year and instead starts off with Elliot and another oddball character, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom)—who was once a corporate up-and-comer but is now a wanted man, as well as a missing person—pulling off the massive hack that ended last season. Elliot and his f-Society partners spent season one planning a hack that would eliminate all debt in the USA. Elliot succeeds and causes instant economic chaos. (Cleverly illustrated by edited speeches from President Obama and other real-life pundits and government spokesmen warning of a recession). After that, the unstable Elliot has no memory of the three days following the hack, or what happened to the mysteriously absent Tyrell. Is he still alive?
The only one who seems to know the answer is Elliot’s other personality—the titular Mr. Robot, who was revealed last season to be a Fight Club style imaginary person, and who has the face of Elliot’s late father. Mr. Robot is still trying to tempt Elliot back to his hacking ways to participate in a second-wave cyber-attack but Elliot is having none of it. Elliot as moved back in with his mother and is living offline (avoiding all computers and phones), following a strict, repetitious day-to-day regimen which he hopes will help him exorcize Mr. Robot from his head. Part of his daily routine is having all his meals with a talkative, Seinfeld-obsessed friend named Leon (Joey Badass), who may or may not be yet another personality emerging from Elliot’s fragmented mind.
Meanwhile, f-Society is trying desperately to reorganize themselves after Elliot ran out on them, and his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) has stepped up as the leader, even copying drab speeches from George Bush to inspire her cyber-troops. The f-Society wants to do an encore but is having trouble coming up with a good idea for striking while the iron is hot. They pull a few petty pranks like sawing the brass genitalia off the statue of the Wall Street Bull, and messing around with the computer-controlled ‘smart house’ of E-Corp lawyer Susan Jacobs (Sandrine Holt). The group are in a quandary because their big stunt failed to destroy E-Corp, which is angling for a government bail-out. Even Darlene’s former ally and friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) has joined with the enemy, working for E-Corp in their PR department. She may be playing a long-game to sabotage E-Corp from the inside but we aren’t sure now where her loyalties lie.
The ones who are struggling most due to the hack are the average people who are taking the brunt of the crisis. At one E-Corp bank, a woman discovers she is still accountable for debts she has already paid off. To punish E-Corp, f-Society masterminds a scam where they threaten to unleash hacks and viruses upon E-Corp unless a top level executive delivers $5.9 million in cash to Battery Park City by midnight. CTO Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell) volunteers for the drop-off, although he hopes that he and his hidden security force will be able to catch the sneaky minds behind this. However, a bike messenger rides up to him, delivering a backpack containing an f-Society mask and instructions to wear the mask while publically burning the 5 million in cash, or else the hacks will proceed. Knowles complies (while Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” plays in the background) as crowds with their phone cameras record it all.
Other new characters added include Grace Gummer (daughter of acting legend Meryl Streep) as FBI agent DiPierro, who is charged with tracking down f-Society; and Ray (Craig Robinson), who seems at first to be just a friendly dog walker, but nothing is as it seems on this show. We also lose an old character from season one, when someone takes a bullet. (I won’t say who.)
At the end of the second episode, Elliot has made a ‘deal’ with his Mr. Robot personality which allows him to finally find out where Tyrell is. The smart thing about this show is that Elliot doesn’t remember what happens while he’s Mr. Robot and so we (the audience) catch up on the plot the same time Elliot does. He’s always two-steps behind himself, trying to figure out what’s going on. Elliot is the ultimate example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ because of his growing insanity, not to mention his drug addiction. He is never completely sure what, or who, is real and the interesting part of the show is separating his hallucinations from what’s really happening.
This episode contrasts the confused Elliot’s desperation to escape this craziness and live a normal life, with f-Society’s desperate attempts to create more chaos and make a lot of noise. E-Corp continues to operate, despite the hack, demonstrating how the rich and powerful seem untouchable, while the common people are caught in the middle of the battle between f-Society and E-Corps.
Mr. Robot works on so many levels, dealing with concepts like mental health problems, the flaws in our financial system, the dissatisfaction people have with our system in modern times, corporate greed and loneliness. It brilliantly plays around with notions of reality and truth, so that nothing we see is 100% certain.
Rami Malek continues to give a strong performance by playing a weak character, which is hard to pull off. His expressionlessness is surprisingly expressive. Christian Slader, who won Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes for his performance in season one, seems more menacing than he had in the past, which is logical since he is an aspect of the mind of a man who is going slowly insane.
For those who feared that Mr. Robot would suffer from the sophomore slump that afflicts so many shows, there’s no sign of that. The first two episodes have been just as outstanding as the first year was. If the rest of the season is this good, Mr. Robot will remain the best show on television.