A month has passed since the season one finale. Fsociety’s grand attack is now referred to as the “Nine/Five Hack,” and most of the original members have gone to ground. Elliot (Rami Malek) is staying with his mother and sticking to a strict routine in order to keep Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) at bay. He does little besides eating meals with his new Seinfeld-obsessed friend Leon (Joey Bada$$). He’s even seeing his psychiatrist Krista (Gloria Reuben) again, although she is reticent to do so given what Elliot did to her last season. Visions of Mr. Robot still intrude, sometimes with violent severity, but Elliot is trying to make peace with them. Mr. Robot tells him that the control he thinks he has over his life is an illusion, and that sooner or later he’ll have to unshackle himself.
Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and Mobley (Azhar Khan) are the only original members of fsociety left. They drive an E Corp higher-up named Susan Jacobs (Sandrine Holt) out of her high-tech home and start to use it as a base of operations. Despite the departures of most of its original members, fsociety is bigger than ever. Darlene is distraught over the lack of real change resulting from the Nine/Five Hack, and she worries that the new members see fsociety as a vehicle for superficially anarchical pranks rather than revolution. She sets the group to work on a follow-up attack.
Elliot is visited by Gideon (Michel Gill), who has been ruined by the collapse of AllSafe. Gideon says that despite his cooperation with the FBI, they still view him as a suspect, and he asks for Elliot’s help in clearing his name. Elliot is distracted by Mr. Robot, who makes Elliot watch as he slashes Gideon’s throat. Although it turns out not to be real, it makes Elliot begin to fear that Mr. Robot could take control without him knowing it.
Fsociety shuts down E Corp’s servers and delivers a ransom: $5.9 million in 24 hours or all of their data will be destroyed. E Corp’s sinister CEO Philip Price (Michael Cristofer) meets with Susan Jacobs, the company’s senior legal counsel, and new CTO Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell). They agree that the sum is small enough to be worth paying, but they are troubled by the second demand that one of the three of them deliver it by hand, alone. Knowles takes the money to the drop point, where he’s forced to burn it while wearing fsociety’s signature mask. Later, Price meets with government officials in D.C. and strongarms them into giving him more bailout money.
Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer), an FBI agent investigating Gideon, further interrogates him. While watching a pickup game of basketball with Leon, Elliot is approached by Ray (Craig Robinson), a seemingly friendly man who knows a suspicious amount about him. Ray seems to want Elliot for a hacking job, but Elliot bluntly turns him down against Mr. Robot’s protestations.
Angela (Portia Doubleday) is still working at E Corp as a senior PR officer. She still can’t catch a break, as her officemates resent her abrupt rise in position and E Corp’s public image is abysmal. Still, having nothing else, she forces herself to continue with the job, telling Antara (Sakina Jaffrey) that she no longer wants anything to do with the lawsuit.
Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) is spending time with a new boyfriend and dom in Tyrell’s absence, though it’s clear she finds his companionship less fulfilling. Tyrell is still the subject of intense media scrutiny as the primary suspect in the Nine/Five Hack, and it’s taken a toll on Joanna. She receives a mysterious package on her doorstep with a music box and a cell phone inside.
Ray approaches Elliot again, and Elliot again rebuffs him. But Ray tells him that he spoke with Elliot on the phone the night before. Knowing that Mr. Robot must have taken over, Elliot panics and runs home, where Mr. Robot confronts him. Elliot demands to know what happened to Tyrell before he cooperates with Mr. Robot, but is refused. Laughing manically, Elliot says that Mr. Robot’s plans to get him back in the game will only ever drive Mr. Robot mad, since he refuses to play into his hands. Mr. Robot insists that Elliot can’t fight him, because he’s the more significant part of their personality, and “Elliot” is just the mask he wears to hide his true nature.
Gideon is approached at a bar by a flirtatious man who recognizes him from the news. Gideon talks about being a patsy, and the man appears to agree with him. Then the man calls Gideon a “crisis actor” and shoots him in the neck.
Elliot falls asleep at a church group meeting and wakes up hours later with a phone in his hand. On the other end of the line, Tyrell’s voice tells him, “Bon soir.”
Mr. Robot gained acclaim last year for its singular visual style, all strict and rectangular compositions, but it opens its second season with three totally uncharacteristic tracking shots. The first has the camera move in a spiral, starting with Tyrell taking off the fsociety mask and ending with Elliot as he executes the Nine/Five Hack. The second also has the camera make a spiral shape, but a vertical one, starting with a shot from above of the young Elliot lying on the ground after being pushed out the window and tilting downwards until we see the broken window upside-down. The third isn’t a spiral, but it’s all curves, tracing the contours of young Elliot’s face, beginning on his EKG heartbeat, swooping around the doctor’s office and settling on scans of his brain. The spiral of the first two shots is unravelled by the third, just as the loop that Elliot’s made of his life since the hack is about to be undone. “Our infinite loop of insanity,” as Mr. Robot puts it. Apple’s headquarters are at 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California. It’s on all their products. I’ve owned a lot of them.
This show deserved praise for its daring formalism from day one. It could’ve stuck with that distinctive visual style and continued to deserve the same praise. But Sam Esmail–directing every episode this season–is not content for the show to stay stuck in its ways. He recognizes that you can’t be truly daring if you just repeat yourself. In this double-length premiere, Mr. Robot makes it clear that it isn’t content to sit on its ass and ride the wave of season one for as long as possible. Much like Darlene (who is even more the show’s avatar than Elliot in some respects) it requires constant momentum, real momentum. It needs to keep itself going.
That’s not to say that the show is unrecognizable in its second season. Its visual hallmarks are all present and accounted for. Heads are still being disconcertingly shoved to the corners of frames, have no fear. But Mr. Robot avoids the sophomore mistake of becoming beholden to the most popular signifiers of the debut. It’s not afraid to break the mold at times, but at others it nestles comfortably inside the and says, “Hey, this mold is still pretty crazy for TV, amirite?”
The show is also prepared to more fully engage with some of its more intriguing notions. It started to toy with the idea of the audience as a character within the fiction of the show at the end of last season, with Elliot becoming increasingly frustrated with the recipient of his narration. He opens this premiere by cutting away from a conversation with his therapist just as he’s getting to the interesting bit. He tells us that he doesn’t know if he can trust us with his secrets anymore.
The episode’s final cut expands on this metatextuality. We are conditioned to understand cuts as a device for our benefit; we skip over time experienced by the characters that isn’t relevant to us, but the characters have full knowledge of what happened in-between. This last cut jumps from Elliot dozing off in his group meeting to him waking up with the phone in his hand. Elliot experiences the cut as outside the fiction that is his reality. He has no memory of the time in-between, and neither does the audience. He is exteriorized from reality, like a character in Flatland moving up to a new dimension of reality. Or perhaps moving down. The show has a mischievous message for its viewers: The advantage you typically have with media in your awareness of its artificiality doesn’t apply here. It gleefully indulges in the visual syntax of cinema that could less charitably be called lying. All this, it’s worth mentioning, aired on the USA Network after Suits, a show that appears to be about handsome people who are upset with each other.
Mr. Robot is finally the show that it wants to be. The first season, great as it was, now feels more like a prelude to the real story, the appetizer to the main course. It doesn’t pick up where season one left off, it burns season one for fuel and rockets far beyond it. All the cards are on the table. The major secrets are out, though surely there are more to be uncovered. This is Mr. Robot, a show that never felt constrained by anyone else’s standards, unshackled. Few things on TV are more thrilling to watch than this, a show that cares even less about its medium’s boundaries than it does about the ones it previously established for itself. Mr. Robot isn’t just formally daring, it’s formally exciting. I cannot wait to see what wild thing it’ll do next.
- The book that “Hot Carla, the local pyro” is burning is the seminal play Waiting for Godot. The parallels with the banalities of Elliot’s perfect loop are obvious, so literally setting it on fire while he describes those banalities is deliciously telling.
- As Susan Jacobs jogs home, we see glimpses of the world that fsociety left in its wake. A barter economy seems to be growing in popularity. A retrofitted food truck is selling Bitcoin.
- Mr. Robot cannot catch a break. It’s first season finale had to be delayed because, on the morning of its intended air date, a shooting occurred which bore some similarities to a scene in the episode. Now, it’s second season premiere has a scene where a man is shot and killed in a gay bar, just a month and a day after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. I’ll admit to being a little rattled by it, but obviously the show couldn’t have known that it was going to happen. Sometimes its creepy prescience manifests in disturbing ways.
- Craig Robinson is a weird but welcome face.
- I want a whole show where Joey Bada$$ talks about Seinfeld.
Featured Image: USA Network/NBCUniversal Television Distribution