*Due to the unusual nature of the first episode’s release, this recap covers both parts of the premiere.
Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson once said that repetition is the death of magic, and it’s an adage that’s held true for the fickle world of ‘Prestige Drama’. Mr Robot pulled off a lot of tricks in its first season – a high concept premise about hackers that never veered into goofy rash vest territory, a withdrawn and unstable protagonist who’s in almost every scene, and the rehabilitation of Christian Slater as a dramatic actor. Question is, now that we’ve seen what creator Sam Esmail (who’s writing and directing every episode this season) can do, does he have any more tricks up his sleeve?
Season 2 begins by establishing the new status quo- FSociety’s attack worked, and it’s significant enough that it gets a date-based shorthand of ‘5/9’. The banks are withholding people’s money, there’s a cash shortage, and everyone’s pissed that the supposed perpetrator, Tyrell Wellick, is still at large. But, and this is an important but, it doesn’t feel like that much has changed. Part of what made Mr Robot’s first season so compelling is it seemed to really understand how it felt to live in the modern world. That pervasive sense of fear and isolation, the paranoia about what’s going on just above our heads, the base level instability of living in rolling coverage of a tragedy- it’s all there. And what’s worse, there’s the suspicion that even if you did come up with some grand plan to fix everything Evilcorp have things so locked up that nothing you do could really make a difference.
In the season 1 coda it’s implied that FSociety’s attacks were somehow predicted, or at least allowed to happen, in the interest of some grander plan that goes beyond even the reaches of Evilcorp. While this hasn’t been explicitly addressed yet, it’s something the show is hoping you’ll keep in the back of your mind. What Esmail has done here is escalate the level of uncertainty. In season 1, we weren’t sure if the scenes between Elliot and Mr Robot were real. In season 2, you can’t be sure of anything.
Gretchen and her FSociety friends hole up in an Evilcorp exec’s smart home, determined to keep things going, Gretchen seems to be cracking under the pressure. Her interruption of their celebration was made abundantly clear when she smashed that phone, even she isn’t certain about what she’s doing. Angela keeps her position at Evilcorp, turning down the offer to turn against them for an as yet unclear purpose. Joanna keeps herself occupied while her husband is still at large. And poor, long suffering Gideon Goddard looks to Elliot to keep the dark forces away and gets a bullet to the neck for his trouble.
Elliot removes himself from the action, convinced that keeping to a routine and avoiding technology will keep him out of trouble, and stop Mr Robot from taking over. It’s here we learn more about how the two of them interact. Much like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden personified the protagonist’s suppressed desire, so too does Mr Robot represent Elliot’s appetite for destruction. Unlike Tyler, Mr Robot wants more than just violence. Elliot’s offline life is quiet, minimalistic. He spends most of his time listening to his new friend Leon (Joey Badass, who does good work here in his first tv role) talk, watch pickup basketball, then go home to write in his diary. This fits with what we’ve learned about Elliot’s pathology, he uses technology to try and understand people, and without it he simply has no mechanism for human interaction. So he stays quiet, and tries to resist the lure of code and screens.
That’s why the appearance of Ray (Craig Robinson) was so effective. Robinson uses his comedic charm to give Ray an air of calculated affability – there’s good money that dog he brought was on loan from the ‘Props for Tortured Geniuses’ store. Elliot resisted the temptation to get back in the game, but there’s only so long before he’ll have to give in. The scenes at Elliot’s mother’s house- who, let’s face it, probably isn’t real either- provide the best look at how that’ll happen.
Now we’re back to that magic analogy. You see, Mr Robot is very unhappy about being stuck outside Elliott’s head, so much so he’s taken to shooting metaphorical bullets at it until Elliott gives up and lets him in. He tries to convince Elliott that it’s pointless to keep him out, that their cooperation is necessary, because Elliott’s so crazy he can’t function by himself. Thing is, he might actually be right. The show is told from Elliott’s perspective, and what’s more, he’s somewhat aware of that fact. He’s told us that we, the audience, won’t know what he told his therapist until he can trust us again, and perhaps he needs to finds an arrangement with Mr Robot before he can do that, before he can connect.
Maybe this is just misdirection. Elliot’s perspective extends to the world around him, Evilcorp isn’t really called that, that’s just what Elliot sees when he looks at their logo. Maybe Elliott doesn’t really ‘see’ Mr Robot, he just puts Christian Slater in a baseball cap because it’s easier for us to understand. Maybe time jumps ahead when he falls asleep in that church meeting because he doesn’t want us to see where he went. Maybe he set up the cash drop, sent that music box, then hired a man to have Gideon.
One way or another, it seems like Mr Robot has started to gain control again, and with Tyrell on the other end of that phone it won’t be long before he’s forced to act. You have to wonder though, if the show is based on Elliott, and Elliott tells us that he and Mr Robot are different people and it’s all in his head, have we ever seen the real Mr Robot?