Review: Elliot goes to war with 'Mr. Robot' in the riveting season 2 premiere
Mr. Robot has returned for a second season. I already published some spoiler-free thoughts on tonight's two-hour premiere, so now it's time to get into the specifics, coming up just as soon as I've discovered Seinfeld...
"And this is why I'm different: sometimes, my mask takes over." -Elliot
The Mr. Robot season 1 finale made an interesting choice in skipping over what seemed like major pieces of the larger fsociety plot — how the Evil Corp hack went down, what happened to Tyrell Wellick — to focus on Elliot dealing with the knowledge that he was Mr. Robot, and vice versa. At the time, I felt this was the right choice, since the show is ultimately about Elliot and what's going on inside his head, and his epiphany about having multiple personalities was much more important than any plot mechanics involving secondary characters.
"Unmask"(*) actually rewinds to show Elliot executing the hack while Wellick watches — marveling that, "It's almost as if something's come alive" — and if it doesn't show us where Wellick is, it has him alive and trying to make contact with both Joanna (through the phone hidden in the package he sent her) and Elliot (the call on the red phone at the end of the premiere's second half). Even so, the premiere still keeps some cards unturned — like who appeared in Elliot's doorway at the end of the finale, or the nature of the relationship between Price and Whiterose — and keeps the focus mainly on the war for control between Elliot and Mr. Robot.
(*) Technically, the premiere sticks with the nomenclature pattern of last year, treating each episode title as a computer file, in this case "eps2.0_unm4sk-pt2.tc." But since that's a pain to type, and since each of these files is meant to represent a word or phrase, for simplicity's sake going forward, I'm going to use the words themselves.
That is, again, where Sam Esmail should be devoting as much time and energy as possible to Elliot's inner struggle, and here to the ways he is trying to keep that struggle from again exploding outward and affecting the rest of the world. Understanding who and what Mr. Robot is has changed everything for Elliot, who has gone off the grid, moved back in with his profoundly unpleasant mother, befriended newly-minted Seinfeld lover Leon, and even cut way down on the amount of time he spends talking to us. The revelation that the earlier narration about Elliot's closed system was him talking to Krista, and not his "friend," was a nice example of the show having its cake and eating it, too: Esmail had a lot of exposition to get through about the changes Elliot has instituted in the wake of the Evil Corp hack, but he also needed to establish just how deeply those changes run, up to and including Elliot's estrangement from us.
That change in routine also meant a temporary change in the show's aesthetic. Gone for most of the premiere were the familiar shots of Elliot or other people with their heads just barely in frame, as we don't get our first major one of those until late in the second half of "Unmask," and only after Elliot has discovered that Mr. Robot has, in fact, been getting out to play. In the meantime, Esmail the director got to show off in other ways, particularly with some of the single-take sequences early in the first half, and in the ways he depicted Elliot and Mr. Robot's interactions when someone else like Gideon was present. Robot's got nothing to lose now that Elliot knows what's up and is trying to stop it, and their relationship has become much nastier and more interesting as a result.
But "Unmask" certainly didn't give short shrift to the state of the world post-hack. We get to see Darlene struggling to bring focus to this larger new incarnation of fsociety, and realizing that the hack actually made things worse. (One of the premiere's more powerful moments is a relatively small one, as we see the woman trying to convince an Evil Corp bank teller that she's made her loan payments, even though all evidence is gone from the computer: of course Evil Corp has found a way to turn the hack to its advantage and use it to screw people over even more.) There was perhaps brief celebration in the wake of the hack, but now the world seems scarier and angrier than ever before, as epitomized by the vigilante execution of Gideon, who had nothing to do with the hack in the first place but wound up a patsy for the whole mess.
But while Price remains smug about the company's position, the game's not over yet, and Darlene cooks up an effective publicity stunt in forcing Scott the CTO to burn $5.9 million in public while wearing a Mr. Robot mask. (That sequence's incorporation of New York at dusk and the synth-heavy "Take Me Home" is the best use of a song featuring Phil Collins in a TV drama since the famous "In the Air Tonight" montage from the Miami Vice pilot.)
There are two wars being waged in the series right now: Elliot vs. Mr. Robot, and fsociety vs. Evil Corp. "Unmask" suggests both are only just getting started.
Some other thoughts:
* The clip of President Obama referring to Wellick by name was created digitally by splicing together other POTUS sound bytes, but the bulk of the speeches seen on TV were simply repurposed from other talks. Leon Panetta gave the "cyber Pearl Harbor" talk back in 2012, for instance. I assume the Nancy Grace footage was newly recorded for this, as Grace has often been willing to play herself in this kind of show or movie. (Which makes me wonder who pop culture will use as the shorthand for media outrage once Grace's HLN show ends.)
* Angela was the character who tended to represent normalcy in Elliot's world, but now we see her being fully seduced by the power and respect she's getting in the Evil Corp PR job, and even attempting to reprogram herself using those daily affirmation recordings.
* Joanna enters the season as you would expect her to: tied to the bed with bondage gear, ordering her new lover to beat her. It's interesting to see her be relatively non-scary and maternal with the baby, but it's early yet. If she's going to be creepy with the kid, it'll come later on.
* Several notable new characters: Craig Robinson as Ray, who's been conversing with Mr. Robot while Elliot's mind is turned; Sandrine Holt as Evil Corp's chief counsel Susan "Madame Executioner" Jacobs, and Grace Gummer as FBI agent Dom Dipierro. The first season mostly sidestepped questions of law enforcement catching Elliot — the closest we got was Wellick, and he was quickly seduced to fsociety's side — so I'll be curious to see how far down this path Dom gets.
* Price's speech to the feds was yet another reminder that when you give Michael Cristofer a persuasive monologue, good things inevitably happen.
That's it for the premiere. Hoping to keep getting screeners for weekly episode coverage.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org