Anticipations were high for the second season of USA’s “Mr. Robot” even before the show earned six Emmy nominations, winning Outstanding Lead Performance for star Rami Malek and Outstanding Music Composition for composer Mac Quayle’s pulsing, futuristic score.
Both were well-deserved awards. “Mr. Robot” is a seemingly out-of-nowhere hit that took off during the summer of 2015. First-time creator Sam Esmail’s dark vision of a disturbed anti-social hacker named Elliot Alderson (Malek) captivated both audiences and critics with its realistic hacking sequences and tense storyline. The story involves a shadowy collective named fsociety lead by the title figure (played with the perfect amount of smarm by Christian Slater) intending to bring down the massive conglomerate E Corp., or “Evil Corp.,” as Elliot sees them. That season ended with the revelation that not only is Mr. Robot a figment of Elliot’s fractured and troubled psyche, but that he is a hallucination of his father, killed in an accident surrounding one of Evil Corp.’s many projects. The final shot is a cliffhanger of Elliot in his apartment during the aftermath of the successful hack intending to erase the world’s debt, unable to remember the three days after it and hearing a knock at the door.
To say that it was entirely successful at covering this myriad of plot and revelations would not be entirely accurate. The second season’s shift of focus to the people orbiting Elliot’s world works marvelously as a method of observing the slow-motion collapse of the world’s economy, especially in the beginning as the show fleshes out their characters. As a downside, this leaves their stories oftentimes much more interesting than Elliot’s confinement — to what we discover to be prison — as he wars with Mr. Robot for control of himself. Many of these beats feel like things the show explored already towards the end of the first season, and they feel as though Esmail is attempting to stall while he figures out where to go from here.
Most keen-eyed fans already guessed the prison twist during episode one, and given the show’s frequent allusions to “Fight Club,” it gives cause for worry that the writers will try to shoehorn a similar twist into every season or even every episode in a sort of continuous, frustrating rug pull that leads to doubting whether anything is real anymore. Also not helping much is Esmail’s occasionally self-indulgent direction, which pushes many of the episodes far past the one-hour mark while not doing much to answer the lingering questions from Season One or advancing the current plot.
Part of this is a natural consequence of turning what was originally an idea for a 90-minute film into a projected five-season run on television; one still can’t help but worry that Esmail and company will go down a path of pure experimentation with every strange idea they happen to come across and go at their own pace. In this season, this led to a strange episode that takes the form of a cheesy sitcom from the ’90s in the vein of “Full House” (complete with laugh track, live video look and retro ads) for the first half hour.
Lest it appear this is a much worse season than the revelatory Season One, rest assured. While Season Two oftentimes feels as though it is simply wandering along at its own pace and pulling weird stylistic tricks to mess with the fans, it is still thrilling and engrossing enough to keep interest in the many different ways the world’s economy has begun to collapse. Credit that to Malek’s performance as Elliot and the many different characters around him, all of whom get drawn deeper throughout the season and thrown into the repercussions of fsociety’s actions. The main women — portrayed by Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday and Grace Gummer — are standouts, frequently grabbing attention when Malek’s storyline stutters.
Esmail’s direction of each episode has gotten better here as well, frequently forcing the actors into a corner and bathing scenes in cool-colored light that enhances the ominous nature of things to come. While the season as a whole seems to willfully mislead and withhold from the viewer, it’s made up in the two-part finale as Esmail throws resolution after resolution at the viewer, rewarding those patient enough to stick with the show through the detours. Of course, by the end we have just as many new questions as we did when it started and for many, this kind of withholding may be enough to ditch the show forever. But it also shows Esmail’s confidence in his vision and story — he realizes that he can’t hide everything, but trusts the viewer to stay along through his musings.
The show’s often prescient story and willingness to pull from real world events is still fascinating to behold, and Malek is such a fantastic presence by himself that it can’t help but keep you plugged in, even through the bumps. It’s not always the most subtle show, nor is it the clearest at explaining just what is going on, but when it connects, “Mr. Robot” can make someone sitting at a computer the most exciting sequence you’ve ever seen.