'Mr. Robot' 2.0 Remains Fresh And Surprising

Jul 13, 2016
Originally published on July 14, 2016 11:54 am

Be warned: spoilers abound about Mr. Robot's first and second seasons.

Season 2 of Mr. Robot kicks off with a frightening question: What happens when the unstable guy behind the biggest revolution in modern history — the elimination of many average people's debts to big business — REALLY starts losing his grip?

You might not get that vibe from some scenes in tonight's episode, which show hacker extraordinaire Elliot Alderson living with his mother, going through the motions in what looks like a pretty mundane life.

"My mom has no computer or Internet access to tempt me into the night," Alderson says in his trademark, emotionless monotone. "All that's left for me is just ordinary, analog sleep. Ending the day's loop. You might not think it's a way to live, but why not? Repeating the same tasks each day without ever having to think about them. Isn't that what everybody does?"

This is what Mr. Robot does so well, embedding a commentary on the often mindless conformity of modern life within the framework of a crucial plot development — because this scene of a placid Elliot is set about a month after he and the hacker group fsociety organized a cyberattack against the mega-company E Corp, erasing all consumer debts.

Fans of the show know Elliot pulled this off not long after learning the group's ringleader, Mr. Robot, was a creation of his own troubled mind; part of his own psyche that split off in the form of his dead father, a cajoling, inspiring, threatening figure only Elliot could see.

As the second season opens, Elliot is trying to erase Mr. Robot by living a life requiring no thought — reprogramming his own brain, like a self-imposed lobotomy. That's something that doesn't exactly please Mr. Robot, played with energetic fervor by Christian Slater.

"Hey ... I am not some tumor to be excised, you understand?" Mr. Robot exclaims, not long after shooting Elliot in the head to get his attention (don't worry — remember, Mr. Robot isn't real). "I'm the organ vital to your existence."

Star Rami Malek brings a detached, yet volatile energy to Elliot Alderson, who may be the most unreliable narrator in TV history. This season, we fall even deeper into Elliot's struggle to separate reality from delusion as he is pushed to remember the three days when Mr. Robot took control of his consciousness and implemented the E Corp. hack.

Elliot's also the best example of how Mr. Robot redefined a cable channel and reimagined the form of cable TV drama last year.

The character's knowing rants against Wall Street and the distractions of social media lent a tinge of social commentary to a show that felt like no other. With its dark tone and antisocial antihero, Mr. Robot seemed a surprising gamble for USA, a cable channel known for lighter, more mainstream fare. But its first season won critical and audience raves, along with two Golden Globes, a Peabody Award and more.

Creator/executive producer Sam Esmail also directs all 12 episodes of Mr. Robot this season, ramping up an unorthodox style that seems aimed at keeping sophisticated consumers of high-quality TV off balance. He deploys long pauses in dialogue, quirky music choices and cinematic visuals with the audacity of an indie filmmaker, daring the audience to keep up.

And Elliot frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the TV audience. "How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask ... when it's as much a part of me as I am?" he asks us at one point, viewers who've now become players in this dark, twisted drama.

Esmail walks viewers up to big plot developments, but doesn't always show them. And he roots the story in realistic details about technology, so we believe the story, even when it takes huge leaps.

During a reception for the Peabody Awards in May, Malek told me he had developed a strong working relationship with Esmail for this second season — learning after their success last year to trust his executive producer's creative instincts.

The results are evident in this second season, which kicks off tonight on USA with two episodes aired back-to-back and the debut of an after show, Hacking Robot. USA already "hacked" its premiere in a way, releasing the first hour of the new season for streaming on some online platforms for a limited time earlier this week.

Recent TV history shows us that giving a creator/writer more control over their masterpiece can bring one of two results. You can get a run like the second season of FX's Fargo, where creator Noah Hawley hit a home run reinventing his unlikely hit into an even better second act.

Or you can get HBO's True Detective, which saw creator Nic Pizzolatto run off the rails with a sophomore season that strained so hard for significance it often felt like a badly written parody.

So far, judging by the two new episodes of Mr. Robot released to critics, Esmail is pulling a Fargo instead of a True Detective, taking his show into surprising new directions while holding onto some of the stuff that made us love it in the first place.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Our TV critic has been watching a show that he says blurs the line between reality and delusion. It's "Mr. Robot" on the USA Network. The first season earned it two Golden Globes and a Peabody Award. The second season begins tonight. A warning - there are spoilers ahead in this review from NPR's Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Season 2 of "Mr. Robot" asks a frightening question - what happens when the guy who nearly destroyed the world's financial system really loses his grip on reality?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROBOT")

RAMI MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) At 8 a.m., my daily program begins by having breakfast with my friend, Leon.

JO-VAUGHN SCOTT: (As Leon) There's this one episode where they go to this Chinese restaurant, and they're just waiting for a table the entire time. Like, they don't even eat at the end, bro.

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) He just discovered "Seinfeld."

DEGGANS: That's hacker extraordinaire Elliot Alderson, who appears normal on the surface. Last season, Elliott and an outlaw group named fsociety initiated a cyber-attack which may have hobbled the world's largest company, E Corp, erasing most debts. But as season two begins, Elliot's staying with his mother, living a pretty mundane life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROBOT")

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) My mom has no computer or Internet access to tempt me into the night. All that's left for me is just ordinary, analog sleep - ending the day's loop. You might not think it's a way to live, but why not? Repeating the same tasks each day without ever having to think about them - isn't that what everybody does?

DEGGANS: Turns out Elliott, who struggles with mental illness, had convinced himself that a fictional person named Mr. Robot was actually fsociety's ringleader - a ringleader with the face of his dead father. And as the second season of "Mr. Robot" begins, Elliot's trying to erase Mr. Robot by living a life requiring no thought, reprogramming his own brain like a self-imposed lobotomy. That's something that doesn't exactly please Mr. Robot, who's played by Christian Slater as a character only Elliott can see.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROBOT")

CHRISTIAN SLATER: (As Mr. Robot) Hey, I am not some tumor to be excised. Do you understand? I'm the organ vital to your existence.

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask, when it's as much a part of me as I am?

DEGGANS: Star Rami Malek brings a detached yet volatile energy to playing Elliot Alderson, who may be the most unreliable narrator in TV history. He's also the best example of how the series, "Mr. Robot," redefined a cable channel and reimagined the form of cable TV drama last year. Elliot's knowing rants against Wall Street and the distractions of social media fueled a dark drama, which found a surprising home on USA, a cable channel known for lighter, more mainstream fare. Elliot even treats the TV audience as yet another character, speaking to us after a session with his therapist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROBOT")

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) Hello again. Yes, I'm talking to you this time. I'm sure you wanted to hear what I told Krista back there, but I'm not ready to trust you yet, not after what you did. You kept things from me. And I don't know if I can tell you secrets like before.

DEGGANS: Creator Sam Esmail directs all episodes of "Mr. Robot" this season. And he ramps up a style designed to keep sophisticated TV audiences off balance, with long pauses in dialog, quirky music choices and cinematic visuals. Esmail walks viewers right up to big plot developments, but he doesn't show them. And he roots the story in realistic details about technology so we believe the story, even when it takes huge leaps. It adds up to a second season that still feels fresh and surprising, even as Elliot and the audience struggle to decipher what's real and what's delusion in a series which continues to break boundaries in TV storytelling. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.