Be warned: spoilers abound about Mr. Robot's first and second seasons.
Season two 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 which 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 which 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 which made us love it in the first place.