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Mr. Robot season 2 in review

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Michael Parmelee/USA Network

Mr. Robot drove us insane in season 2.

That’s not a criticism. It’s a description. A recurring motif put our divided-mind anti-hero Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) — and by extension, us, his “hello, friend” buddy — in the backseat of a car and took us for wild rides by mad men and toady tools. This was the premise of the madly meta “Mr. Robot” sitcom, when Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), Elliot’s rogue alter-ego and frequent altered state, seized the wheel of his consciousness and took him on a great escape. This was the cliffhanger of last week’s trippy and tricky outing, with Elliot riding shotgun in a cab with a dark passenger he thought was dead, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom). He freaked and demanded his immediate release, a hair-pulling panic that might have spoken for us, too.

Such was the thrill, frustration, and meaning of season 2, a saga of identity crisis run amok in a high anxiety culture on the blink and on the brink. All of its characters became unreliable narrators of themselves, and their distortions and their dimness became threatening to everyone as they executed reckless campaigns for change. Each of them had ideas for how to make the world great again. Each of them made a hash of the truth and screwed up bigly.

After weeks of mounting dread and uncertainty, Elliot and his friends have been brought to a crossroads: a season finale that has impishly teased the possibility of a reality-shaking apocalypse. I wouldn’t say season 2 reflected our election year, but I dare say it has captured a sense of what it’s felt like to suffer it. Disorientation. Exasperation. Terror. And now, nervous anticipation, as the season prepares to play its trump card.

Look, something is going to happen in “pyth0n-pt2.p7z.” Something that might change the world of Mr. Robot and the show itself, especially if it plunges into noodle-cooking, Back to the Future II time travel. Is this slippery, serpentine story about to make a looping ouroboros and eat its own tail? Would that be a transcendent, quantum leap forward for Mr. Robot or a calamitous fall backward? Or does showrunner Sam Esmail have other destinations in mind?

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Season 1 of Mr. Robot was a many-minded marvel. The dimensions were legion: it was a character study of post-modern, digital age alienation and solipsism, a psychological mystery, a self-implicating, audience-indicting pop critique of capitalism, a paranoid thriller, a cyber-thriller, just plain thrilling. These themes were embodied in Elliot, a magical pairing of ingeniously conceived character and actor, Rami Malek, whose imaginative and empathetic tour-de-force won him a justly deserved Emmy last Sunday. A season of unreliable narrator storytelling that knowingly assimilated a variety of cinematic inspirations culminated with the revelation that Elliot himself was a man under the influence of his culture, his traumatic past, his broken mind.

Mr. Robot belonged to a rush of shows that have used mental illness to dramatize themes of inauthenticity, hypocrisy, grief, yearning and identity issues of all sorts. It’s important to acknowledge that these shows are often sketchy representations of psychological disorders. Some critics took issue with Mr. Robot’s indulgence of rigged game conspiracy rhetoric, but the show undercuts that shamefulness by circling back to the fact that Elliot is so profoundly wrong about his experience, so immature in this thinking, and so beholden to “issues” that you can’t trust anything he says about the world. (Season 2, in fact, blew up the ideology of fsociety, exposing them as short-sighted radicals lacking any real ideology at all.) The drama lives at the fraught intersection of social and psychic, objective and subjective. In Mr. Robot, the world suffers the price for the individual’s unchecked, uncorrected incoherence and fraudulence. In season 1, Elliot’s discontents crashed the operating system of civilization — the economy. It ended with the world sliding into dystopia and our stressed-out hero with a dirty heavy soul. How would he respond to the problem with his blurryfaced brokenness?

Poorly, it turned out. Season 2 had everyone biting off more than they could chew and deluding themselves into thinking they could handle it – an ironic, humble and perhaps not accidental theme for a second season show facing the challenge of matching and even surpassing a phenomenal first season.

Anyone who thought Mr. Robot would follow-up head-trip with clarity was grossly mistaken: Mr. Robot, for now at least, has decided to be a story in which quagmire is a state of mind and mystery intrinsic to its storytelling franchise. Season 2 continued the show’s skeptical rumination on redemptive heroism by exploring various strategies for personal and social transformation. It was about people trying to shovel up this “kingdom of bullshit” and slipping in big piles of their own. It was about people trying to change the way they think and thought about themselves, only to wind up more confused than ever, and worse, their mental housecleaning may have even left them brainwashed.

Elliot tried to save his world by unplugging from it and trying to delete Mr. Robot from his operating system. He locked himself away and embarked on a project of rehabilitation, a self-improving life retreat with an ironic twist. He didn’t trust himself, and he didn’t trust us, his imaginary friend — so much so, that he deceived us by obscuring the truth of his circumstances. He wasn’t hiding out in his mother’s house; he was in jail. His withholding was his way of punishing us for our withholding in season 1: Elliot was stung that we didn’t share with him our suspicions of Mr. Robot. Friends don’t let friends let their delusions destroy the world, you know.

Elliot’s deception indicted his punitive redemption quest as flim-flam and cowardly escapism. In choosing retreat and fabulist denial, Elliot was shirking his responsibility to the world he had royally f—ed over with his “F— Society!” anarchy. He was his own fiery “F— God!” critique, a distant, neglectful, absentee landlord. Upon his release, Elliot had to confront his mess — in another memorable car ride, he cruised the desperation on the streets and felt shame — and the psychic mess he remains. Here at the end, his prison rehab is flickering and failing. His glitching mirrors the rolling brownouts afflicting the Eastern seaboard. He’s still hiding secrets from himself, and he’s still an out-of-mind, out-of-control mystery to himself. His strategies for introspection and remedy remain tortured and disingenuous. Last week, he used lucid dreaming to hack his brain and get into the head of Mr. Robot, i.e., himself. Elliot’s careening identity crisis is still in full swerve, and cranking into it is bringing him to a turning point.

Elliot’s escape from reality impacted others, and his story was mirrored in others, too. Their arcs diversified the season’s reflection on different modes of cultural engagement. Darlene (Carly Chaikin) tried to save the world by furthering the revolution Elliot launched last season. But it was always a bad revolution, misguided, lacking vision, and compromised by personal issues, and Darlene was a bad agent for it. She tried to convince herself and her fsociety cohorts that she could be someone she wasn’t: a leader, a genius, her brother. Further subverted by unresolved anger over the past, Darlene spiraled into moral horror. She murdered. She got others hurt. She may have gotten herself killed, though not before veering back toward humility and humanity. She was last seen getting ambushed and shot up by a suicidal agent of The Dark Army — a metaphor for a woman undone by her own sabotaging, self-destructive shadow self.

Angela (Portia Doubleday) wasn’t exactly in her right mind this year, either. Like Elliot, she could recognize her bugginess, but chased dubious strategies for correction. She began the season trying to rewire her brain with a regimen of affirmations designed to boost her self-esteem and self-confidence. She was gaming herself, even molesting herself, and setting herself up for further abuse. We now see that the show was foreshadowing a climax that may involve a more nefarious kind of mind control.

Her self-help program was in service of building up her nerve for her own risky heroic project. She sought to save the world by changing it from the inside, by working within its most corrupting, controlling, custodial institution, E Corp. She tried on a variety of personas. Negotiator. Saboteur. Whistleblower. But she, too, was duping herself, and she frequently became the tool of others — Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer), fsociety, and now, it seems, Whiterose (B.D. Wong) — who worked her exploit, her need for affirmation, to be somebody’s somebody, to be “an asset.”

Angela’s season of constant dead-end questing brought her to a surreal terminus: a dark room rendition chamber, stocked with ironic symbols for her under-interrogated self: a power-suited mini-me and allegedly abused child; an old school, interactive video game, a hero’s journey through a mysterious, druggy Eden called Ecodelia; a weathered paperback edition of Lolita, a story with a queasy, pervy unreliable narrator, and a precocious young girl named Dolores Haze with a thing for father figures who becomes exploited by one. The room was also home to a slowly dying fish, which should have reminded us of Qwerty, Elliot’s fish, the pet she agreed to care for during his incarceration. Angela, the quixotic caretaker, empathetic and gullible, is locked in a prison of daddy issues and busted identity. Did Whiterose truly free her mind with some eye-opening secret about the true nature of reality? Or did she fog her brain with false revelation in order to bend her to her will? Was this intervention or inception?

Season 2 added a fantastic new character, FBI agent Dom DiPerro (Grace Gummer), and she was a great, grounding element for the show and entertaining investigator of its mysteries. You got the sense that work was her way of connecting with others, and her coping mechanism for alienation and profound loneliness. This season, her frustrated search for truth left her bothered, bewildered, and nearly riddled with bullets. A pair of close encounters with death threw some existential terror into her — or exposed the terror already in her and forced her to confront it. Will she survive the season? Or will she lose herself for good with one last journey into mystery?

Mr. Robot’s corporate overlords and the invisible hand ruling elites of Mr. Robot weren’t immune to flux and frustration, either. Their identities were made of stronger stuff than the rebels trying to overthrow them, but they were threatened all the same by circumstances they thought they could control: we learned at the end of last season that Phillip Price and Whiterose (who moonlights — or daylights? — as Zhang, China’s minister of state security) had co-opted and even permitted the fsociety hack to further private agendas. In Mr. Robot, cultural revolutions don’t topple regimes, they just get absorbed, internalized, neutralized, and homogenized. Yesterday’s scary counter-culture punk is today’s top 40.

Still, the vagaries of Five/Nine dystopia challenged their delusional belief in their own supremacy. Exacerbating their angst: mortality. Price, a graying “master of the universe,” found himself unable to easily live the life to which he had become accustomed. He had to pay upfront for a meal at his fave restaurant, just like every other peon in Austerity USA. The protestors camped outside his office made it oh, so hard for his driver to pick him up at the door. The principalities he thought he controlled — which is to say, the United States government — and the partners he thought he could trust proved difficult to wrangle.

Price spent most of the season manipulating Angela in a long, labored con that perhaps even he doesn’t understand. (That strange feeling in his chest… could it be… a crush?) His primary objective, though, was to secure a trillion dollar bailout to finance a legacy project. In a stunning moment, Phillip declared that he held himself to a standard set by God himself after making man in His own image. He was referring to the Biblical command that humanity “subdue the Earth.” Yep, that does sounds like the motto of a world-conqueror, or at least, a 1 percent Walter White, breaking bad to finance some immortality project in some vain, venal denial of death. The theology is more nuanced: God’s tasking is a charge to man to be conscientious stewards to a creation that doesn’t belong to them. Price doesn’t exactly resemble some good steward or shepherd. He resents even husbanding lowly sheeple. He’s on a mercenary chase of his own glorious transfiguration. Still, I also suspect that he, like all demented villains, thinks himself the hero in a race-against-time story that’s all about him.

This is even more true of Whiterose, a mournful soul who lives her life on the clock, down to the very second, with fundamentalist fervor. She doesn’t believe in accidents, she doesn’t believe in coincidence, she acts like she knows the secret fate of all things. Perhaps on this show, time really is a flat circle. She and True Detective’s Rust Cohle would be quite the double date.

Whiterose had two sensational scenes in season 1, but Esmail dialed up her presence in season 2. Her growing significance to the plot and mythology — and B.D. Wong’s evocative performance — reminds me of the game-changing impact that Michael Emerson’s Ben Linus had on Lost during its second season. Ben wasn’t supposed to stick around, but Emerson’s performance captured the imagination of the writers and viewers. He was a happy accident that changed the direction of the series. Perhaps Whiterose was always part of Esmail’s vision. Regardless, her mystery and carefully phrased utterances have flooded our attention and focus. She so owns us, the way she owns Angela right now.

Like Price, Whiterose is deeply invested in a legacy. Her history contains the histories of other characters, too. For decades, she’s been working on a project. The lethally leaky Washington Township nuclear power plant is either key to it or is host to it. She’s probably known Elliot and Angela since childhood and she might even be responsible for the deaths of their parents. She’s so odd I sometimes wonder if she’s even real, one more uncanny element in a world fishy with them. She collects clocks. She likes to talk about the psychological symbolism of doors. She likes to ruminate in alternate realities. Her dual (and maybe dueling?) male-female identities symbolize many paradoxes. She’s establishment and revolutionary. She suggests fluidity, yet her perspective is overly deterministic. She’s all kinds of poetic and poignant, but I confess I’m distracted by the glitter of geeky theories, conjectures that might be pure fool’s gold. What treasure is buried at Washington Township? A super-collider to harvest dark matter and access parallel universes? A double-making, alt timeline-producing time machine? A quantum computer capable of reprogramming reality?

I wouldn’t make this observation if it wasn’t for the fact that Mr. Robot is prone to thunder on about religion and gods, but it’s interesting to note that Whiterose bares a resemblance to Janus, the Roman deity of time, doorways, and transitions of all sorts. He presides over beginnings and endings and movement between them. Birth and death, trade and travel, war and peace. His defining feature: two faces, one looking to the past, one looking to the future.

No, I’m not saying that Whiterose is the modern incarnation of an eternally recurring, periodically appearing higher order being. (I’ll let the upcoming Starz series American Gods tell that story.)  But Janus is a fitting association for a constantly commuting character with two faces who talks a lot about time and doors — and for a season of wild trips and arduous ordeals, of characters and a society in a tumultuous state of becoming. A more profound transition might loom in the form a hard sci-fi makeover. Might. But even if the show doesn’t make the switch, floating the ideas serves a story about a world gone crazy and incapable of trusting anything amid the chaos and flux.  

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Reflecting on Mr. Robot, I’m reminded of (brace yourself for pretentiousness) Kierkegaard. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” In retrospect, the season has a compelling clarity to it here at the end. But in the midst of it, the journey was turbulent and the destination was unclear. The show was clearly aware of its taxing potential. Season 2 often struck me as an allegory for the show’s relationship with the audience — for the relationship that all big saga shows, and especially mystery serials, have with their audiences. Elliot locking himself (and us) in prison and tricking us with a risky hallucination gambit spoke to the show’s anxiety about keeping an audience and its strategies for doing so. All those car rides were metaphors for the showrunning and show-following. There was even one set to song “Guiding Light” by the band Television. By season’s end, Esmail was putting posters on the wall calling out his gambles (a yield sign that read “Risk Ahead”) and maybe even apologizing for them, like the poster with a cat hanging from a tree limb and the words “Hang in There!”

In the penultimate episode, Elliot’s lucid dreaming — a technique he learned from a childhood friend named Sam (last name Esmail, maybe?) — led to a funny beat in which Elliot spied on Mr. Robot as he tried to solve a cipher. It struck me as a complex metaphor for theorizing fans trying to hack and crack the show’s mysteries; and a showrunner skillfully solving the puzzle of his story. Angela’s surreal black room sequence could be seen as a metaphor for what mystery serials owe their audience — answers — and what mystery serials require from their audience, a leap of faith. Whiterose shared a secret* with Angela — an answer to a mystery — that assuaged Angela’s anxiety. But Whiterose wanted something in return. “I don’t want your proof,” she said, referring to evidence that could expose and derail her ambitions. “I want your belief.”

*My theory? Angela’s mother is alive— or Angela has been made to believe she’s alive.

Of course, Whiterose may have bent Angela to her will by brainwashing her, too. This possibility summed up a season of psychic driving and confidence scams, from Elliot’s hallucination gambit with the audience to Mr. Robot’s takeover attempts of Elliot’s mind, to Ray’s seduction and slaving of Elliot (and Elliot’s heroic revolt against him), to whatever the hell is going on with Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliussen). Was Tyrell really sending her mementos to bolster her confidence during the ordeal of his absence? Or was someone messing with her, gaslighting her?

I never felt Esmail was trying to trick us. He made us suspicious of the hallucination ruse and gave us clues to see through it. He tipped us early to the secret that’s driving the end game and contributing to Elliot’s current psychological breakdown: that he is author of “phase two” of the conspiracy playing out, and that for some reason, he doesn’t — or won’t — remember this. From start to finish, Esmail’s storytelling sought to capture Elliot’s surreal, uncanny experience of himself and the hypnotic, mind-games he runs on himself. The dim lighting, the aggressive use of meta, the long, spellbinding, sometimes vertiginous tracking shots all feed into this attempt to capture a portrait of a dangerously deluded, detached, and deceptive mind.

Season 2 had flaws, for sure. The Hallucination Gambit went on much too long; and the decision to keep characters isolated from each other robbed the season of the relationship dynamics that helped give season 1 its emotional resonance. The early episodes often exceeded an hour, running head-long into a TV moment when too much TV is longer than it needs to be. While those super-sized episodes contained spectacular sequences — the smart house meltdown; the “Take Me Home” money burning; Elliot’s Adderall overdose; the Halloween flashback featuring “The Polite Massacre of the Bourgeois” and Mr. Robot’s first mental hijacking of Elliot; so many more — they were also often opaque or dense with too many themes. (The episodes play better sans commercials, which is how I experienced it, via the courtesy of press screeners. Honestly, I think the too-many ad breaks do a disservice to the flow and design of each episode.) We were made to wait all season to learn what really happened to Tyrell at the end of last season. I was intrigued by the move, but we’ll see if it pays off. The second half of the year — everything since Elliot got out of prison — was stronger. It was a stretch of killer, focused paranoid thrillers, the show’s most sure-footed modality, that reunited the characters and dug deeper into them, particularly Darlene: the late season investment in her psychological and moral conflict has imbued the endgame with emotional heft and tragic consequence.

Yes, I struggled with season 2. But I enjoyed the struggle, too. Part of it is just me. I enjoy grappling and playing with mysteries that grip and play with me. But I look back on the season and see beauty in its audacity and meaning in the madness. The visual storytelling was often exhilarating and the commitment to innovation is important to growing the medium of TV. And Malek continues to be a magnetic marvel. The center holds, and Mr. Robot does not fall apart, because of his imaginative, committed, humanizing performance. Thanks to him, Elliot remains TV’s most engrossing depiction of outsider alienation, and more broadly, the importance of managing your chaos with clear-eyed perspective as you engage culture and toggle between identities in alternate realities, digital and otherwise.   

As Mr. Robot goes into the off-season, I suspect it will have to make some critical choices about its future. Will Esmail continue to direct every episode? (I hope so.) How long does it stay on the air? (Please, USA, do not make this show last any longer than it should.) What are its best strategies for entertaining an audience? Can it keep up with the unreliable narrator storytelling? Should it? And will it — should it — push into Fringe territory?

Here, my mind is as divided as Elliot’s. Part of me wants to see the Slaughterhouse-Five version of this show. Listen: Elliot Alderson has come unstuck in time. For realz! At the same time, I don’t want to see Mr. Robot become — how did Elliot conspicuously put it at the beginning of the season during his roast of religion? — “a poorly written sci-fi franchise.” Was that line coyly foreshadowing an embrace of Stranger Things? Or was that a sly assurance that no matter how weird Mr. Robot gets, this is ultimately a story rooted in a world we can recognize, about an escapist, fragmented personality resolving his identity crisis in a culture we know, learning to engage society and impact it with greater coherency and grace. Still, where you go, Mr. Robot, I will follow. You have the wheel, and my belief.