By Jeff Jensen
Updated July 08, 2016 at 05:19 PM EDT
Credit: Michael Parmelee/USA Network

“Can you escalate?” You hear these words in the opening sequence of Mr. Robot’s premiere, a flashback to a high-stakes decision for Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), hoodie-headed misfit and schizoid cybervigilante. Does he execute the hack that could crash so-called Evil Corp, the linchpin in the global economy? Does he let the operating system of a “kingdom of bulls—” culture keep running? The line is also one of several moments when creator Sam Esmail’s self-aware psychological thriller could be talking about itself. Season 1 was an audacious and immensely entertaining statement—my favorite show of 2015. Can it sustain, even escalate?

The two-part premiere tackles the question by internalizing the terror and drama of the challenge. We find Elliot in self-exile in the catastrophic aftermath of the Evil Corp takedown, spooked by the potential of his creator-destroyer power and encrypted cipher of his own mind. He continues to narrate his life to us, his imaginary friend—but he’s unsure if he trusts us anymore. He’s at odds with his father-figure alter ego: Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the embodiment of his “f— society!” fury. Elliot tries to tune out his nagging insistence of greater heroic endeavors by committing to the comfortably numb life he once railed against. His daily, dull loop includes chores, cathartic journaling, therapy and church groups, watching sports, and dining out with new friend Leon (Joey Bada$$), who is obsessed with Seinfeld, that great satire about self-involved do-nothings. In a show meaningfully beholden to pop influences, most notably Fight Club, season 2 Elliot is Brad Pitt’s anarchist beating a panicky retreat into the guise of Edward Norton’s impotent milquetoast. (We’ll explore this more when we recap the premiere, but season 2’s touchstone appears to be Ken Kesey’s counter-culture classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which was made into the Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson. Think of Elliot as the withdrawn, fogged Chief and Mr. Robot as rebel joker McMurphy, trying to awaken his sleepy friend and activate him to revolution. Playing the role of Nurse Ratched, agent of the numbing, ruling loop of order: Pop culture? Evil Corp.? Ourselves? Debate.)

Mr. Robot’s insistence on remaining a fixture in Elliot’s life winks at a concern: keeping Slater’s high-concept phantom intrinsic to the franchise. Esmail, who’ll direct every episode this season, attacks the problem with gusto. The opening scenes are spellbinding—they move fluidly from long flashbacks to crisp montages set against surprising musical cues to surreal, violent rows between Elliot and Mr. Robot. By premiere’s end, my imagination was captured anew for Elliot’s mystery and existential dilemma: developing an integrated, authentic identity that can engage a fallen culture with integrity and grace, but balanced redemptive spirit.

Control—the want of it, the illusion of it, the folly of it—is a major theme. Vile conspiracy theorists, S&M, and an automated house gone haywire provide powerful metaphors. Elliot’s sister and fsociety cofounder, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), aims to ensure the revolution is on point and well televised as the world fights back with a performance of “keep calm and carry on” denial. Their childhood pal Angela (Portia Doubleday), having sold out to Evil Corp, struggles to rationalize her hypocrisy and retain her newfound significance. The premiere suffers from a premise of scattered characters and broken relationships, which subverts emotional resonance, and the decision to be a two-hour event. Perhaps wanting to preserve the season’s design and flow, Esmail pads the time with lengthy set pieces—another fsociety strike set to Phil Collins, for example—instead of significant character development. Hopefully upcoming episodes will be more focused. But there’s an abundance of artfulness, and Malek is electric. In Elliot’s journey I trust…even if he doesn’t trust me. B+

Episode Recaps

Mr. Robot

  • TV Show
  • 4
  • TV-14
  • Sam Esmail
  • USA
stream service