[This article contains SPOILERS for Mr. Robot season 2.]
There is an enviable kind of freedom in being the under-the-radar show. That was true of Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, which premiered in the summer of 2015 as the “what’s this?” show of the summer to become the sort of television sensation that swoops in and completely alters the discussion around a single network. But the little show about a computer hacker didn’t stop there; it also reignited the conversation about TV auteurism and even managed to do so on a network far removed from the usual discussion of prestige television.
That freedom vanishes once the first season is over, however, and the public at large (or just people who write about television, maybe) becomes hyper aware of every facet, nuance, plot device, and character development down to the subatomic level. The follow-up to a breakout season is more scrutinized than most presidential candidates, as viewers line up expecting to be wowed as they did before, while at the same time expecting something completely new. It’s been seen time and time again: an artist strikes it big their first time out only to return seemingly destined to disappoint. It’s the curse of the sophomore album told through the specific beats and rhythms of the medium of television and Mr Robot is not immune, it would seem.
Audiences have already seen it once this year, in a wildly disappointing second season of UnReal, which didn’t so much want to outdo the show’s stellar first season or continue the story of its characters as it did to simply top the show’s most memorable and shocking moments with even more memorable and shocking turns. In the end, UnReal eschewed continuing its narrative in favor of becoming the very thing it was skewering in the first place. The tune was much the same last summer when HBO premiered season 2 of True Detective, an undercooked, overwrought spectacle bursting with star power and little else. The sound of Ray Velcoro’s gravelly, mustache-filtered voice became the anthem of unmanageable expectations; it’s the same chorus that can be heard echoing anytime someone starts talking about Mr. Robot season 2.
But just because the specter of second seasons looms larger over one of TV’s best new dramas doesn’t mean it’s time to stick a fork in Elliot Alderson, his hallucinatory alter ego, or the man behind it all. Here’s why:
A Slower Season Makes the Most of the Supporting Cast
The season has slowed down, driven deeper into Elliot’s broken brain and, in a sense, deeper into its creator’s impulses and indulgences. The first seven episodes were spent watching as Elliot lived his life post Five/Nine hack in a sort of fugue state, a waking dream of mechanical routine that also included hallucinations within hallucinations, sitcom visions and delusions of mediocre pick-up basketball games at the local park. Seven extra-long episodes – even Esmail himself made light of the show’s exorbitant runtimes – that seemed to exist less to further the narrative around the Five/Nine hack and more to explore the cool, twisty things its creator, showrunner, and director of every episode this season could cook up. And with the reveal of the season’s big twist – that Elliot has been incarcerated since at least the end of season 1 – it certainly seems as though the series has lived up to certain expectations set in place by the Fight Club-y reveal approximately one year ago.
But it is also bucking the expectations created by the propulsive narrative that allowed Mr. Robot to rise above its “I totally saw that coming” twist to be an aggressively entertaining series with a compelling, world-changing narrative and dynamic supporting cast. So far, the buttressing effect of those two elements has been cut in half, in an effort to highlight the aforementioned twist. Assuaging fears that Mr. Robot will fall too far down the rabbit hole has been the strength of the supporting players in season 2. Darlene’s now central role in fsociety, along with Angela’s navigation of the corporate world, resulted in a familiar but fun heist-y episode that finally brought Grace Gummer’s Agent DiPierro from the fringes of the Five/Nine hack to ground zero at E Corp.
The question now is: although the supporting cast has proven capable of maintaining their own story lines during this slowed season, have they properly demonstrated that those threads are, in fact, going anywhere?
Hitting All the Same Beats as Before?
So far Mr. Robot season 2 feels like more of a remix of season 1 than anything else. Esmail is doubling down on the earworm hook that is unreliable narrator Elliot Alderson’s fractured mind. He’s doing so seemingly under the assumption that the show needs to lead the audience down a predictable path and then pull the curtain back revealing the delusionary truth of it all before getting down to the nitty-gritty, the story that’s more important than Elliot turning off the direct feed from his brain to the audience.
It’s a potentially interesting twist, sure; one that was designed to be as obvious as Christian Slater’s Mr. Robot being a hallucination. At the same time, though, finding Elliot in prison is also not a twist that needed seven episodes of setup before being revealed. There are just a handful of episodes left, leaving little evidence of what the story of season 2 actually is. The season spent so much time diving into Elliot’s confusion, his guilt, and his lack of trust in the “friend” on the receiving end of his interior monologues it hasn’t developed the same structure as season 1. The first time around, the series promised a revolutionary hack and then delivered it. (Now that was revolutionary.) Here, Esmail has made no such promises, but he hasn’t really followed through on the guaranteed uprising either.
While they have produced a slower, more decadent season, these choices may actually serve to insulate the show from burning through too much story too quickly. Mr. Robot season 1 was the candle-burning-at-both-ends series that audiences apparently wanted at the time. But now it’s in danger of becoming a twist factory, delivering a series of big reveals in lieu of a substantive story line. There are those who watch television for the sole purpose of figuring it out, those who will be thrilled to shout, “I called it” from the top of Twitter mountain, and given the increased importance of social media engagement – especially for a series that aired its “hacked” premiere early as a stunt across all major social media platforms – it would be hard to argue that wasn’t at least part of the plan. Hopefully, the other part of the plan will be putting aside the stunts and showy promotional tactics to tell a story about one of TV’s most interesting characters.
Sam Esmail is the Self-Indulgent Creator TV Needs
Despite (or maybe because of) the compositional aspects of watching someone consume regurgitated Adderall, or gleefully walk up a set of illuminated stairs like the sidewalk Michael Jackson danced across in the ‘Billy Jean’ video, the show’s takeaway moments feel more animated than they did in season 1. There is a different quality to them. Some have accused the show of being “high on its own supply” and they’re not wrong. But the result of Sam Esmail smoking what he’s selling is a show that is undeniably told from a singular vision. It may not be perfect, but it is interesting. Whereas another director for hire might have interpreted the journey of Mr. Robot season 2 differently, the audience is now, for better or worse, getting Esmail in all his undiluted glory.
That has led to season 2 being more serialized. Gone is the episodic nature of a year ago, and so viewers are left with a product more akin to a very long movie than a typical season of television. This may be the consequence of someone who answers to his instincts as a filmmaker first and those of a television showrunner second. And yet the liveliness of those smaller moments have, for the most part, managed to sustain the show, even as it begins to feel like the season is in no particular hurry to arrive at a destination it has yet to disclose. In that sense, Esmail’s taking of the proverbial wheel has resulted in a far more intimate and in some cases exciting trip, but it also means the excursion has been full of digressions that, it could be said, are more interesting to the guy in the driver’s seat than to any of his passengers.
The Show is Weirdly Stuck in the Past
Maybe the weirdest thing about Mr. Robot season 2 is how a show that once seemed acutely aware of where the nation was when it first aired is now stuck in the past. Season 1’s focus on the one percent and privacy concernes felt very much of the present; it even managed to weave in a discussion about Ashley Madison at the same time the infamous infidelity site was hacked. But while 2016 has moved on to dealing with the apocalyptic storm cloud that is the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Robot season 2 hasn’t quite gotten there yet.
That feeling of being in step with those watching added to the already strong sense of structure season 1 had. Season 2 is no longer an in-the-moment show; it is telling a 2015 story in 2016 – which, as all of us living in it can attest, is a vastly different backdrop. These factors, combined with the amorphous nature of the narrative so far, have put Mr. Robot not just out of step, but a step behind. It’s a strange place for the series to be but not necessarily a bad one. If Esmail can make good use of this latest twist (and promise to never do it again), the reveal of Elliot’s incarceration may be the answer to getting the story moving again.
In all, Mr. Robot has stared down the unmanageable expectations of season 2 and addressed them by doing what it was praised for in season 1 – which is to say: the show continues to do its own thing in its own distinctive and visually arresting way. But the show is more than its visual flourishes and the promise of one twist after another; it’s a compelling story of a troubled young man and the revolution he started and will hopefully see through to the end. Like fsociety in Elliot’s absence, Mr. Robot season 2 could use a little more direction and it could stand to take a little more action in the weeks (and seasons) ahead. Now that this latest twist is behind it, perhaps the show will stop managing the expectations around it, and begin surpassing them once again.
Mr. Robot continues next Wednesday with ‘eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12’ on USA.