One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
When the pilot of Mr. Robot aired in June last year, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were mere outside candidates who had both just launched campaigns to become leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively. Since then, the former has rallied the support of millions with his rallies against corporate America, while the latter remains in the running for the presidency thanks to his anti-establishment rhetoric. These unexpected developments may not quite be on par with the seismic societal shift at the climax of Mr. Robot’s first season, in which hackers had succeeded in taking on the entire capitalist system by wiping out all personal debt, but it’s fair to say that Mr. Robot tapped into a zeitgeist-y sense of general disillusionment and active rebellion against the status quo.
The aftermath of that hack sets the backdrop for the premiere of season 2. TV news channels broadcasting the chaos air in the homes of most of the characters we check in on, and via one we learn from no less an authority than Barack Obama himself (a known obsessive of prestige TV, here making a surprise cameo) that the economy has plunged into recession. We also learn from Obama that Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) and fsociety have been identified as the culprits, although protagonist Eliot Alderson’s (Rami Malek) involvement remains unknown.
Eliot’s clearly in a cautious mood nonetheless, and a montage brings us up to speed with the regimented routine he has enacted the past month since the hack while steering clear of fsociety – up at 8 o’clock, regular meals with his new friend Leon (Joey Bada$$), daily household chores. He’s even moved back in with his mother. “Why?” his psychiatrist Krista (Gloria Reuben) asks. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” he replies. The shock of this new world he has created has promoted him to desperately attempt to seize back some form of control, perhaps even regretting carrying out his dream of taking on the system now that it has both plunged the world into uncertainty and his own life in danger.
But control is hard to come by for one as mentally unstable as he is, and he dismisses it as a mere ‘illusion’ in a journal he is keeping as the imaginary Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) continues to haunt him. Rami Malek’s performance was a highlight of the first season and he brings his A-game to this episode, brilliantly evoking his character’s distracted, terrified bewilderment when visions of Mr. Robot intrude upon his interactions with other characters.
Eliot is the focus for most of the episode, unsurprisingly given how much of the show is so closely entwined with his subjective viewpoint. His audience-addressing voiceover that helped make the first season so distinct is retained, although we’re kept on our toes as to who exactly it is speaking to.
An initial voiceover appears to be addressed to us, before a disorientating sleight of hand reveals him in fact to be saying these words to his psychiatrist; it’s only later when we hear him say ‘Hello again. Yes, I’m talking to you this time’, that we’re back in the fold of his most private thoughts. As ever with Mr. Robot, the audience must be alert and willing to question the authenticity of what they witness.
Aside from Eliot, we do drop in on his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin). While he’s withdrawn from the central fsociety activity she remains clearly committed to the cause, and commands authority over a team of hackers. Despite their celebratory move, she’s more acutely aware of how the last month’s activity was far from the endgame of their dreamed for revolution, and urges the others to remain focussed in continuing what they started. “We didn’t finish them off,” she asserts. This cyberwar between her and her hackers against the government looks set to be a key plotline as season two progresses.
Other characters are notable by their absence. Eliot’s close friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) doesn’t make an appearance and neither does E Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) nor the sinister Whiterose (BD Wong), despite being established as potential Big Bads at the end of last season. The question of where Tyrell disappeared to is briefly teased in the very first scene, where in a flashback sequence we see him colluding with Elliot at the scene where the hack took place. But we cut away just as Eliot appears to reach for a gun, and do not return throughout the rest of part one; season one excelled in setting up mysteries and taking us on a spellbinding ride of twists and turns, and on this basis the new season looks set to be just as absorbing.
Another key aspect that makes Mr. Robot the unique, riveting show that it is is its singular visual style. Season one was one of if not the most visually inventive and adventurous series on TV, and in the opening of season two writer and director Sam Esmail seeks to reassert that status. Following a trend exploited by everything from films like Birdman, Spectre and The Revenant to TV shows like True Detective, Transparent and even It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Esmail shows off his technical prowess with a series of long takes at the start of the episode – in fact, the first three scenes take up a whole four minutes and 34 seconds. The long take may be becoming a bit of an overused device, but the way the camera glides dreamily across the room and from scene to scene via strange Lynchian cutaways ensures the show retains its unique feel. Almost every scene from thereon in feel like a virtuoso set piece, all scored to a menacing electronic soundtrack that as atmospheric as ever.
We can’t be sure whether Mr. Sanders or Mr. Trump caught the first series last year – unlike the leader they both sought to succeed, who clearly did – but, regardless, Mr. Robot continues to use its distinct aesthetic to explore some of the fundamental tensions at the heart of what made both politicians’ campaigns so popular.
With plenty of mysteries still left unanswered, characters in flux, and a cyberwar set to only escalate further, Mr. Robot remains arresting and prescient.