“How many copies of ourselves exist?” That’s the sound of Mr. Robot returning with a vengeance for a third season of sinister cyber-crime, super stylish visuals and Serious Political Monologues. And judging by this confident opening episode, nothing’s changed.
Confidence, of course, has never been the weakness of Sam Esmail’s show. In fact, it’s rather the opposite: Season 2 of the hacking thriller didn’t hold back from its ambitious tendencies, careening wildly from a drawn-out hidden stint behind bars to a bizarre sitcom parody that was so out-there it almost derailed the whole programme. Season 3 finds itself somewhere between the gripping unpredictability of Season 1 and the bonkers vision of Season 2 – and it’s only right that a show based around a split personality should be torn between two extremes.
Elliot (Rami Malek), you may recall, has already figured that Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) is his other, darker side – and, after a season spent trying to shut Mr. Robot down, he ended up shooting himself in a frenzied finale to stop Phase Two of fsociety and the Dark Army’s plan. Phase Two, of course, was the hacking of Evil Corp’s gargantuan back-up facility, so that they could blow it up and really send the world back to the stone age. It’s a plan that also involved Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), who, at one point, we suspected of possibly being yet another part of Elliot’s fractured psyche.
Season 3 picks up with the aftermath of that shooting, as Tyrell (apparently not a figment of Elliot’s mind) calls Irving (Bobby Cannavale) to clean up the mess. We meet this series newcomer in a diner, as he complains to a waitress about his inability to use a loyalty token to get a free milkshake. His complaint, though, is more philosophical than commercial – a sign that he’s set to play a recurring role in the show, if only so Esmail can give him lots of clever-clever speeches to recite. Frankly, though, when it’s Cannavale reciting those speeches, that’s no bad thing: he sinks his teeth into his used car salesman persona (a front for his Dark Army activities) with a wonderfully sleazy grin and casual air. He even manages to make Elliot think that he’s on his side, to some degree – not bad going, given how paranoid Elliot is.
Our antihero wakes up in the home of Angela (Portia Doubleday), after she has apparently helped him recovery – although from the off, she seems to be lying to him about how he got there. After two seasons of all this uncertainty, we’ve learned not to trust anything that we see, whether it’s because the people around Elliot are untrustworthy, or because we’re seeing everything through his paranoid filter. Doubleday is great at playing into that, capable of both sounding awkward as she speaks or saying nothing without blinking, both of which are wonderfully hard to read – when she says she’s genuinely keen to look after Elliot, we really do believe her.
Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is just as good at blurring the line between kind-hearted intentions and criminal methods, as she and Elliot head to a hacker tournament to use their fibre connections to try and stop Phase Two. It’s here that Esmail reminds us how brilliant this show can be, diving into the loud noise of the club, before muting everything at sound of Elliot’s voiceover – a bravura sequence full of quietly writhing bodies that unfolds in a single take. More than ever, this is a series that is entirely driven by the persona of its lead character, from its shallow focus lens to its extreme close-ups. And so, as Elliot takes back control, it’s only right that Season 3 should become faster paced and more action-driven, as momentum picks up speed. But, of course, Elliot’s not the only lead character, and after half an episode of dictating the narrative, it’s Mr. Robot’s turn to do the same. Slater relishes the chance to play cunning and cheeky, with a grin that doesn’t get any less creepy the more we see it; as a semi-real presence, Slater could easily feel redundant or unthreatening, but it’s to his credit that Mr. Robot never, ever does.
In deciding to keep Slater and Malek both in their central roles, Season 3 sets the stage for what promises to be a more straight-forward run, albeit no less confusing: after Season 2 saw the two men collide and converge, this season smartly separates them out more and more, as each one believes they are in charge and deceiving the other. In between them stands Whiterose (BD Wong), who waxes lyrical about the importance of Elliot to their plan: it’s not about technical skills, although they’re never in doubt, but his emotions that drive him. “We need his unadulterated, focused rage,” Whiterose tells her sidekick, who wants to replace Elliot as the main hacker on the project. They’re standing in an Evil Corp nuclear power station – the same one where a scientist earlier gave a public tour, while musing about how many copies of ourselves exist. The notion of parallel universes isn’t a new one for Mr. Robot, with Whiterose in Season 2 casually hinting at the idea of multiple versions of reality – something that feels all too real, after we’ve seen Elliot have his own Fight Club moment. A gorgeous tracking shot away from Whiterose and through what appears to be the innards of a Large Hadron Collider into Elliot’s eyeball is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from a show about to launch into mind-bending theories of multiverses – and there’s certainly more talk these days about undoing what has gone before, and making things anew.
That culminates in one of those tirades that Mr. Robot likes to do most of all, as Elliot stomps through the streets and laments how his fsociety revolution has been commercialised and turned into merchandise, marketing and a cover-up for those in power to steal more control and divide the population. It’s hardly revelatory and the impact of such speeches has faded over time, but now, that penchant for criticising the world has taken on a more poignant note; rather than just be a mouthpiece for cool social commentary, Elliot has started to blame himself for what has happened, which paves the way for a more interesting character arc than the familiar reclusive, outsider saviour. Nods to Donald Trump and Theresa May populate the rant, meanwhile, despite the fact that the show is still set in an Obama period – and that spiky, topical disjunct is only natural for a character who talks about being control yet is all too happy to blame his alter-ego for the things he doesn’t like, or for a series that manages to both sell Angela’s likeable thirst for justice for her parents and Elliot’s noble desire to stop further corruption inadvertently caused by him. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? And if there is some magic reset button somewhere in the cosmos, does it really matter? Mr. Robot is back and as ambitious as ever – and, if it can keep this promising new direction in check, it’s worth celebrating the fact that, no matter how many copies of ourselves exist, there’s no other TV show quite like this out there.
Season 3 of Mr. Robot is available to watch exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes arriving every Thursday, within 24 hours of their US premiere. All 10 episodes of Season 1 and 2 are also available to stream, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like free next-day delivery on Amazon products, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.
Photos: USA Network