UK TV review: Mr. Robot Season 2, Episode 3
James R | On 25, Jul 2016
This review contains spoilers. Not caught up with Mr. Robot Season 2 yet? Read our spoiler-free review of Episode 1 and 2.
What is Mr. Robot? We know who he is by now, but the show’s identity may be questioned by some, as Season 2 continues its increasingly split narrative. What began as a series about computer hacking has turned into – or emerged as – a story about one man’s mental illness, as we move from bringing down a debt-fuelled society to watching a guy get high on amphetamine.
It’s a disconnect that becomes increasingly obvious in Episode 3 of Season 2, as we move on from the opening double-bill and, by spending more time away from Elliot, realise just how boxed-in he is. Sam Esmail’s strength as a storyteller is the way he allows his form to be driven by his characters; when Elliot gets high on Adderall, we sure as heck know it, zipping around with him in a montage that rivals the Daydreamin’ sequence from Episode 1.
Rami Malek is nothing short of sensational here, his usually slow, withdrawn features opening up to big smiles and wide eyes – and his sardonic, mumbling vocals ramped up to a manic pace. “Damn, these dishes look immaculate,” he tells himself – and means it. He even starts speaking to Leon in the cafe, commenting on those Seinfeld rants: “Classic George, am I right?”
That mix of hectic, highly subjective camerawork and editing, combined with Malek’s madcap presence, is hugely disconcerting. The Adderall high, of course, is designed to get rid of Mr. Robot once and for all – the theory being that if Elliot is doped up enough, Christian Slater’s alter-ego won’t be able to function. Kernel Panic is the episode’s title, and we’re witnessing one physically happen in front of us, as Elliot’s operating system attempts to eradicate a fatal error with a drastic reboot.
Mr. Robot, of course, isn’t that easily beaten, and he slowly comes back into the room over the course of the hour, partly thanks to the counsel of Ray (Craig Robinson). He once came across as a figment of Elliot’s imagination, or a deluded interpretation of, say, a medical orderly or policeman attempting to befriend Elliot, while he’s actually locked up somewhere. But that theory explaining Elliot’s withdrawal in Season 2 gets a heavy blow here, as we spend time with Ray away from our protagonist. We don’t like what we see, as Ray politely threatens another hacker to get a job done for him (involving migrating something to somewhere). Judging by the look on the hacker’s face, not to mention the injuries we presume Ray has given him, this clearly isn’t just a case for the local Apple Genius Bar.
Robinson is wonderfully menacing, not least because he’s playing against type, and we begin to wonder what exactly Ray wants from Elliot – especially given that he’s read Elliot’s notebook and seems to understand his double-identity crisis; we catch a glimpse of Ray talking to his dead wife, who isn’t there, which only highlights the fact that Ray can be just as two-faced as Elliot.
It’s no coincidence that the show is driven forward by these scenes, because they allow us to experience the narrative without the filter (or prison) of Elliot’s perspective. After all, so much of what we see from him is so unreliable. Away from his reclusive life, we find concrete facts, such as another of FSociety’s members dead: Romero. That leaves the others wondering what’s going on, but Darlene reassures them that there’s no connection between that and Gideon’s bullet-to-the-neck in Episode 2.
In Esmail’s universe, though, paranoia is rarely just paranoia. After all, Grace Gummer’s FBI agent, DiPerro, is starting to put things together: investigating Romero’s murder, she finds a poster for Season 1’s End of the World party, which takes her to Coney Island – and that broken F__SOCIETY sign. Gummer is, of course, excellent, as anyone who’s seen Frances Ha will know already. Like Elliot, she’s also got something of a double-personality going on: there’s the no-nonsense, ace-at-her-job professional, and there’s the presumably lonely woman who lies in bed at night swapping dirty messages online.
There’s internal conflict, too, at E Corp, as Angela finds herself invited out to dinner by Price – who, it turns out, wants to introduce her to two fine, upstanding company veterans. There’s always a sting in the tail, naturally, and that’s the revelation that they were involved in the leak that caused her parents’ death. Given the evidence to put them down, what should she do? Price advises her to separate her emotion from the decision, but it’s precisely that detachment that seems to be troubling so many of our characters.
Courtesy of Elliot’s half of the story, we experience the horror of a personality dividing into two, in the form of an sequence where shady agents kidnap him and pour cement down his throat. It’s grim, it’s nasty and it’s absolutely believable – and, of course, is entirely in his head. We eventually see him on the floor of his home, scooping up the vomited ‘cement’ (Adderall pills) in his hand and wolfing the gloop down again, just to stay in control. Control, though, as Ray points out, is “about as real as a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow”.
There’s a tendency, as ever, for Mr. Robot to indulge in its own observations a little too much – for every passage of virtuoso visuals, there’s a monologue or dialogue that feels far too on the nose. An introductory flashback that introduces us (and Romero) to F__SOCIETY does little to drum up dramatic tension and only really gives Esmail a chance to write some cool speeches for the sake of it; the kind of stylistic flourish that works in a show’s maiden voyage, but can get old during a second season.
But smaller touches, such as Price having to pay upfront for his and Angela’s meal out, remind us that the series is very good at subtly building a world around its fascinating characters; a world where things haven’t changed as much as we’d hoped they might, following Season 1’s audacious cliffhanger. But things still have the potential to go somewhere new, just as Elliot’s warped POV still has the potential to surprise. The series just needs to find a way to reconcile its two parts; the isolated box Elliot lives in and the rest of the country, where people are no less remote; the frustration we, the audience, occasionally feel and the intrigue we can’t shake. For a programme so aware of its presentation, the central disconnect is no doubt intentional, as Esmail takes his portrait of a broken society and develops it thematically, but it needs to be resolved for Mr. Robot’s sophomore season to find the highs of its first outing. On the other hand, those dishes really are immaculate.
Season 2 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 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: Peter Kramer/ Christopher Saunders / USA Network