The USA drama Mr. Robot wants to be—to borrow a word from the tech world—disruptive. From the moment it launched last summer, the hacker series has never flagged in its commitment to its particular manner of storytelling—a volatile mix of Grand Guignol weirdness and slackerish irony, carried across by Rami Malek’s performance and in particular his voice-over, narrating the fallen world around him. That assured commitment to tone, engaged with the news as both source of both melodrama and scorn, is unlike anything else currently airing; it helps make Mr. Robot‘s good moments great and its weaker moments at least novel.
As its second season begins Wednesday night with a two-part episode, the show’s foundation hasn’t changed even as everything else burns down. Season one ended with the hacker group Fsociety’s takedown of the villainous conglomerate E Corp and, by extension, the beginning of the dismantlement of the modern financial system. In season two, E Corp’s banking arm is suffering Great Depression-style runs; former employee-turned-Fsociety-ally Tyrell Wellick has gone missing while his wife, homebound, is covered in the press like a movie star; Obama (in a canny bit of video editing) tries in vain to calm a jittery nation. But Malek’s character, who masterminded the entire takedown, has renounced his old manner of living. Though still feeling disaffected, he’s trying to be a productive member of society, which means following a strict set of rules: eating three meals a day at a diner with a bland, innocent friend who lectures him about Seinfeld, visiting a local basketball court, and trying his very best to ignore the voice in his head (played by Christian Slater) that spurs him on to be a force for negativity.
I was carried along with the first season’s belief in its own mastery as much as any other fan, but I admit to feeling, in the early going of season 2, a bit of fatigue. The show is vastly more interesting when it shows the dystopian consequences of Elliot’s actions than when it tries to litigate what, precisely, is happening between his ears. The revelation, towards the end of the first season, that the vision Elliot sees, “Mr. Robot,” is the personification of his late father, was both obvious and deflating. It foreclosed many possibilities in favor of something small, but too reliant on well-worn tropes to be intimate. The show’s splashy lack of reticence about its own storytelling demands equally grand stories to tell, and makes a familiar tale of parent issues feel even smaller.
There’s a lot of really great stuff in the season premiere—a scene in which an E Corp executive attempts to interface with Fsociety, scored to Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home,” is among the most tense and striking the show’s ever pulled off. But the very best stuff has little to do with an internal struggle that, if the show is to continue at all, must be resolved in favor of Elliot quitting his attempts to join polite society. These attempts are written with so much contempt for the plebeian world that they end up clanging false. The Seinfeld stuff feels like it’s trying to be a meta-commentary on TV, but I couldn’t suss out towards what end. It ends up just being a dull-minded reiteration that Seinfeld was so weird and crazy.
As Elliot, Malek delivered the male performance of last year; on the basis of his work in season 1, I’d vote for him to win the Emmy this September. His haunted appraisal of a world he loathes was a stunning depiction of disaffection. Granted, the issues with which he grapples in the season premiere are all a part of his complex character, but giving Elliot plenty of time to hash out his demons but no outlet plays up the show’s weakness—that his mind itself, written as a mélange of well-chosen Fight Club references, is not as new or as interesting as the reconstructed world that mind has the power to create. Mr. Robot has the potential to be one of the defining shows of our age. But I’d like to see, throughout season 2, Elliot balance his rants about consumerist society (where people, I guess, are constantly watching and talking about 2016’s hottest show, Seinfeld) with action and insight to leaven them. Otherwise, he’s less a character than a list of beliefs. We already know, really well, that he doesn’t feel like a part of capitalist society. Let him be part of a story that’s as, yes, disruptive as the world around him.