On Sunday, USA Network released the first half of the two-part “Mr. Robot” season two premiere for a limited time on several social media sites. This is a review of that half.
There are few, if any, television shows with the kind of rapport “Mr. Robot” has with its viewer. The show’s use of an unreliable narrator in the form of protagonist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek, “Need For Speed”) engenders an uncertainty in viewers. However, series creator — and now sole director — Sam Esmail (“Comet”) didn’t just settle for narration, but also actively asked us to become a part of the series as Elliot’s lone, albeit imaginary, confidant — even going as far to have Elliot call us “friend.” But as the true depth of Elliot’s disturbed mental state reveals itself, we’re forced to reevaluate everything we’ve seen and realize we can’t trust Elliot because, ultimately, Elliot cannot trust himself.
But as Elliot narrates his “loop” — the strict daily regimen he practices in an attempt to contain the chaotic Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, “Pump Up the Volume”) side of his personality — we’re drawn back into our relationship with the Elliot that was established in the first season. Only when we realize Elliot isn’t addressing us, but his therapist, Krista (Gloria Reuben, “Saints and Sinners”), do we recognize things have changed between us and Elliot. The mistrust we’ve been feeling is a two-way street, as Elliot no longer fully trusts us with what he knows. This shrouds events in even more ambiguity, while introducing us, the audience, to a form of mental voyeurism that challenges our complicity in what we’re watching. Did Elliot permit us to witness his session with Krista, or are we peering into something that was meant to be private?
In a modern world of instant and constant connection, loneliness pervades throughout “Mr. Robot.” The series’ distinct visual style frames its characters in off-center close-ups, isolating individuals, even when they’re in a crowded room. Now, we join the cast in their solitude as our anchor, Elliot, keeps us at arm’s length. The first-half of the premiere keeps us in the dark and leaves many questions partially or completely unanswered — what happened to Tyrell Wellick, where is the rest of fsociety, what side is Whiterose on, etc. These lack of conclusions force us to look harder, searching for answers in places we perhaps shouldn’t explore and reaching for connections with possibly the wrong people.
The series breeds paranoia in the first hour by effectively removing most elements of trust in us and Elliot. Only when we look into Elliot’s mind are we united with our protagonist through uncertainty. Dominated by Mr. Robot, Elliot’s mind is always at war with itself. Malik embodies the vulnerability of Elliot, trying to keep on a mask of control as what lies underneath threatens to break through at any moment. On the other side of the spectrum is Slater’s Mr. Robot, a twisted manifestation of Elliot’s deceased father who represents the worst things the man can do. Precariously kept in check by Elliot’s “loop,” Slater plays Mr. Robot as a caged animal, snarling and lashing against his cage, and the bars are bending. All this is played out on a battlefield where the rules are always changing and never certain. Suspense lingers whenever Mr. Robot comes into the frame and reality is called into question.
Meanwhile, many characters are caught in the crossfire of this mental warfare. Darlene (Carly Chaikin, “Suburgatory”) desperately continues to wage a losing war against “Evil” Corp, even when Elliot and most of society have scattered to the winds. Gideon (Michael Gill, “House of Cards”), one of the few beacons of good in the series’ world, finds himself under investigation and pleading for Elliot to do the right thing while Mr. Robot looms in the background. As Mr. Robot holds a knife to his former employer’s neck, we, and Elliot, can only hope what we’re seeing isn’t real as the knife cuts and blood flows. Every scene in “Mr. Robot” has the potential to descend into a nightmare of madness, leaving the viewer to question — which dream will come true?