Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) spent the first season of Mr. Robot working with the show’s mysterious title character (Christian Slater) with one clear goal in mind: to destroy the global conglomerate they both referred to as EvilCorp. Elliot spent much of the second season grappling with the realization that both EvilCorp’s relationship with society and his own with Mr. Robot — who turned out to be an alternate personality modeled on Elliot’s late, abusive father — were much more complicated than he realized. At the start of the third season (it debuts Wednesday night on USA; I’ve seen the first four episodes), he has decided that he regrets all of it, and will do whatever he can to undo the damage he caused. The problem is that his creation has sprawled well beyond his control — in the same way that his own body often winds up being piloted by Mr. Robot — and nothing seems as easy to fix as he hoped it would be.
It’s not hard to project Elliot’s dilemma onto the show’s gifted young creator Sam Esmail, and to the evolution of Mr. Robot itself. What was in its first season a streamlined story and a social media phenomenon strained in its second under the weight of an expanded story and expanded narrative ambitions. Its best moments were dazzling — at times even more impressive than anything Esmail and company had put together in that remarkable debut season — but the increasingly labyrinthine plot, along with some bad structural choices(*), began to feel like a heavy cost to get to the good stuff.
(*) For those who don’t remember — and it has been more than a year since the last episode aired — Esmail devoted a good chunk of the season to a storyline where Elliot seemed to be sequestering himself in his mother’s neighborhood, when in fact he was in prison and experiencing more hallucinations than usual. Most of the audience saw the twist coming from far away, and even though Esmail said he expected, and even wanted, viewers to figure it out ahead of time, it separated Elliot from the other characters and most of the plot, while also furthering the impression that this was more puzzle box than actual story, and that viewers would be better served sniffing out clues for the next twist than tracking the plot and character arcs. And having the main character spend so much of the season inside his own head only put more pressure on the closing episodes, which the anti-climactic finale couldn’t live up to.
Season three finds both Elliot and Mr. Robot more focused in their efforts to get back to the way things used to be. For Elliot, it’s undoing the hack that erased EvilCorp’s loan records, which backfired by strengthening the company and hurting the world. For Mr. Robot, it’s going back to the more propulsive, less introspective mode of the first season, after large chunks of the second took place entirely inside Elliot’s head. Given how great Malek is — not to mention how creative Esmail can be at portraying the unreality of it all — Elliot’s head is usually an interesting place to be, but like a lot of season two (which had more episodes, almost all of them significantly longer than average), it can risk becoming too much.
Based on the new season’s first four episodes, both character and creator have mixed success in their revised missions. Elliot inevitably finds out that hitting the reset button isn’t as easy as he had hoped, while Esmail, in turn, strains at times to get out from under the tonnage of plot and conspiracy he’s built around Elliot, fsociety, EvilCorp, Whiterose, the Dark Army, the FBI, and everyone else.
Its best moments — and there are many of them — make it worth trudging through the rest. Esmail’s choices as a director (he is once again directing every episode, and writing many) often feel like that of an alien who’s watched a lot of Earth pop culture but can’t quite reconcile our cinematic grammar with his own. This is most overt with the way he still likes to place a shot’s most important character on the edge of the frame, but all of the choices are intentionally off, capturing the way that Elliot feels isolated from a world he sees differently from the rest of us. Scenes presented as long continuous takes have become almost a TV cliché in the last few years, yet most of Esmail’s oners contribute to that sense of being trapped here along with Elliot, and the soundtrack remains as hypnotically eclectic as ever as it cycles between ’80s soft rock ballads and contemporary electronic.
Esmail and company also bring a welcome lighter touch to the proceedings. The show doesn’t permanently shift into multi-cam Alf mode, but there’s more of a sense of whimsy and oddness to it that, with its contrast, winds up enhancing the usual darkness rather than undermining it. We open with an extended glimpse of the season’s big addition: Bobby Cannavale as Irving, a fixer for the forces behind the mysterious “Stage 2” that Elliot thinks he wants to stop. Cannavale’s a treat, in full character actor mode, sporting a pencil mustache and a spiky pompadour, coupled with a high-pitched outer-borough accent. The eccentricity of it risks Irving coming across as more tic than man, yet Cannavale and Esmail ride the line so that Irving can be both the funniest person on the show and a genuine threat to whoever tries to interfere with the master plan. It’s one of the best, most weirdly energetic performances Cannavale’s given in a long time.
Elliot spends a fair amount of screen time with Irving, but he does that with many of the major players this time around: Mr. Robot, erratic fugitive Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), best friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), and sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin). No hiding him off in a corner while all the decisions are being made elsewhere, even if B.D. Wong’s Whiterose still knows much more than she’s telling.
Still, there are so many interlocking agendas and conspiracies and secrets that the show feels more like work than it originally did, no matter how much Esmail tries to pare things back to the basics. Beat to beat, it can still knock me off my chair, but then we get back to keeping track of who’s really loyal to whom, when Angela might or might not be telling the truth, or what Tyrell’s motivations are, and the episodes can start feeling much longer than they actually are. The only real dud in this early bunch is the third hour, which catches us up on what Tyrell was doing while he was missing for nearly all of season two — and which presumes a far greater interest in the doings and motivations of Tyrell Wellick than I still had after such a long absence — but the plottier the show gets(*), the less exciting it tends to be. And there’s now so much plot that the show can’t easily set it aside.
(*) For the moment, it doesn’t seem like Esmail has a new twist in the works but it may just be that he’s gotten better at hiding them. Then again, there’s an offhand reference in the first episode to the concept of parallel universes, and I look forward to the Reddit threads about which reality’s Elliot we’re watching in a given scene.
When it debuted in 2015, Mr. Robot felt as current as any new drama had in years. Because the story hasn’t advanced past that year, it now feels like an artifact of a bygone age, and the occasional references to Donald Trump feel like Esmail elbowing the viewer in the ribs to be sure we see how one era could lead to the next. Still, both Elliot and the show seem to be maturing thematically: at one point, he admits that nicknaming the company EvilCorp “was just my dorm room philosophizing run amok.”
Late in the premiere, someone asks Elliot, “What if I told you we could make it like none of this ever happened?” It’s a tempting thought, and one specifically appealing to Elliot at this moment in both his own life and history, but it’s not the way the world is supposed to work. You can’t magically erase every mistake you’ve ever made and go back to the way things used to be, whether you’re a mentally ill vigilante hacker or an acclaimed TV show that went through a sophomore slump.
Both character and show are in a more promising place when we return to them. Mr. Robot may never again be as shiny and sleek as it was in its debut, but it’s become easier to focus on the many things it does so very well.