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.