Review: Elliot goes to war with ‘Mr. Robot’ in the riveting season 2 premiere

Mr. Robot has returned for a second season. I already published some spoiler-free thoughts on tonight’s two-hour premiere, so now it’s time to get into the specifics, coming up just as soon as I’ve discovered Seinfeld

“And this is why I’m different: sometimes, my mask takes over.” -Elliot

The Mr. Robot season 1 finale made an interesting choice in skipping over what seemed like major pieces of the larger fsociety plot – how the Evil Corp hack went down, what happened to Tyrell Wellick – to focus on Elliot dealing with the knowledge that he was Mr. Robot, and vice versa. At the time, I felt this was the right choice, since the show is ultimately about Elliot and what’s going on inside his head, and his epiphany about having multiple personalities was much more important than any plot mechanics involving secondary characters.

“Unmask”(*) actually rewinds to show Elliot executing the hack while Wellick watches – marveling that, “It’s almost as if something’s come alive” – and if it doesn’t show us where Wellick is, it has him alive and trying to make contact with both Joanna (through the phone hidden in the package he sent her) and Elliot (the call on the red phone at the end of the premiere’s second half). Even so, the premiere still keeps some cards unturned – like who appeared in Elliot’s doorway at the end of the finale, or the nature of the relationship between Price and Whiterose – and keeps the focus mainly on the war for control between Elliot and Mr. Robot.

(*) Technically, the premiere sticks with the nomenclature pattern of last year, treating each episode title as a computer file, in this case “eps2.0_unm4sk-pt2.tc.” But since that’s a pain to type, and since each of these files is meant to represent a word or phrase, for simplicity’s sake going forward, I’m going to use the words themselves.

That is, again, where Sam Esmail should be devoting as much time and energy as possible to Elliot’s inner struggle, and here to the ways he is trying to keep that struggle from again exploding outward and affecting the rest of the world. Understanding who and what Mr. Robot is has changed everything for Elliot, who has gone off the grid, moved back in with his profoundly unpleasant mother, befriended newly-minted Seinfeld lover Leon, and even cut way down on the amount of time he spends talking to us. The revelation that the earlier narration about Elliot’s closed system was him talking to Krista, and not his “friend,” was a nice example of the show having its cake and eating it, too: Esmail had a lot of exposition to get through about the changes Elliot has instituted in the wake of the Evil Corp hack, but he also needed to establish just how deeply those changes run, up to and including Elliot’s estrangement from us.

That change in routine also meant a temporary change in the show’s aesthetic. Gone for most of the premiere were the familiar shots of Elliot or other people with their heads just barely in frame, as we don’t get our first major one of those until late in the second half of “Unmask,” and only after Elliot has discovered that Mr. Robot has, in fact, been getting out to play. In the meantime, Esmail the director got to show off in other ways, particularly with some of the single-take sequences early in the first half, and in the ways he depicted Elliot and Mr. Robot’s interactions when someone else like Gideon was present. Robot’s got nothing to lose now that Elliot knows what’s up and is trying to stop it, and their relationship has become much nastier and more interesting as a result.

But “Unmask” certainly didn’t give short shrift to the state of the world post-hack. We get to see Darlene struggling to bring focus to this larger new incarnation of fsociety, and realizing that the hack actually made things worse. (One of the premiere’s more powerful moments is a relatively small one, as we see the woman trying to convince an Evil Corp bank teller that she’s made her loan payments, even though all evidence is gone from the computer: of course Evil Corp has found a way to turn the hack to its advantage and use it to screw people over even more.) There was perhaps brief celebration in the wake of the hack, but now the world seems scarier and angrier than ever before, as epitomized by the vigilante execution of Gideon, who had nothing to do with the hack in the first place but wound up a patsy for the whole mess.

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