NOTE: On Sunday night, USA released part one of the two-part season premiere of Mr. Robot, but only online, and only for a very limited time. This review does not contain spoilers from that early release. We’ll have a more full rundown of the premiere on Thursday after both parts air on television.
The first season of Mr. Robot was about as pleasant a surprise as you’ll ever see on television. Maybe “pleasant” isn’t the right word. I mean, the whole thing was about a mentally disturbed man’s quest for anarchy, and at one point a character committed suicide during a live television broadcast. But what I mean — and this is a point I’ve made many times, and will continue making until it stops being incredible to me — is that Mr. Robot was a show on the USA network that was literally called “Mr. Robot.” It had no right to be as good as it was. If history had taught us anything, it should have been, like, a show about a handsome robot who solved mysteries at or near the beach while wearing sunglasses and a series of brightly colored dress shirts.
(I would watch that show.)
But it wasn’t. It was a dark, twisting masterpiece that examined everything from mental illness to our reliance on technology to loneliness to the entire global financial system. It kind of came out of nowhere and caught everyone off-guard, which is a luxury creator Sam Esmail won’t have going forward.
And that brings us to the show’s second season, which rolls out in a 90-minute two-part premiere this week. Esmail has said the new season will be “darker.” This is a) really saying something, because season one was not exactly a glimmering ray of sunshine, and b) something Esmail seems very qualified to say, as he has taken on the borderline insane task of writing and directing every episode. From what the show has revealed so far, he doesn’t appear to be lying.
Season two picks up in the weeks after the fsociety hack. Elliot (Rami Malek, still excellent) is struggling big time with what he learned about himself and Mr. Robot at the end of season one. He’s attempting a few different methods of coping, ranging from journaling to sitting at a table and listening to his new friend Leon (Joey Bada$$) rant about Seinfeld. (Reminder: In addition to being serious and gloomy, Mr. Robot is also, at times, genuinely funny.) It is not going too great. And his attempts to get his demons under control have pushed Darlene (Carly Chaikin) into a new role at fsociety.
Elsewhere, Angela (Portia Doubleday) is settling into her job at Evil Corp, and Craig Robinson shows up as a mysterious new friend, and there’s still the Tyrell mystery to be solved, and presumably Joanna is still very, very terrifying.
But more importantly, Mr. Robot is still very much Mr. Robot, in the best way possible. Esmail continues to pull out trick after trick to keep the viewer off-balance and unsettled, from his selections of music to his habit of stuffing characters into the bottom corner of a frame, using the empty space to convey as much of the message as the actual action. And there are still plenty of twists and turns, and that delightful anti-capitalist streak that results in real-life companies and products getting dragged in a way few other shows outside of Last Week Tonight and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show can get away with. (The premiere features a dig at NCIS, which is a little fun because NCIS deserves a dig every now and then, and a lot of fun because NCIS airs in eight-hour marathons every Monday and Thursday on… USA.)
The main objective of the early parts of season two isn’t to tie up loose threads, though. Mr. Robot isn’t big on tying up loose threds, in general, or at least is in no rush to do so. It’s all about the bigger picture, as it always has been. It’s chess, not checkers. But it’s multiples games. In fact, maybe that’s the best way to understand Mr. Robot. Sam Esmail is the dude at the park who has six games of chess going simultaneously against six different opponents, and he’s got all the moves for each one plotted out in his head. The only difference is that he has to figure out a way to make all the games come together as one by the end. Or, alternatively, he can just flip five of the boards over mid-match and send pieces flying all over the grass and into the fountain, then announce checkmate in the one still standing. That would be a very Mr. Robot thing to do.
Season two of Mr. Robot premieres Wednesday, July 13 at 10 p.m. on USA.