Being a phenomenon is tricky business. It’s great at first, sure. You charge in from out of nowhere and blow people’s minds by giving them something new and exciting and breaking a bunch of stuff in the process. That all seems like a lot of fun. The hard part is that then you have to follow that first act with something, and it creates a dilemma. Either you throw out everything from your first go-round to try to pull off another revolutionary thing (putting you at risk of turning off the fans who loved what you just did), or you try to do more of the stuff that made you successful to see if you can repeat the magic (putting you at risk of becoming stale and predictable). You can become trapped by your own success.
This, kind of, is what happened with Mr. Robot in its second season. The show’s first season was wild and innovative and filled with twists. It was unlike anything else on television, and especially unlike anything on USA, a network previously known for shows about renegade hotshots solving mysteries at the beach, usually with sunglasses and a cranky sidekick. It justifiably caught people off guard and blew them away, making its creator, Sam Esmail, one of the hottest new names in television. Anticipation for season two was through the roof, if only to see what other mind-twisting tricks the show had in store.
And then season two dropped and it was… fine. It was fine. It definitely wasn’t bad, and it had moments that were really pretty great. Elliott (Rami Malek) made a new friend, Leon (Joey Bada$$), a TV-obsessed secret Dark Army plant who is both an assassin and someone who has a lot of thoughts about Seinfeld. There was a fun episode where Darlene (Carly Chaiken) wore a wig and pulled off a kind of hacker heist. Alf killed a guy. There was a lot going on. But the season didn’t have the same tightness and focus as the first, as evidenced by the attempt to recreate a Big Twist — Elliott was actually in prison, not some halfway house — falling flat when many in the audience sniffed it out from the jump, and by whatever exactly was going on with Joanna Wellick, a truly terrifying character that I loved dearly but became vestigial as the plot moved away from E Corp internal politics and toward full-on anarchy. Again, it wasn’t bad, but it didn’t feel like it had the same edge. And if it didn’t have that, then what was it doing?