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?
This brings us to season three, which is currently screaming toward a conclusion. It’s been terrific, staying the same in some respects, but evolving in others. Gone is the reliance on the Big Twist, at least in the way it was meant to trick the audience with something everyone but Elliott knew. (The closest the season has had, so far, is the Dark Army’s okie-doke with the 71 building explosions, which tricked everyone on the show as well as the audience.) Gone is Joanna Wellick, victim of an unceremonious bullet in the head from a jilted ex. Gone is Tyrell Wellick, too, mostly, probably, now that he’s been locked up as the fall guy for the Dark Army plot. Leon is back, though, pointing out flaws in Frasier and making very good points about Knight Rider. That’s nice.
The second half of the season has been especially good. The fifth episode was shot and creatively edited to give the impression of one long take, following Elliott and then Angela (Portia Doubleday) as they ran around the E Corp headquarters in the middle of a riot, with Elliott trying to stop her from taking what we later found out to be misguided steps in helping the Dark Army complete Stage Two. It could have easily come off as a gimmick, a too-cute attempt to cover for plot holes with fancy editing tricks. Instead, it supplemented the action on screen, driving home the frantic energy both characters felt in trying to achieve their goals. It was a great hour of television, visually stunning and groundbreaking in a way that only Mr. Robot can be, only when Mr. Robot is at the top of its game.
The eighth episode was also groundbreaking and stunning, too, but in an entirely different way. A suicidal Elliott spent most of the hour running around with the younger brother of a former fsociety member who was framed for the Dark Army terror attack. The went to see Back to the Future II. They discussed religion. And at the end, Elliott broke down in tears as he realized he wanted to live. It was beautiful, like a dystopian version of It’s a Wonderful Life in which George Bailey is a psychologically imbalanced computer hacker (I mean, finally), and should definitely be the showcase episode Rami Malek submits come Emmys time. I did not expect 2017 to be the year I stared at my television with tears in my eyes while watching the credits to a USA drama roll by as “In Time” from the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure soundtrack played, and yet, there I was. It’s been some kind of run.
Has the season been perfect? Well, no, if we’re being honest and comprehensive about it all. The Tyrell business in the first half of the season was a bit much, even if it did introduce us to Bobby Cannavale as a Dark Army soldier/fixer who looks a little like Ned Flanders and sells used cars as his cover. And the periodic references to the rise of Donald Trump — this season takes place in 2015 — and the Dark Army’s “influence” in it all are about thisclose to the show having its characters look dead into the camera and wink at us. But those are such minor complaints in the whole of the season that they can be largely brushed aside. Especially if the shows sticks the landing at season’s end. And we have no real reason to assume it won’t.
Mr. Robot is good again. Very good. And that is a very good thing. Play me out, Leon.