Spoilers Ahoy and throughout!
The sophomore slump, in many art forms is pernicious, second albums and television seasons, second films, something about a stunning debut leaves the expectations almost impossible to equal. The divisive second season of Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, both fell victim to this narrative and brilliantly transcended it, and the key to both the antipathy of mainstream critics and audiences and those who found it smarter, sharper, and deeper than its inaugural season leans heavily on Esmail hacking the misogyny of his home boys and passionate viewers. Those who would treat his audacious and deeply emotional tale of alienation as merely a series of Rubik’s cubes and Easter eggs to be solved, and who embraced the plot driven story of a very MALE cyber punk folk hero who will smack down the corporate military technology complex, and were annoyed by a very character driven season dominated by women characters.
The first season was a delight, a taut kaleidoscope of cinematic homages in service of a paranoid narrative of a male folk hero who most often recalled the disassociated lead in the film Fight Club. Esmail certainly embraced these allusions, but from the get seemed interested in something far more philosophically and emotionally fraught: a constant interrogation of “reality” itself, and how much we can know of it through our senses is deeply traumatizing shit as Cisco might say. The very first homage he makes is to Blade Runner (often lighting and shooting his actors with a glowing sheen on their eyes, much like the androids were filmed/lit in BR) a science fiction film about androids, and the show is of course called Mr. ROBOT. I don’t think Elliot et all will be revealed as robots, but I think like BR we are meant to process they ways the human mind and body is like an organic machine, with code that can fracture or be hacked.
Few viewers chafed at the obvious unreliability of Elliott as our narrator, and indeed thrilled at figuring out quite quickly that the Mr. Robot he interacts with all season is but a figment of his fractured identity. For these viewers the first seasons most palpable weakness, its marginalization of the women within Elliot’s orbit, (his co-hacker sister who he holds at a distance, his childhood crush who he manipulates and uses to carry off his mammoth hack of Evil Corps, and poor Shayla who is fridged to advance his inner turmoil and moral conflict with Mr. Robot) barely even registered. I was a huge fan of S1 despite this treatment of women, I had faith that these characters didn’t just exist to be on the periphery of the action, and that they would be given real development, I saw enough evidence in the finale of S1’s society changing hack such as the duped Angela leveraging the opportunity to take some control in her life back by working at Evil Corps to undo Evil Corps, Darlene asserting control of F Society when Elliot’s degree of psychosis is revealed, and Joanna Wellick insisting Tyrell clean up the mess he’s made of their mutual ambitions and life.
What I could not have anticipated was the commitment Esmail had to dislocating and alienating his viewers so completely by marginalizing his male lead in S2, walling him off both literally and figuratively from the “action”. Giving Elliot and the views the space to work through who he is and what future he wants for himself, while the women in his life and his adversaries carry the torch of the technological war of the worlds forward.
Darlene attempts to lead in his absence with mixed results as she also submits to the demons of alienation and distrust as well as a thirst for vengeance and how that differs from Justice. Angela struggles along a similar path how to attain some measure of justice for her family and friends, without losing herself to the temptations around her, the legitimate scent and taste of power she now has access to.
We are introduced to new adversary in the form of Agent Dom Dipiero, who, on mostly smarts and instinct nibbles around the edges of cracking the 5/9 hack Elliot and F Society instituted, we get to know both her confident public face, the person who wants to make a difference for the better of the world, and the more alienated woman, who barely manages her social anxiety and frustrated sexual desires and doesn’t even dream.
Finally there is Joanna Wellick the most terrifying and opaque woman in Elliott’s universe. Joanna is nakedly and proudly selfish and greedy, but, also malevolent and dangerous. Her life with Tyrell has been stolen from her and from their child so she will stop at nothing to restore the order that Elliott (and Scott Knowles) have smashed from her world. Keeping Tyrell off screen for 10 of 12 episodes was also ballsy as fuck by Esmail. He robbed those who would see the story he’s telling as that of a singular martyr/anti-hero and his mirror image, of all the misogyny oxygen in the room. He demanded that we see how women are alienated too, and how inflected that alienation is with sexism. He insisted that the viewer via Elliot feel dislocated too, mired in this type of alienation, this inability to decipher reality as they see and hear it. It was unconventional, experimental, and incredibly brilliant to watch.
As for the much maligned lack of plot, I believe we received quite a bit of that as well. White Rose’s designs became central to the narrative, her project in Washington Township, her interest in and protection of Elliott, her courting of Angela and instance she is part of the a plan that will make the world a different place , and perhaps give everyone a different life, and an alternate path. This season made it clear that White Rose = The Dark Army and that Elliot, Darlene, and F Society are “keys” to unlock the doors she wants to open, whether she’s opened them or not is the question, but I assume Phase II is the next step.
There is also the cat/mouse aspect of Dom’s investigation, watching her grasp all the threads and still miss the center was fascinating and thrilling, she is so close and yet so far away, but I can’t believe that will last long, and to what degree she will remain on the side of traditional justice or be won over to F Society and White Rose herself. I like that Dom, Angela, Elliott are all on the same trajectory, how do you change/save the world without BREAKING the world, can you break the world/rules and still be doing the “right” thing?
I believe we ended the season with the edges of reality (or at least polite society) fraying even for the average citizen, the brown outs, Angela’s seeming buy-in to White Rose’s narrative of sliding doors/alt realities, potential for a different life and identity, Elliott pushing the edges of his reality only to have it shoot him for real this time, Darlene discovering just how off the mark the FBI is about F Society, and how close they are as well. Part of me thinks Esmail will just go full sci fi in S3, but also full allegory with Phillip and 45, and I’m just so excited to see where he pushes this story next, I adore his total lack of fucks about plot and his consistent reliance on cinematic homage to tell a totally ballsy story that is a road to who knows where!