TV

'Mr. Robot': Season 2 Widened the Narrative/Character Canvas Beyond Eliot's Fractured Viewpoint

(USA Network/Michael Parmelee)

Disconnecting technology, connecting humans: as the world came apart, Mr. Robot's characters came together in promising new configurations.


Mr. Robot

Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
Cast: Rami Malek, Christian Slater
Network: USA Network
Amazon
This review contains spoilers from seasons one and two of Mr. Robot.

As Mr. Robot begins its third season on 11 October, a few scenes resonate from the two-part season two finale that aired more than a year ago: Elliot (Rami Malik) bleeding from the gunshot wound inflicted by Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom), losing consciousness as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) flickers out; Angela's (Portia Doubleday) nightmarish "test", administered by a young look-alike on behalf of Whiterose (BD Wong); Darlene (Carly Chaikin) sharing the audience's shock as Dom (Grace Gummer) shows her that the FBI has connected far more of the dots than expected.

Personally, I keep thinking about the very last moments of the season, in the post-credit scene. Relative to other events in the finalé, as well as season one's post-credit reveal of the link between Whiterose (BD Wong) and Philip Price (Michael Cristofer), the last moments of season two were banal. Yet they suggest some promising structural directions for the show as the series reaches its middle seasons.

Mirroring the season one epilogue, season two's post-credit moments are shot in one take; the camera trails a slowly moving limousine before tracking up to and circling two familiar characters having a conversation over drinks. At the end of season two, it was Trenton (Sunita Mani) and Mobley (Azhar Khan), enjoying a couple Slurpees while on break from their new job at a Fry's Electronics, hiding in Arizona under the names Tanya and Frederick. Trenton hints that she may have found a way to undo their Five/Nine hack. Mobley, fearful of the risk, begs Trenton to swap Slurpees, and the pair doesn't notice a man walking up to them. He interrupts with a quick question: "Do you have the time?" Although Trenton and Mobley don't know him, the audience recognizes Leon (Joey Bada$$), Elliot's guardian angel from his prison stint. His question implies he comes as a representative of the time-obsessed Whiterose. Leon's unexpected appearance is emphasized with a close-up before the show cuts to black.

The possibility that Trenton and Mobley could reverse the Five/Nine hack is the most important kernel from this scene, as far as the future plot of the show is concerned. Leon's connection with these two intriguing but thus far lightly-serviced characters, however, is even more exciting. It's possible, but unlikely, that Leon has come to put bullets in their brains. While it was the apparent murder of their fsociety colleague, Romero (Ron Cephas Jones), that convinced Trenton and Mobley to flee New York, Agent Dom (Grace Gummer) told Darlene (Carly Chaikin) that the FBI thinks Romero’s death was a fluke accident. Dom could be lying or wrong, but the lovable, Seinfeld-loving Leon has been more of a bodyguard than an assassin. Season three may find Trenton and Mobley, like Angela (Portia Doubleday), allied with the Dark Army.

Whatever else the scene is setting up, it suggests we're going to get more Leon, Trenton, and Mobley in season three (and hopefully beyond). This newly formed trio was the last of several new connections made between formerly unconnected characters at the close of season two. Elliot discovered his Mr. Robot persona has been working closely with Tyrell on phase two of their assault on E Corp. Angela, seemingly won over by Whiterose, is also in communication with Tyrell, heading out to wherever he's tending to Elliot. Meanwhile, Dom seems to be drawing Darlene to her side. Only Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliussen) is still drifting off in her own vengeful orbit, although I expect she'll reconnect with Tyrell soon enough.

After most of season two followed the disintegration of fsociety after the Five/Nine hack, the finale put the show's characters into a series of new configurations, like atoms bonding into elements after the Big Bang. Such new connections are a good thing. It would be fun to see Leon pal around with Trenton and Mobley for a few scenes. It'll be riveting to watch season one's most valuable supporting character, Darlene, share more scenes with season two's most valuable supporting character, Dom.

Mr. Robot can't just be the story of Mr. Robot. The show can't sustain its narrative momentum for several more seasons without leaning on its stable of intriguing characters. To be sure, Malek's physically wasted and psychologically strained performance as Elliot is a sturdy foundation for excellent drama. Elliot, however, is wobbly by nature, and while he survived imprisonment by fabricating his own illusory world in the first half of season two, it was a welcome relief from his static situation to follow the other characters' dynamic journeys back in reality. Further, following the actions of characters far beyond Elliot's horizon gives the audience a firmer purchase on the reality of the show's world, in contrast to Elliot's narrative unreliability. It's fun trying to figure out which parts of the show are Elliot's delusions and which parts are real, but it helps to be certain at least some of the time.

After Elliot spent season two isolated from the other characters, some of those characters are arcing back in his direction. Add in the certainty that the show will comment on the political events of the last year, and season three should be another fascinatingly wild ride.

These new connections and configurations are good for more than just plot energy. The show is primarily about two overlapping concerns: Elliot Alderson's inner life and 21st century society’s economic dependence on technology. Elliot's mental illness -- his social anxiety disorder, clinical depression, and paranoid delusions --make him an isolated young man. He needs close human relationships to help him survive, people who can do more for him than the self-destructive combination of self-medication and technological detachment on which he’s previously relied.

The conglomeration, E Corp, is similarly disconnected from the lives it sacrifices on behalf of its bottom line. Phillip Price's (Michael Cristofer) struggle is to hold on to the company's money at a time when wealth is an increasingly abstract concept; E Corp's accounts have only as many digits to the left of the decimal as the computers say they do. When those digital records are messed with -- as they were in the Five/Nine hack -- the company, and the world, go into crisis. While Elliot will regain consciousness to find real, well-meaning humans standing by his side (both Angela and Tyrell expressed their love for Elliot in the finale), E Corp is similarly trying to gather real paper documents to rebuild its records. Both Elliot and E Corp need something physical to repair themselves.

One of my favorite theories about the show is that parts of the series are actually visual representations of virtual interactions. Creator Sam Esmail may be showing us human avatars acting out conversations happening in secret chatrooms. Maybe all those scenes at Fun Society on Coney Island were just the show's renderings of online text. It's a cool idea, but I don’t think it holds up on inspection. Moreover, fsociety should know better than to risk communicating online, and nothing replaces face-to-face communication for building the kind of mutual trust they needed to pull off the Five/Nine hack. We can learn a similar lesson from Whiterose and Philip Price, who flex power not through their phones but through in-person conversations.

While for most of us neither Elliot nor Philip Price are particularly relatable, our difference from them is a matter of degrees. With each new iPhone, our personal wealth, like E Corp's, becomes further disconnected from anything tangible. As our social lives move increasingly online, people seem increasingly prone to believe whatever delusions the internet puts in front of them. We can see the effects of catastrophes almost immediately, yet we somehow feel more disconnected from them than ever before. Feeling helpless to do anything that makes the world better, we resort to throwing digital rage at our ineffectual government. Technology self-medicates, not so much against the horrors and the injustices of the world as against everyday boredom.

The real world is much less interesting than whatever our notifications have to tell us right now. We look down at our phones, not up and out. We all may as well be wearing hoodies.

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