The fingers are fluttering, the voiceover is in full effect, the eyes are bulging. Elliot (Rami Malek) — or is this Mr. Robot? — is back in the game, and it couldn’t have come soon enough.
This, the second season of Mr. Robot, hasn’t exactly been disappointing, but it has been a bit a trudge. In attempting to rebuild the world that was so easily constructed in season one, creator Sam Esmail has traded in brevity and narrative liveliness for a more measured approach. This can be illustrated by simple fact that it isn’t until this week’s episode that Elliot touches a computer.
Granted, the hacking aspects of the show have always been used more as catalysts for emotional revelation than anything else, but they are still an integral part of the both the show and Elliot; their absence has made his story play more like one long therapy session than anything with any real-world consequences. This reluctance to return to what, in many ways, makes Elliot Elliot, has been his own doing. In an attempt to scrub himself of the visions of his dead father and of his destructive tendencies, he has strictly kept himself away from any Internet connection. That is, until he can’t stay away any longer.
Like a heroin addict who always knew he’d return to his pernicious vice, Elliot can’t help himself after agreeing to help Ray (Craig Robinson) with his coding issues. Almost as soon as he sits down at the computer, he enters a mesmerized and intently focused hypnosis, letting his nervous demeanor fall away and bringing to the surface the mastermind we all knew lurked right below. Therapy helps, staying off drugs helps, the church group helps, but none of it can compare to the feeling of power and control Elliot gets with the world at his fingertips, and it was nice seeing him once again in his element.
Back in the bigger game, we’re beginning to get an idea of the element in which FBI agent Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) finds herself most comfortable. During a trip with the FBI to China, in which they are attempting to determine the connection, if any, between China’s notorious Dark Army and the event of 6/9, Dom wonders off into a secluded section of Minister Zhang’s vast mansion. We know Zhang to be the alternate identity of Whiterose (BD Wong), and seeing her interact with the odd statesman while trying to suss out his true intentions is a highlight of the episode.
BD Wong has been fantastic as the creepy and infinitely mysterious Whiterose, but watching him so easily assume the identity of someone clearly working toward some larger goal is fascinating. It isn’t necessarily the kind of split personality we see with Elliot and Mr. Robot, but a more composed, meditated design to get exactly what he wants, even if we aren’t quite sure what that is. This week, he seems intent on merely figuring out what makes Dom tick, making their dance of mutual inquisition a subtle thrill to witness.
While Dom continues to dig herself deeper into the world of the Dark Army and FSociety, Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and Angela (Portia Doubleday) are trying their best to throw everyone off their scent, or if not, make the scene impossible to follow. After Elliot lays the groundwork, Darlene must reach out to Angela for help, needing her inside access to fully infiltrate the FBI and find out exactly what they know. Darlene and Angela have always had an interesting relationship, and there appears to be little love lost as the two negotiate the logistics of the plan, a plan Angela initially wants nothing to do with. Like most of the characters of Mr. Robot she’s eventually convinced only when the FBI becomes a direct threat to her own self-interest.
Similarly, it’s only after Elliot takes care of his FBI issues that he eventually delves into the problem he was hired to fix, and what he finds is as surprising as it is horrifying. In robbing from the headlines once again, Mr. Robot shifts Ray from a likeable, though oddly intimidating side character, to an emerging evil force on par with last year’s criminal psychopath Vera (Elliot Villar). Turns out Ray is the head of a secret darknet marketplace in the vein of Silk Road, in which he seems to be soliciting the sale of everything from drugs to imprisoned human beings.
This development adds an intriguing layer to Elliot’s current situation. He was, after all, first introduced to us as a character who worked in secret to bring down evil in all forms, starting with the child-porn trafficking coffee shop owner. Sure, he has bigger things on his plate now, but can Elliot really ignore such atrocities, much less help them succeed? Even in his attempt to figure out the secret he sets himself up for trouble, as the episode ends with Ray’s goons giving Elliot a thorough lesson in who not to mess with.
It’s interesting that at this point in the second season, a season that has been dragging a bit, that Esmail would choose to further develop a side bad guy and continue to keep Elliot out of the bigger, Whiterose/Dark Army/Philip Price (Michael Christofer) battle for the future of the country and the world. Not to say that this storyline doesn’t have its merit. It’s fascinating to watch someone like Craig Robinson so adeptly put on the villain mask and embrace the madness of Mr. Robot, but if it ultimately has no connection to the bigger picture, I’m not sure it’s worth all the trouble. Still, it’s going to be quite interesting to see how Elliot and Mr. Robot get themselves out of this pickle.