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The malevolent beauty of “Mr. Robot” Season 2 is such that knowing and not knowing are equally unpleasant options. The show’s twists earn it constant comparisons to films like “Fight Club” and “The Sixth Sense,” but its ability to create and sustain the look and feel of a bad dream has much more in common with David Lynch’s roughly contemporaneous, twist-based mind-benders “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive.” You’re no better off on one side of the reveal than you are on the other.
I reviewed tonight’s creepy Mr. Robot for the New York Times. A point I’m trying to make here is that an overly literal focus on Elliot’s dissociative identity disorder, either in terms of twist-based plot mechanics or psychological realism, misses the point, which is to viscerally illustrate powerlessness and dread.
The most striking thing in this week’s episode of “Mr. Robot” wasn’t in this week’s episode of “Mr. Robot.” It’s Elliot Alderson, the mentally ill mastermind behind the hacker collective fsociety’s rapidly disintegrating plan to level the world’s economic playing field. For the first time in the history of the series, Elliot — and Rami Malek, the wide-eyed actor whom the role has made a star — did not appear.
When prominent characters drop out of the stories they sparked, they still sometimes function as a structuring absence, tying the action together even when they’re nowhere to be seen. Think of a generation of Stark children trying to live up to their slain father, Ned, in “Game of Thrones,” or even of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone casting a shadow over Al Pacino as his son and Robert DeNiro as his younger self in “The Godfather Part II.” But in “eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12,” by contrast, Elliot’s absence has a destabilizing, disintegrating effect. Without his high-tension energy thrumming through the hour, without Malek’s unmistakable face serving as a landmark, viewers are sent the message that something is missing, off, wrong. Sure enough, the episode chronicles the downward spiral of Darlene, his sister and successor, and her compatriots into paranoia, flight from the law, violence and murder. When the center cannot hold, things fall apart.
And while Angela tries to eat away at E Corp’s rotten apple from the inside, the F.B.I. agent Dom DiPierro is chasing her down a wormhole. Very nearly catching fsociety’s inside woman in the act of helping Darlene hack the bureau’s computers, DiPierro remains confident all the same, last seen jauntily striding through the F.B.I.’s makeshift headquarters in the company tower with her “Kojak”-style lollipop.
Grace Gummer stands out in this accomplished cast for her portrayal of DiPierro because, even if (as we’ve seen) she suffers from the same information-age ennui as everyone else, her character is in the business of dragging secrets into the open, not covering them up or creating new ones. Her crisp, confident tones and relative ease among her co-workers and subordinates is a world away from Elliot’s paranoid tension, Angela’s fake-it-till-you-make-it code-switching and Darlene’s studied surliness. With characters this well drawn and carefully framed, “Mr. Robot” can flip the world on its head as often as it likes. The really important things remain constant.
Using the uncanny, ugly cheeriness of vintage sitcoms as an ironic locus of fear has been done before, certainly, from Adult Swim’s viral hit Too Many Cooks to the still-harrowing “I Love Mallory” sequence from Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” featuring Rodney Dangerfield as a monstrous abusive father. But “Mr. Robot” is neither an 11-minute one-off on YouTube nor a single segment in a collagist media satire. It’s a prestige drama during a time when that’s seen as somewhat degraded currency. And Sam Esmail, its creator, showrunner and director, is cashing in the clout he earned with the series’ surprise-hit first season by opening this episode — a follow-up to last week’s first action-packed episode of the season — with a 17-minute TGIF pastiche.
The proximate cause is Elliot’s retreat into a fantasy world constructed for him by his hallucinatory father as an escape from the beating he’s taking from Ray’s goons, but the go-for-broke attitude stands on its own. In both respects it’s reminiscent of the masterful, uncategorizable Kevin Finnerty episodes of “The Sopranos”; in both cases it’s a sign of a show that totally believes in itself. That kind of confidence is breathtaking to watch.
I reviewed this week’s Mr. Robot for the New York Times. This show is leaving it all out on the field this season; trust no one who tells you otherwise.
“Have you ever wondered how the world would look if the 5/9 had never happened? How the world would look right now?” This question is being posed by a minister of the Chinese state security to a guest attending a party in his home, a young F.B.I. agent who’s investigating the attacks to which he’s referring. They’re standing before a closet full of amazingly intricate women’s dresses. He says they belong to his sister. He does not have a sister.
“In fact, some believe there are alternate realities playing out that very scenario,” he continues, “with other lives that we’re leading, other people that we’ve become.” His smiling eyes welling with tears, he pauses for breath. “The contemplation,” he concludes with a lump in his throat and a slight, self-effacing laugh, “moves me very deeply.”
As well it should. This may be the high-ranking official charged with heading the E Corp hack on Chinese soil, but this, we’ve learned, is a secret identity no closer to the mark than Clark Kent is to Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton. She is really Whiterose, the transgender woman who leads the lethal cyberterrorism organization the Dark Army. On both sides of her secret life she wields tremendous power, power which she will unleash the next day in the form of a mass shooting that wipes out nearly the entire F.B.I. contingent tracing the hack.
But in this moment, with these words, it’s clear she wants nothing so much as to end the fiction of the fake sister and shed the male-presenting mask once and for all. The sequence is a variation on the Bluebeard fairy tale, but the locked room is full not of the bodies of women Whiterose has killed, but the dresses of the woman she wishes she could always be. If you’ve ever been momentarily overcome by the profound power of a beautiful, impossible ideal, you’ll recognize its effects etched into the actor B D Wong’s face and echoing in his quavering voice. On “Mr. Robot,” even supervillains suffer.
One of the most fascinating aspects of “Mr. Robot” has been its ability to capture the moment — whether airing its series premiere days after the revelation of a massive breach of United States government computer systems, or postponing its Season 1 finale because of a real-world shooting — despite being made months in advance of the news. So it feels right for the show to seize the pop culture moment as well. Thus, even as Netflix’s 1980s horror homage “Stranger Things” becomes one of the streaming service’s buzziest shows of the year, this week’s episode of “Mr. Robot” opens with a paean to getting high and reliving the fright flicks of your youth.
In the opening flashback scene, set immediately before the events of the first season, Elliot and Darlene celebrate an impromptu family reunion by watching a fictional slasher film called “The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie.” (Luis Buñuel and Tobe Hooper, call your lawyers.) It turns out that movie’s rich-kid-targeting killer wore the moneyman mask eventually embraced by fsociety as its symbol. Sure enough, when Elliot tries on a copy provided to him by his sister as a gag, the monster is unleashed. His posture straightens, his low-energy voice grows raspier and more strident, his Rs harden and his vowels sharpen into the distinctive vocal cadence of the actor Christian Slater. Elliot’s not here anymore — we’re looking at and listening to Mr. Robot.
The transformation’s so striking that I wondered if the two performers’ voices had been digitally blended; I might have thought the actors themselves had been switched, if Mr. Malek’s eyes weren’t so big and bright they could be seen clearly through the eyeholes of the mask. The horror movie orchestral music cue that accompanies the appearance of the “Mr. Robot” logo in the credits completes the uncanny effect.
I reviewed this week’s Mr. Robot for the New York Times. This show has reached Hannibal levels of speaking in a cinematic language of its own devising. Don’t believe anyone who tells you this isn’t a great thing.
Tonight, after over a season of portraying a character with bug-eyed, lock-jawed, pharmaceutical-numbed restraint, Rami Malek cut loose.
To the pseudo-orchestral strains of “Lovely Allen” (a mid-’00s music-blog hit by a band with a name not fit to print), Elliot Alderson goes on a sleep-deprived tear of Adderall-induced optimism and excitement. He’s filmed in fast forward, or with multiple versions of himself walking one behind the other, as if a single body’s not enough to contain his manic good cheer. When he climbs stairs, they light up beneath his feet. When he washes the dishes, the sun gleams off a plate like the sparkle of a cartoon character’s smile. When his pal Leon talks to him about “Seinfeld,” he starts screaming things like “It’s classic George, am I right?” in response. (“I don’t like this, bro,” Leon deadpans in return, a fine and funny moment from the M.C. turned actor Joey Bada$$.)
The freakout concludes at the basketball court as the hacker genius turned paranoid recluse sounds his barbaric yawp: “WOOOOOOOO, SLAAAAAAAM DUNNNKKK!!!” It’s a thing of goofily cathartic beauty …and it’s almost immediately cut off at the knees when he turns to us and his narration says, with weary resignation, “You’re not buying any of this either.”
This week’s episode of “Mr. Robot” takes great pleasure in these moments of unexpected, self-effacing humor. Given that the main rap against the show is its grim tone — as if seriousness and self-seriousness are conterminous phenomena — it’s a useful tool for the series to have in its arsenal. On a surface level, this installment is concerned with some of the bleakest events in the story to date: the discovery of the old-school phone hacker Romero’s corpse by his confederate Mobley, the latter’s increasing conviction that their group has been marked for death by the fearsome organization the Dark Army, Elliot’s desperate attempts to overdose himself out of his Mr. Robot persona’s clutches, his garrulous new pal Ray’s tragic and violent back story. But the writing, the performances, and the filmmaking make it seem like all involved are having the time of their lives, off-camera anyway.
“Why this mask? It’s a bit silly, isn’t it?” The opening lines of the second season of “Mr. Robot” may emerge from the mouth of corporate creep turned America’s most-wanted missing person Tyrell Wellick, but the man speaks for many of us. Despite having joined forces with the show’s mentally unstable main character Elliot Alderson and his hacker confederacy fsociety, Wellick is not above questioning the group’s corny iconography. The Anonymous-indebted disguises, the snide sobriquet, the “Fight Club” posturing: Is there really a method to this madness, Wellick wonders, or is it all a cheesy cover for adolescent anarchism that won’t change a thing in the long run? That’s the question “Mr. Robot” is apparently trying to answer — and so far, that answer is a surprisingly grim one.