Mr. Robot, the aesthetically polished and intellectually incensed USA series about mentally disturbed hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), arrived last year as if out of nowhere—nowhere being an acceptable synonym for the USA Network, which before Mr. Robot was home to a number of indistinguishable and effective escapist procedurals. Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot had style to spare, a logo befitting an ’80s arena rock band (a compliment!), intimate and eerie narration, and a riveting performance from Malek, who makes silence and motionlessness—two of Elliot’s preferred states—scream with jittery unease. And it had ideas in its head. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, Anonymous, and the great recession, Elliot led a hacker collective called F-Society, out to erase the world’s debt and take down Evil Corp, a powerful and nefarious multinational. Netflix and HBO aside, the predominant business model for television is taking cash from corporations to air their advertisements, yet Elliot excoriated McDonald’s, Coke, and consumerism on the medium that sells all three.
With its anti-capitalist talking points, antisocial hero, and world-on-the-brink atmosphere, Mr. Robot felt bracing and bold. But its stylishness and its ideological unrest were soldered to a more standard-issue plot machine. For all its originality, Mr. Robot at first harnessed the appeal of the procedural, allowing us to get to know Elliot as he hacked his way into intimacy with strangers, while getting a complex, technologically precise, season-long storyline off the ground, one that ultimately harnessed the punch of the twist. In the season’s climax, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the man who brought Elliot into F-Society, was revealed to be a figment of Elliot’s own imagination. Among Elliot’s many psychological ailments was apparently dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder).
The two-hour Season 2 premiere, airing Wednesday night, is as stylish and well-performed as any episode in Season 1, but it is also confusing, burdened by the series’ dense backstory and intricate, time-skipping structure. The new season will surely rev up: Malek’s performance remains excellent, there’s a devotion to verisimilitude that includes casting someone to play Janet Yellin, and an act of violence that demonstrates the series can still tap into the dystopic, widening-gyre vibe of the present moment at will. But the premiere is a time waster, diligently checking in on the series’ supporting players while Elliot tries to stay on the sidelines. Some weeks after the events of the Season 1 finale, Elliot is hewing to a strict routine and avoiding all computers, hoping to keep Mr. Robot from taking over his mind again, with no help at all from Mr. Robot, who is a very loud manifestation of mental illness. Mr. Robot spends the premiere berating and attacking Elliot, trying to rouse him into taking part in the revolution he began. It’s strident and tedious. We know Mr. Robot will get his way. There’s a show to make.
In the first season, Elliot was consumed by the idea that everyone around him was a sheep, awash in false choices, unknowingly vulnerable, so much less free than they imagined themselves to be. But at the start of Season 2, Elliot is trying to domesticate himself. He eats and sleeps and watches basketball, all in locations with so little detail, color, and advertising they could be from a dream or the USSR. Elliot also keeps making snide comments about television. He insults NCIS (which airs in reruns on USA). The guy he eats his meal with humorously riffs on the nihilistic meaning of Seinfeld. In another storyline, a dopey character can’t stop watching Vanderpump Rules. Esmail, having created a cult TV show, is expressing some skepticism about television, a medium that, for much of its life, existed to sell audiences soap. Mr. Robot is like an iPhone with an “I hate Apple” ring tone: Both are beautifully designed, powerful products that are superficially conflicted about being beautifully designed, powerful products. For all that Mr. Robot invites us to think about global financial issues, the unchecked power of technology, and imminent societal collapse, it also demonstrates just how efficiently capitalism co-opts all critiques: It can even turn a criminal hacktivist into the poster boy for a cable network.