“Control is an illusion.” –Mr. Robot
The two-part season two premiere of the hit USA show Mr. Robot aired last night. To say it lived up to the hype would be an understatement. Mainly because, no one could have possibly predicted what that hour and a half of television brought into homes across the world. And I’m not talking about the f-bombs that were dropped on basic cable, or the hardcore BDSM scene on basic cable, or the man getting shot point blank on basic cable. I’m talking about the places that creator, writer, and director Sam Esmail brought us to. Rather, I think the proper phrase would be shepherded us to, as we wandered in his hi-tech, mentally unstable desert.
Mr. Robot was renewed for a second season before the premiere of its pilot (which, as of today, was nominated for an Emmy in the Dramatic Writing category). The renewal gave the show two things—a stamp of assurance from the USA network for its potential success, and the ability for the show to take on the unconventional and untravelled places that the series has taken us.
This sense of wandering began in the very first scene, when a two-minute long single tracking shot showed Elliot and Tyrell on the night of the 5/9 hack. It was sweeping, lingering on Elliot and his finely orchestrated keystrokes, before Elliot moved to the popcorn machine where he had stashed Chekhov’s gun in the first season. We here a CRASH—but it wasn’t the gun. It was Elliot as a child, tumbling to the pavement after falling, or jumping, out of his bedroom window.
The next sequence shows Elliot as a child before moving to his new living situation. A sterile, bland bedroom devoid of comfort or technology. It’s in this room that we see Elliot’s new condition—his constant battle with Mr. Robot has Elliot descending into madness. Elliot has jammed routine into his life, trying to shake his alter ego from existence. Same bed, made every morning. TV is his only connection to technology. He has a friend who he eats lunch with every day, Leon (played by rapper and first-time actor, Joey Bada$$). And while Elliot’s daily life has some questioning if it represents something bigger, it is certain that Elliot is in much deeper than he is sharing with us. After all, he tells us that he’s “not ready to trust you yet. Not after what you did.”
Elliot’s only grounding element is his journal. Every day, he writes down what Mr. Robot says to him, what Leon told him about Seinfeld, etc. But most importantly, he tells himself that he’s in control. Much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s spinning top in Inception, the journal is the only tool Elliot has to keep him from falling completely off his rocker. It’s clear that Elliot is not in control, and that what he is sharing with us may be an illusion. But it’s also certain that Elliot is fighting back against the darkness, and he’s taking us for a ride.
The Darlene we are reintroduced to in season two is changed. Like her brother, she seems angry and unhinged. But instead of fighting her alter ego, it seems she’s fighting the outside world, and its refusal to take up arms with her against E Corp. While the FBI and E Corp are spending all their resources in search of the true source of the hack, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care. To take out her anger, Darlene chooses a couple high-profile E Corp executives as objects of personal amusement. She hacks into the smart house of Susan Jacobs, the general counsel of E Corp. Esmail spends nearly five minutes showing the various elements of the house malfunctioning, from the TV, to the speakers, to the shower and thermostat temperatures. Honestly, a faulty thermostat would have probably been enough to send Susan packing for her place in Greenwich, but Darlene was clearly sending a message—we own you.
But as Darlene and the rest of fsociety put all their energy into perpetuating the technological destruction on E Corp, no one else really seems to care. Rather, the general public takes it as an inconvenience, as demonstrated by the angry woman trying to cancel her E Corp bank account. There’s a pressure that Darlene feels on her. And much like rock stars have a lifetime to write their first album, but a year to write their second, Darlene knew she had to keep pushing the envelope. That’s why she put a ransom on E Corp’s banking systems. CTO Scott Knowles volunteers to deliver the ransom to Battery Park City, only to be made a fool when he’s instructed to burn the money in front of dozens of people while wearing an fsociety mask. It was perhaps the strongest scene in the episode, and most representative of what the hack has brought to the world—a shift in balance. These executives who have been in positions of power their whole lives are suddenly helpless. The scene also featured the song “Take Me Home” by Phil Collins, a song about a man who wants to leave a mental institution. Hmm….
The premiere introduces us to some new faces. Not only do we meet the aforementioned Leon, but we meet Ray (played by Craig Robinson), a friendly neighbor with a dog that takes to Elliot. Ray is relentless in trying to make a friend out of Elliot, even though Elliot bluntly tells him he doesn’t want to be friends. One gets the sense that Ray might be there for other reasons besides being a friend. We also meet Dom, an FBI agent tasked with finding out who was behind the hack. She’s brash, fickle, and friendly. She sucks on a lollipop like a high school bully slamming a nerd into a locker, and make no mistake, Dom means business. She interrogates Gideon, which perhaps leads directly to his untimely death (fuck you, Brock).
The episode truly comes full circle towards the end. Mrs. Joanna Wellick is where we would likely presume she’d be—tied up in a BDSM rig with a new boy toy. But Angela is not where she belongs. She’s now a PR manager at E Corp. She’s a firecracker, hated by her co-workers, but she doesn’t care. She defies Linda, the attorney she worked with in season one, and she brings home a random guy at the bar. She’s proving to herself that she’s a different person than she’s been her whole life. And much like Elliot writing down that he’s in control like Bart Simpson in detention, Angela watches a positive reinforcement video, telling herself that she’s “confident” and that she recognizes herself as “exceptional.” Both Elliot and Angela, childhood friends, find themselves in places they don’t belong, trying to tell themselves that they’re something they’re not. It seems both of them will only be able to live in their self-constructed charades for so long before it collapses under their own weight. The season two premiere ends just as the pilot did a little over a year ago. A disoriented and disturbed Elliot hears the words “Bon Soir, Elliot” from our favorite Swedish sadist, Tyrell Wellick. Though, his location, and whether or not he’s even alive, is still a mystery.
The show has many places it can go in season two. Its episode count has been extended from ten to twelve, and Sam Esmail is taking on the near-impossible task of directing all twelve episodes. Whether Elliot is truly in prison right now, or his setting is just a metaphor, Esmail is weaving a tapestry of deceit and madness before us. Its words are clearly written in code and blood—trust no one, even our own eyes, for control is an illusion.