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Mr. Robot season 2 premiere: A bold return episode shows off the series’ confidence

This show isn’t altering itself one iota for mass consumption. That’s a good thing.

Mr. Robot
Elliot (Rami Malek) and his best pal (Christian Slater) are BACK, baby.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In its season two premiere, USA’s Mr. Robot embraced complete and utter confidence.

The premiere ran for two full hours, and only those two hours — instead of a more extensive look at the new season — were sent to critics (a move usually reserved for your Mad Mens or your Breaking Bads). The show dared to make them two hours where not much of consequence happened, in favor of setting the scene for the season to come. And it refused to let up on any of its potentially alienating elements, from the off-kilter framing to the weird monologues about our rigged political system to the potentially gimmicky "what’s real and what’s not?" questions, even one iota.

And you know what? That was exactly the right call. If Mr. Robot ultimately falls off a cliff, I want it to stick to its own kooky vision. If it succeeds, it will be because of that kooky vision.

But season two is crucial to a show like this, because season two is where the audience finds out whether the show has anything more to add to the original vision that got viewers hooked in season one. So it’s imperative that the season two premiere makes the audience feel like they’re in good hands.

Here are five decisions Mr. Robot made in these opening episodes — titled "" and "" — that served to assure viewers not only that all will be well, but also that the show will keep following the beat of its own drum.

1) We immediately realize Fsociety’s revolution hasn’t gone so well

Mr. Robot
Things have gone poorly for ol’ Elliot.

There were hints of its failure in the first season finale, when chaos and suicide ruled the streets. But the two-hour premiere reveals that Fsociety — the hacker group ostensibly led by series protagonist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) but actually helmed by a split personality of Elliot’s that, to him, takes the form of his dead father (Christian Slater) — didn’t exactly bring freedom by spreading economic revolution.

Instead, as often happens with these sorts of things, upending the system has mostly just resulted in more and more horror the further down the ladder one goes, while those at the very top reap the benefits of their own largess. When the entire world’s economic order is as closely intertwined as it is, is it even possible to burn the system to the ground and start over?

I waffle back and forth on whether Mr. Robot’s diatribes against global capitalism are facile or fascinating. At their best, they’re both. At their worst, they feel like this guy who used to frequent a coffee shop I went to and who was always ranting about Vladimir Putin’s secret plans for the universe.

But the important thing to me has always been that Mr. Robot itself understands how Elliot can come off — like a kid who’s just learned the system is rigged by reading about it on Reddit. And by revealing that the world is spiraling into even deeper confusion and horror than it was in at the beginning, the show nods toward how difficult revolution really is. And in doing so, it reveals how little Elliot understands about what he’s doing — or even who he is.

Seeing the show portray Elliot’s struggle made me happier than any other element of the premiere. I don’t care if Mr. Robot ultimately concludes that capitalism must burn for the world to be a better place — I just don’t want it to be as easy as Elliot originally thought it would be. And the start of season two indicates the show is aware it will have to be tough.

2) The series takes us even deeper into Elliot’s mental illness

Mr. Robot
Talking about Seinfeld over breakfast. Like you do.

At times, season one flirted slightly too hard with the idea that Elliot’s mental illness was a kind of party trick — a way for the series to disguise from viewers what was really happening and nest exciting reveals inside of each other as the season carried out its endgame. (The best of those reveals — that hacker Darlene was Elliot’s sister and he had somehow forgotten — was one of my favorite TV moments of last year, so it was all worth it, I suppose.)

But the scenes featuring Elliot in Mr. Robot’s season two premiere are frequently dark as can be. He’s trying to establish a careful routine that will allow him to excise the hallucinations of his father he keeps having, hallucinations that want nothing more than to push him back toward hacking, the very thing that exacerbates his dissociative identity disorder by urging him to give in to the warped version of his father he carries in his head. But the routine keeps getting shattered.

Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail (who directed both episodes of the premiere and will direct every subsequent hour of the season) frames all of this in disorienting close-ups and carefully arranged shots that constantly position Slater so that he dominates Malek in the frame. No matter how secure Elliot’s routine is — and it involves having breakfast with a friend so they can talk about Seinfeld, which means it’s a pretty good routine — it won’t be enough. Elliot is going to have to confront his own worst self to survive.

3) The premiere scatters the cast to the wind

Mr. Robot
Angela’s back! Angela is everybody’s favorite! Right?

Mr. Robot’s first season was, for all intents and purposes, pretty conventional on a structural level. Elliot’s plans to disrupt society might have been the sort of long, serialized arc we’ve become accustomed to on TV, but he also had a "hacker problem of the week" to solve in each and every episode. That allowed the series to maintain an episodic structure, which gave it an irresistible momentum.

Since Elliot has sworn off hacking for now (he’ll return to it soon, if he isn’t already), the premiere doesn’t have that sort of episodic structure to fall back on. As a result, the proceedings feel slightly too diffuse, as the episodes rush to check in with absolutely every one of the show’s characters — save the still mysteriously missing Tyrell Wellick, who doesn’t make his presence known until the very end of the two hours — and don’t have much of a center to hold onto.

But I still liked this approach all the same. In effect, the two episodes felt like a series of short films about Mr. Robot’s characters, connected by virtue of the fact that we know they all occupy the same universe. Darlene and the remnants of Fsociety took over the smart house. Angela dealt with a crisis at work. Elliot tried to shut up the voices in his head. I’m not sure I could tolerate this jitteriness all season, but for a premiere, it worked.

4) Esmail adds new tricks to the series’ visual style

Mr. Robot
Hello, Mr. Robot look.

The Mr. Robot look became one of the most noticeable — and easily parodied — things on TV in 2015. Simply make sure your characters are squashed all the way down into one of the lower corners of every frame, with large gulps of empty space looming over all, and you, too, can make a Mr. Robot episode!

And if I had a major concern going into season two, it was that Esmail will be directing every episode. Given the way this look can easily skew toward the contrived, it could be a problem if he keeps going back to that well, over and over.

Fortunately, the premiere seems to know this. Yes, there are a few instances where the characters might as well be ants, tiny and trapped in the bottom edges of the frame. But Esmail’s bag of tricks now includes long tracking shots that only increase the claustrophobia the characters feel, as we watch them discover how unable they are to escape their current situations, in real time. It’s a nifty way of upholding the Mr. Robot feel, while not doing exactly the same thing.

5) Gideon dies (presumably)

Mr. Robot
Not here, though. That’s Craig Robinson!

In by far the premiere’s biggest twist, Gideon — the kind, paternal boss who tried to save Elliot in season one, even though he didn’t realize how lost Elliot truly was — is shot in the neck. It’s a seemingly random crime, carried out by a guy who believes that Gideon is a "crisis actor," or a performer hired by the government to make tragedies seem real by acting sad in the background. (Conspiracy theorists really do believe that crisis actors exist; if you ever want to feel depressed about the state of the universe, fall down that rabbit hole on Google.)

I don’t entirely know that Gideon’s death will pan out across the season — killing him in such a random fashion could end up feeling like a shock for shock’s sake — but in the moment, it offers a great sense that the demons Elliot and his compatriots have unleashed won’t be so easily put back in the bottle.

And that’s all I want from Mr. Robot, season two. If the world is going to come to an end, I’d rather it do so with the responsible parties slowly realizing, with a sinking sensation, just how bad things could get. If the show can stick to that vision, it just might end up being the perfect TV series for our paranoid, angry age.

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