Both the fan and critical responses to Mr. Robot’s second season have been pretty blasé compared to all the adulation heaped on the show’s first season, which blew nerd minds with creator Sam Esmail’s incredibly specific narrative vision and stubbornly affected aesthetic. The primary complaints against season two have been that it’s too slow, too wrapped up in its own tricks, and too scattered outside the hacking that made it compelling in the first place.
But while season two took its sweet time winding up to the main storylines that eventually propelled it forward, I don’t quite agree with those who say the show’s quality drop-off has been steep.
Instead, I see a show that has expanded its borders beyond its comfort zone — i.e., Elliot’s endless monologuing and hacks of the week — to become something richer. Mr. Robot is letting other characters take the spotlight, and diving into what it means for the world to come screeching to a halt. It’s more ambitious, and yes, a little more flawed.
But if you’re going to make the world a new and more terrifying place, as season two has set out to do, isn’t “ambitious and flawed” fitting?
“Hidden Process” isn’t one of Mr. Robot’s best episodes. But it’s perfectly representative of some of the things the show is doing not just well, but even better in season two than it did in season one.
Elliot confronting Mr. Robot can get repetitive, but at least their “chats” have some forward motion this season
One of the most consistent criticisms of Mr. Robot’s second season is that Elliot has been isolated in his own, repetitive storyline, fighting with Mr. Robot while everyone else gets shit done.
That’s still true, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that Elliot’s prison reveal was unfortunately predictable from the start. But every so often, season two gives us a peek into Elliot’s mind that is truly different from anything the show has tried before, even if it’s expressing the same kind of alienation and mechanical thinking that Elliot has been working through since we met him.
Take, for instance, a single shot in “Hidden Process” that scans Elliot’s apartment. As he tries to figure out what Mr. Robot is looking for in there, the camera slowly pans around the room. “Do you see anything?” he asks us directly, and the scene briefly becomes a game of I Spy. (Let me know if you saw anything, because both my eyes and patience are weak.)
And even as Elliot runs through his familiar mental loops, I’m more interested in the eventual outcome than I am in complaining about repetition, because every episode of this season has shown Elliot fighting just a little bit harder to figure out the truth about how his own mind works. Before, he just kind of hoped everything would settle and leave him alone. Where season one saw Elliot stumbling into the truth, season two is making Elliot take a good, hard look at himself, and ask whether he’s a passive person or an active one.
Of course, Elliot being Elliot, the answer so far seems to be, “kinda both!” But his internal struggle is a whole lot more interesting in the context of this brave new world he and fsociety have created. Season one forced Elliot to realize hard truths about himself and the world; season two is forcing him to decide what to do about it.
And whether it’s by design or default, Elliot weighing the costs and benefits of being a passive person versus an active one has set the stage for several other characters to do the same this season — and in much more interesting ways.
The show’s women are trying to take charge, make change, do something, in a hostile world
I’ve written it before, and now I’m going to write it again: The women of Mr. Robot are doing more than enough to make up for a lack of excitement on Elliot’s part, and any fan who says otherwise just isn’t looking hard enough.
Outside of Elliot’s story, Mr. Robot season two has done a remarkable job of portraying just how frustrating life can be for a woman who wants to make things happen on her own terms when everyone around her refuses to listen.
Though their goals couldn’t be more different, Dom and Angela have both bumped up against frustrating dead ends as they dig deeper and deeper into the endless tangle of red tape and shadowy connections that make up bureaucracies like the FBI and E Corp, respectively. Their male superiors — shrewd, but nowhere near as forward-thinking as their younger, female subordinates — dismiss their pushback or even just basic questioning by almost literally patting them on the head.
Almost every one of Dom’s investigative discoveries this season has happened in spite of her bosses, who can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to the invisible hacking enemies they’re now trying to beat back. In “Hidden Process,” she sets out to find Darlene and Cisco herself, because she knows her bosses will just shrug her hunch away.
In other words: Angela and Dom aren’t being taken seriously, and the institutions brushing them off will almost certainly suffer for it.
Darlene is learning a similar lesson, despite consciously trying to exist outside of the institutions and hierarchies that fsociety’s five-nine hack was supposed to bring crashing down.
Darlene tried to take Elliot’s place when he went to prison, ruling fsociety and its new fringe supporters with an iron fist. They respected her authority, but, as she almost tearfully acknowledges in “Hidden Process,” she always knew that respect was provisional. The instant that Elliot — “the special one” — came back, she’d be out.
When Darlene tells the story of how a woman briefly kidnapped her during a family outing to Coney Island, it’s significant that she frames the incident as one that, for once, made her feel special. Darlene isn’t someone who cares about being liked; she cares about being something unique, fascinating, talented.
The five-nine hack brought her tantalizingly close to achieving as much, and more. She became — as Todd said last week — more ruthless and mercenary in her approach. People started to fear her. And then Elliot came back, and immediately became the center of her world again.
For Darlene, Angela, and Dom, finding power is about carving out a place for themselves within the larger webs they’re caught in. Watching them fight their way out is just as compelling as any hacking job of the week Elliot did last season, if not more so — especially within the framework of a new and slowly unraveling world.
On Mr. Robot, the world doesn’t end with a bang, but with a creeping sense of unease
Back when I first started watching Mr. Robot, I had no idea what the series was trying to say about what the world might look like after a hack of fsociety’s magnitude. It seemed obvious that a massive breach of one of the world’s most powerful companies would result in Mad Max–style chaos. You know, bonfires on highways, turning Central Park into a Thunderdome, that sort of thing.
Instead, Mr. Robot has taken the slower burn approach. E Corp didn’t fold completely, but frantically adjusted, replacing useless credit cards with it own “E Cash” that effectively makes it just as powerful in this new world order as it was in the last. The company still has enough connections and sway to block Angela at every turn, and as Elliot realized back when he framed Terry Colby in season one, cutting down one E Corp villain is like chopping a head off a Hydra; another two will just spring up in his place.
But the rest of the fallout from the five-nine hack has been largely atmospheric. Wannabe hackers are roaming the streets in fsociety masks, causing mild mayhem. Rolling brownouts flicker across the city, ominous but vague, like thunder rumbling in the distance.
As we near the end of the season, the cumulative effect of these sporadic societal meltdowns is far more chilling than if the entire world had fallen apart in the season two premiere, as many people expected. Mr. Robot could’ve easily gone full-on dystopian, but instead, it’s slowed down the entire process so we can understand exactly how a post-hack future could happen.
Season two has essentially been a car crash in slow motion, and watching everyone try to escape their seats before the inevitable impact is incredibly compelling. If the two-part finale turns up the intensity even incrementally on Mr. Robot’s dysfunctional new reality, they could reframe the entire season in a way that will make it far more fascinating than many are giving it credit for.
You can catch up on Vox’s previous coverage of Mr. Robot here.