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Mr. Robot is finally its best self in season 3

The show overcomes a sophomore slump with thrilling paranoia and a slightly muddled take on Trump.

Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot is back, and all his robot friends are here, too.
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 third season, Mr. Robot is finally the series I always hoped it would become, just in time for the world to have seemingly left it behind.

As it always has been, Mr. Robot is set in 2015, where its reality and ours diverged in the wake of a massive hack on the fictional Evil Corp that destroyed the world’s economy. But in Mr. Robot’s world, Obama is still president, and the show is frantically alternating between making jokes about the certainty many had that Donald Trump (still just a candidate on the show) could never become president — and suggesting that the massive, multinational corporate conspiracy at its center was positioning Trump as the perfect patsy.

This is the weird dilemma Mr. Robot finds itself in. On the one hand, the show’s paranoid certainty that life is controlled, at all turns, by corporations, governments, and shadowy forces we barely understand — and by extension, that revolution is the only answer — is one of pop culture’s most potent distillations of the free-wheeling darkness that propelled Trump to the presidency. Similarly, the show’s season three distillation of the sense that Trump’s rise was boosted by the Russians or shadowy corporate money or somebody fits well within its worldview.

But it’s still ... stuck in 2015. Its commentary on Trump often feels clumsy and ill-advised, like all of the characters are somehow in a time travel movie about trying to return the world to the “correct” timeline. And because the show has been on hiatus for over a year (since September 2016), and because its second season was met with a decidedly mixed reception, and because so much has happened in our world since then, season three tends to feel like an artifact from another place and time, one picked up through accidental transmissions that somehow permeated into our present day.

Still, yes, Mr. Robot is finally evolving into the show it always should have been, and you should watch it. Here are the three biggest reasons that season three is able to overcome its slightly out-of-time nature to achieve its potential.

1) Mr. Robot’s season three synthesizes the show’s first two seasons just about perfectly

The story of Mr. Robot’s first two seasons follows a narrative as old as television itself. In season one, the show’s unusual aesthetic, magnetic lead performance (from Emmy winner Rami Malek), and twisty storytelling made for a uniquely addictive treat. It had rough edges, to be sure, but the show felt so much itself that it was hard to dwell on them.

Then came season two, and a hefty dose of backlash. Truth be told, season two ended up being pretty good, all things considered, but it was badly front-loaded with ponderous, too-long episodes that largely took place inside the main character’s brain, making the show seem as if it had swallowed itself whole. The front-loading, coupled with a handful of lackluster creative decisions — twists that didn’t really work, keeping one character offscreen for almost an entire season, needless complication of the conspiracy storyline — made for plenty of critical blowback.

Mr. Robot
Look out, Elliot. You’re in the bottom of the frame again!

But if you look beneath all of season two’s problems, and Mr. Robot was doing the work. The biggest, most obvious flaw of season one was that none of the characters outside of Elliot (the show’s protagonist, played by Malek) was as interesting as him. That changed in season two, whose best episode didn’t feature Malek at all; instead, it centered on Elliot’s sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) as her moral compass frayed, due to her need to keep her and Elliot’s role in the Evil Corp hack a secret. The season similarly built compelling stories for other supporting players, like Elliot’s friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) and newcomer FBI Agent Dom (Grace Gummer).

Suddenly, the show wasn’t just about Elliot and his dark second self (the titular Mr. Robot, a manifestation that takes the form of Elliot’s dead father and is played by Christian Slater). It was building out a whole world — which was key to helping Mr. Robot become a TV show, instead of the movie screenplay it had originally been in the hands of creator Sam Esmail.

As season three begins, it proves that all of that character development was for the best. Now, the central trio of Elliot, Darlene, and Angela are all working at cross-purposes, or sometimes working together (depending on which persona Elliot slips into), while Mr. Robot haunts the proceedings like a carnival ghoul. Dom is closing in, and Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), who sat out most of season two, is back with a vengeance (episode three mostly reveals what he got up to as season two went on).

Mr. Robot also remains skilled at deepening characters old and new who exist on the edges of its conspiracy theories. The newest (and best) addition is Irving, a used car salesman with a larger role to play in the show’s story, portrayed by Bobby Cannavale as the dorky dad from an ‘80s movie. Similarly, the series has promoted White Rose (BD Wong) to a series regular, smartly playing up one of TV’s best, most enigmatic antagonists.

Even better, that character development meshes beautifully with season three’s slight return to the more straightforward “hack of the week” structure of season one. Though it takes more of a “mission of the week” approach (it’s pretty well past the point when Elliot would help his neighbors with routine hacks to advance his various personal agendas), the characters’ goals and ends are almost always clear and well-articulated — especially in the exemplary fifth episode, which strands most of the Mr. Robot’s big players in the same building, all with different objectives to pursue, many of which directly conflict with each other.

2) It’s so, so, so much funnier

Mr. Robot
Look at his mustache and tell me it’s not funny.

The promotional materials for season three have focused heavily on how Mr. Robot will revolve around the battle between Elliot and Mr. Robot for control of the body that contains them both. Yes, that sounds like a snooze, especially after season two’s exploration of the same theme in assorted showdowns between the two (including a lengthy chess match that dragged the show to a halt).

But let me assure you, the battle for control is funny this season, without losing sight of Mr. Robot’s larger dark paranoia. One wide shot in the season’s sixth episode features Elliot staggering toward a door, trying to complete a particular goal, while Mr. Robot tries to stop him by making him throw his body against walls and bash his head against objects.

Season two might have gone in for a close-up on the brutality — but season three pulls way back to highlight the absurdity of the situation, then lets the shot play on and on and on, so it goes from disturbing to funny, then back again, over and over. (It’s worth noting here that Esmail directed all of season three’s 10 episodes, just as he did in season two.)

In similar fashion, Irving is such a self-evidently ridiculous character that he brings an element of levity to every scene he appears in. You’ll see it almost immediately in the premiere, when he escapes a car chase in a manner I never would have considered.

Mr. Robot felt fun in season one, and even if the show is perhaps too far down the rabbit hole to ever get back to that purity of spirit, it knows that everything that’s happening on it is kinda silly, which helps carry it through any rough patches.

3) Its philosophizing is more nuanced

Mr. Robot
Look into the mirror.

Another criticism of Mr. Robot’s first season was that its hero often came off as if he was cornering you at a party (or maybe derailing the discussion on a Facebook post) to talk about his particular obsessions, many of which seemed to be derived directly from the film Fight Club. The series was interested in corporate control of everything, and in how governments roll over for corporations, but only cursorily, befitting its blinkered hero.

Every so often in season one — and especially in season two — Mr. Robot would pull back just enough to reveal that while Elliot’s philosophies might have had some merit here and there, they failed to account for the lives of too many of his fellow human beings.

The more he started to build connections to the people around him, the more he came to realize that broken systems are still made up of people, and fixing them can often lead to horrible consequences for those people. How do you start a revolution without blood? You don’t, and Elliot’s spent much of the series learning this over and over.

But Mr. Robot also doesn’t want to back away from its idea that the Western world (and, really, just “the world”) is a corrupted black hole that no one person can fill, no matter how powerful they are. In season three, the show examines the idea that chaos too often leads to the same people attaining even more power, up to and including a background subplot about colonialism that plays out almost entirely on TV screens.

It’s a big, complicated idea, and Mr. Robot doesn’t pretend to have easy answers. In the fifth episode, one character tries to carry out a computer hack all by themselves as Esmail’s camera, positioned above them, shifts so that it seems to drift outside, looking down on a crowd of chanting protesters far below. Everybody in the story is trying to change the world, but no one ever realizes how easily they’ve been divided by those who hold the real power.

The ends — a better, more just world, where more people have more of what they need — are the same, but the means never square up, leaving chaos to rule. I’m reminded of the old saying, quoted in The Sopranos (an obvious influence of Mr. Robot’s): When there’s blood in the streets, buy property.

Mr. Robot returns Wednesday, October 11, at 10 pm Eastern on USA. Previous seasons are streaming on Amazon.

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