‘Mr. Robot’ 2nd season premiere: We all wear m4sks

Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2
“eps2.0_unm4sk-pt1.tc” & “eps2.0_unm4sk-pt2.tc”
AIR DATE: July 13, 2016

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t…right?”

Last year, the world was left on the brink of economic collapse thanks to Elliot and fsociety’s big hack that brought Evil Corp to its knees. Tyrell Wellick was missing in action, Elliot’s team was laying low after burning their entire hacking lab, Elliot was answering his front door for an as-yet-unseen party and Evil Corp’s big boss, Phillip Price, was telling the enigmatic and mysterious Whiterose that they knew who it was who had hacked them.

Welcome back to USA’s Mr. Robot, a show that not only surprised viewers and critics with its audacity and thoroughly realized characters (it’s the only show in Rotten Tomatoes history to get a perfect score for each episode of the first season), it’s also, just after one episode, still one of the best television shows of the modern era.

It’s a few months after fsociety’s big hack and we’re still in that very same world: dark, dreary and hopeless with the President on television trying to tell us that, while this is all unprecedented, we’ll be just fine if we stick together as a country. It’s virtually the end of the world…and Elliot feels fine. Ironically, he’s living with his mother (his actual mother, not a hallucination, but who knows these days?) and he has a routine — or an “infinite loop” as he calls it.

It consists of Elliot getting up in the morning, hanging out with his new friend, Leon (series newcomer Joey Bada$$), by eating and watching basketball together in a city yard (he hates sports but likes the fact that there’s an “invisible code” everyone plays by) and seeing his psychiatrist, Dr. Krista Gordon, who really doesn’t want to treat Elliot anymore due to the hack into her personal life last season but only does so if Elliot starts telling her the truth about himself.

He keeps a hand-written journal because it’s “what he needs to keep the program running”. It’s here we see a wrap-up of his day: bits about Leon, who he’s seen, what he’s done and what he may do tomorrow. His mother is there to tell him when it’s time to get up and when it’s time to sleep in militaristic fashion. It’s very mechanical, which is odd to Elliot: “My Mom doesn’t have any computer or Internet access to tempt me into the night,” he explains. “All that’s left for me is just ordinary, analog sleep.”

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MR. ROBOT — Pictured: Joey Bada$$ as Leon — (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

But is Elliot happy with this “routine”? His attitude is still cynically praising (and, therefore, at the same time rejecting) what it is to be a drone in this world: “Everyone goes along with their NCIS‘s and their Lexapro…isn’t that where it’s ‘comfortable’?” Krista, his long-suffering psych just stares, not knowing what to say. During Elliot’s free time, Leon psychoanalyzes Seinfeld, a show which everyone’s seen but that Leon is now just discovering. Leon cannot get over how Seinfeld is without a point or even a thick plot — yet everyone loves it.

“It’s really fucking with him,” Elliot tells us.

“It’s really fuckin’ with me!” Leon tells Elliot, explaining that there was an entire episode comprised of Jerry and his friends waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant — and that was it. “They didn’t even eat at the end of the episode, man!” Elliot remarks that Leon talks about this each and every day without fail — which is just fine because Elliot doesn’t mind. It’s all a part of the daily program he’s comfortable with. This is something that rivals Leon’s epiphany: maybe the point of Seinfeld is that it’s supposed to be pointless, that life and love and everything is simply arbitrary and nothing more. “The human condition,” he laments, “is a straight-up tragedy, cuz.” This is interspersed with images of Obama addressing an economically-stricken nation…and Elliot sits there, half-interested. Their conversations take place with straight faces, without obvious humor, in a dank, run-down diner, almost as if we were watching Seinfeld through the lens of David Lynch.

“The regimen”, as Elliot calls it, means that he just won’t put himself back into the main equation — and this irks Mr. Robot something awful. As Elliot slaves away, putting his thoughts into a journal and sitting at lunch with Leon and his rantings about Seinfeld and doing household chores, Mr. Robot begs him to come back into the fray. He’s even killed Elliot by shooting him in the head — except that Elliot survives each time, sitting up like a zombie and staring Robot down like a parent to a petulant, angry child. This signals to us that Robot’s power over Elliot has evaporated. The moment gives us one of the more darkly funny elements of the episode: Elliot writes in his journal that Robot has done this several times and that he’s trying not to listen so he’ll return to normal.

But is that true? Is Elliot going straight? Not likely. The cold opening of the show reveals the very moment where Evil Corp got the big kick in the financial nuts, starting from the moment where Tyrell Wellick gave his big speech to the entire world about the death of Evil Corp. He slowly pulls the mask off his face, dismissing it as silly. Elliot’s too caught up in executing the death code to care what Wellick is saying — but gets out of the way when Wellick barges in front of him, practically melding with him. He’s amazed with what he’s seeing, that these numbers and letters are what’s bringing Evil Corp to his knees. He raises his hands and softly declares that it’s like “watching something come to life”. That’s when Elliot goes for Darlene’s popcorn machine gun…

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MR. ROBOT — Pictured: Carly Chaiken as Darlene — (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

But that’s where it becomes fuzzy. Instead of seeing what we think is coming next, we’re reminded of Elliot’s trauma, brought on at an early age when he was shoved out his bedroom window from the second story of his home. He’s missing hours. He can’t remember what happened to Wellick and, frankly, Mr. Robot doesn’t care. So, here we are: Elliot wants to know what happened to Tyrell Wellick and Robot wants Elliot to be “normal” again. Elliot isn’t normal. But what’s “normal” anymore? The damage has been done and there are consequences and repercussions as a result of the fsociety hack. As a result, Elliot wears a mask and he hides in plain sight.

“How come it still feels like they’re winning?” His sister, Darlene, asks as she sends out a new ransom code to Evil Corp’s computers. fsociety spends an evening quite literally cutting off the economy’s balls (the poor Bowling Green Bull gets emasculated here) and celebrates this victory — except that Darlene’s furious because her new followers are careless, seeking fame and fortune for tasks that are meant to help people.

The entire episode portrays a world up for grabs, teetering in the balance. There’s hope of a brighter future but also a prevailing sense of dread in the most Lynchian tradition. One gets the feeling that everything is “broken” and not working the way it should. This is evident from the start with a flashback involving Elliot’s infamous “fall” out his bedroom window when he’s only a child. His head is cracked open and his blood leaks into the ground. His room has no lights and the camera flies head-on into darkness. His doctor asks questions but they’re muffled and incomprehensible.

Gideon shows up in this episode, telling Elliot that the FBI believes that Gideon is behind the entire attack and that they’re most likely ready to prosecute. Gideon begs Elliot to help him — and if he doesn’t, he’ll name Elliot as an accessory to the entire thing. All the while, Mr. Robot screams at Elliot, telling him that he has no choice but to explain the truth. He even threatens to slit Gideon’s throat — and follows through — but Elliot’s gamble is right on: Mr. Robot has no control over Elliot. Gideon lives — if only for a short while — because Robot’s gruesome actions are truly hallucinations and not something Elliot’s doing anymore. Gideon’s real fate comes later and it’s truly agonizing. As much as he was a part of the “system”, he was an unknowing, naive pawn and it’s sad to know that he won’t be redeemed. It’s also unknown as to whether or not Robot was a part of it. After all, he was there during Gideon’s ultimatum.

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MR. ROBOT — Pictured: Portia Doubleday as Angela Moss — (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

Whereas Gideon was unknowing, Angela has fully embraced Evil Corp and wears it around her like a skin. Instead of the frumpy girl wearing a tie to work in a fit of defiant irony, she dons a business suit, her hair is neatly pulled back and she’s an absolute shark, wheeling and dealing to keep Evil Corp’s name out of the gutter. She’s such an asshole that her co-workers all hate her. The one who carries the flag for that mob always attempts to find ways to slime her so that she’ll presumably take Angela’s place. Alas, it never happens and it’s downright chilling to watch the woman we loved be so cold to people she would usually have respect for. She even quashes the Evil Corp lawsuit, which serves to confirm her turn to the dark side. Her lawyer, Antara Nayar (Sakina Jaffrey from last season), is disappointed but doesn’t get emotional. Sharks recognize their own, after all, and one gets the feeling that Nayar knows the battle with Evil Corp is far from finished. Instead, she offers Angela a simple anecdote:

“A guy walks up to a woman at a bar…he flirts with her, he makes small talk but the woman insists she isn’t going home with him. Guy says, ‘What if I offer you a million dollars to sleep with me?’ The woman’s never had a million dollars in her life. She stops and considers the offer very seriously. The guy changes his mind, says, ‘What if I changed my offer to a dollar instead?’ The woman is aghast: ‘What kind of woman do you think I am?’ Guy says, ‘We’ve already figured that out. Now, we’re just negotiating.'”

Having virtually just been called a corporate whore by Nayar, it’s here we see Angela’s mask disintegrate for the first time. And, as if to reclaim her newfound dominance, she sleeps with the first guy who hits on her at the bar — then gets up in the middle of the night to watch a late night meditation program where she repeats confidence affirmations like a mantra. And the mask is back on, for better or for worse. Even more frightening (and somewhat similar) is Tyrell’s estranged wife, Joanna, who has a new boytoy in her life. While she enjoys the fruits of his BDSM “labors”, she remains ice cold. It’s only when a mysterious box containing a random cellphone shows up on her doorstep that she lights up. But if it’s from Tyrell, does Joanna truly miss him enough to pick up the line when he calls?

The opening episode of Mr. Robot illustrates why the show has so many fans. At its lightest, the show is a breeze. At its darkest, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have. “unm4sked” has several little impressive pieces that are so good, they may be hard for the rest of the series to top. Darlene’s hostile takeover of the house belonging to Evil Corp’s lawyer, “Madame Executioner” Susan Jacobs (cast newcomer Sandrine Holt) is a standout and an audiophile’s wet dream: Jacobs’ house is a “Smarthome” which is to say that everything from the alarm to the electricity to the entertainment to the water temperature is controlled by a wireless tablet. When it seemingly goes rogue, it’s funny and simultaneously terrifying. Lights flicker, the TV goes haywire, the alarm goes off randomly, her shower nearly burns her, Mozart begins blasting during her swim time before stopping just as quickly, her own house phone dials her and she can only hear her voice echoing when she speaks…it’s like a haunted house with no supernatural culprit except for fsociety’s tricks and games. Even Tech Support can’t help her and it’s amusing to see Jacobs become the victim of the bureaucratic system she helped build.

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Michael Cristoher (left) as E Corp CEO Phillip Price and Sandrine Holt (right) as E Corp’s General Counsel Susan Jacobs on USA’s “Mr. Robot”.

Even her own advice backfires on her: fsociety releases a malicious piece of ransomware to Evil Corp’s computers, extorting the company for nearly six million dollars. “We can find that money in our couch cushions,” she snorts, while telling CTO Scott Knowles that he’ll be a part of the money drop. Even Phillip Price laughs the whole thing off as a sick joke and we see the disgust on Knowles’ face. Last season, he lost his wife at the hands of the murderous Tyrell Wellick. His mask has all but fallen off and it’s very plain to see that he no longer has the stomach for what he does for this company.

The drop sequence is beautifully done, using One World Trade Center as a backdrop and Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” quietly building itself up to a crescendo fitting of the moment. We Scott plop the bags containing the ransom money down on the pavement. Scott stands…and waits…and waits…until a bike messenger shows up with a delivery. It’s a backpack, containing an fsociety mask and lighter fluid. He’s horrified when he reads the note written on the inner portion of it and gets a phone call promising the destruction of Evil Corp’s systems if he doesn’t do what the mask says. Without hesitation or choice, Knowles dumps the bags out, douses it all with lighter fluid and lights six million dollars on fire to the confusion of a stone-faced crowd that assembles almost as if to mecca. It’s one of the show’s most magical and greatest moments so far.

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E Corp CTO Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell, middle) stands before a pile of burning money on USA’s “Mr. Robot”

The second season of any show is usually the one that tells us where the series is going and whether or not it will succeed. Showrunner Sam Esmail has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal from an incredibly deep and diverse cast to the movie-quality production and tight scripts that tell an incredible (and very timely) story, “eps2.0_unm4sked.tc” is extraordinary. Episodes like this and it’s predecessor, “eps1.9_zer0-day.avi”, are what separate ordinary shows from the rest of the pack. These kinds of episodes not only build a fanbase, they also build a reputation. While it might be too soon to drop a “one of the greats” label on Mr. Robot, if Esmail and his crew continue to pump out quality episodes like the one I saw tonight, they may well earn it soon enough.

Matt Perri
Matt Perrihttp://mattperri.wordpress.com
Matt Perri is one of those literary Ronin you’ve never heard of until he shows up and tells you he’s a literary Ronin. He’s a native Californian, a film buff, old school gamer geek, and a sports/entertainment fan. A lifelong Giants, 49ers and Sharks fan, he also covers the world of pro-wrestling, writing recaps for WWE Monday Night RAW and Total Divas at Scott’s Blog of Doom. You can follow the guy on Twitter via @PerriTheSmark as well as here at The Workprint and his own blog, Matt's Entertainment.

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