Entering into its second season, USA’s Mr. Robot is still operating as unchallenging protest pop art enabled by the very corporations it criticizes. The heroes remain sexy in an “alternative” way that already felt hokey in the 1995 film Hackers, but that has come back into fashion now that the 1990s are old enough to serve as catnip for the corporate nostalgia machine. Moody, synth-accompanied ennui is in again, and so are goth pixie dream girls with long legs and short shorts and heavy make-up to communicate that they’re gorgeous, but tormented by a paradoxically formulaic sense of individuality. In a nice touch, the show’s hacker saviors occasionally hang out in an abandoned arcade, which suggests the series has a bit of playfulness about its designer obsession with retro tactility.
When we last left Mr. Robot, the hackers, called “fsociety” and led by mentally unhinged Elliot Anderson (Rami Malek), erased much of the world’s debt in a theoretical blow to our rigged capitalist system. But E Corp, as embodied by its leader, Phillip Price (Michel Cristofer), was understood to be invulnerable. The hackers’ revolution only fucked over working-class people, affirming yet again that our ruling elite is never susceptible to the cultural tides that sweep the rest of us up, depositing us who knows where. As self-pitying and derivative as the show’s first season often was, it concluded on a promisingly self-critical note. Elliot’s revolution was a hollow and naïve victory. Now what? Should he cash his chips and get a job at Capital One, um, E Corp?
The season-two premiere doesn’t answer these questions, instead clearing its throat and reminding us where everyone now resides. Elliot’s living with his mother, who hangs about in atmospheric shadows that owe their existence, per usual, to the cinematography of David Fincher’s films. Darlene (Carly Chaiken) commandeers an E Corp honcho’s chic, computer-operated “smart home” in the episode’s most amusing sequence, setting up a hideout for the next step in fsociety’s revolution. Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) is still haunting Elliot’s dreams, embodying the latter’s blossoming insanity, tempting him to kill his former boss, Gideon (Michel Gill), who’s been framed to potentially take the fall for fsociety’s shenanigans. And as of yet, Tyrell and Joanna Wellick (Martin Wallström and Stephanie Corneliussen), the show’s most interesting and charismatic characters, are only alluded to.
At this point, there’s little to distinguish Mr. Robot’s second season from its first. There are intriguing new notes of melancholia in Malek’s delivery of the show’s reliably asinine voiceover, though it would be difficult for any actor to do much with privileged, audience-flattering patter like “How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask? When it’s as much a part of me as I am?” or, more embarrassingly, “We will find our true selves again, maybe after wiping away the thick, grimy foam of Facebook friend requests and Vine stars, we can all see the light of day.” That sort of nonsense strands the heroes, inspiring our collusion with the bad guys, who at least ruin the world freely and stylishly, refusing to fool themselves with pitifully half-baked notions of their own heroism. Particularly Price, who’s played by Cristofer with a commanding sense of understatement that effortlessly steals the spotlight away from the younger, hungrier, more uncertain characters.
Elsewhere, Mr. Robot’s aesthetic—a blend of Fincher’s menacing noir colors and show-off camera angles that frequently and obviously highlight loneliness and alienation—is nearing ever closer to the edge of inadvertent self-parody. For instance, a flashback to Elliot’s childhood, which is clearly being planted for later narrative use, involves an elaborate camera pirouette away from an overhead composition of a collapsed boy into the window of an upside-down house. The shot is technically impressive, but distracts from the ostensible emotional crux of the moment, which should be focused on a child’s turmoil. As usual with Mr. Robot, there’s a sense that the creators care only about establishing pretenses to mount their formally self-conscious kitsch. The series is too busy being cool to matter.