I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.
In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rather than focussing on how it has nothing up its sleeve. Esmail has accordingly revealed himself to be running on fumes at a far earlier stage than that previous showrunner of mystery box must-see TV, Damon Lindelof (who has at least partly rehabilitated himself with the outstanding The Leftovers, which doesn’t even attempt to provide the answers to everything).
Rami Malek justly won an Emmy for his outstanding lead performance (although, I would caveat that with questions about his range, given his less compelling attempts to do Mr Robot in the final episode), but I’ve been getting ominous flashbacks to an earlier TV titan who held court at the centre of a show that reached its zenith two decades ago, one also given to portentously pompous, presumptive self-importance; Mr. Robot may be turning into the modern era’s The X-Files, with Elliot as a rebooted Fox Mulder, a waffling windbag who, instead of waxing less than lyrical on ETs and the nature of the universe in a jaundiced, vaguely bored quasi-philosophical tone, is stuck on repeat about the dictated mode of reality we doom ourselves to.
Referencing that show, caught twixt old and new, self-contained and serialised dramatic styles (as the recent revisit sadly evidenced, it’s an antiquated approach when dusted off today), Mr. Robot seems victim of exactly the malaise that afflicts the now de rigueur ongoing narrative form for TV drama. Which is, I emphasise, is generally far preferable. The trouble is, we’ve had getting on for two decades to get used to this approach, so simply winging it for a season and then the truth catching up with the audience, that the show’s mastermind doesn’t really have any idea where he’s taking it, doesn’t so easily wash as it once did. Lindelof got away with it for five runs of Lost. Battlestar Galactica managed to complete four seasons despite hinging on Ron Moore having a big reveal he hadn’t planned in advance. Esmail may know where this one ends, owing to devising it as a movie, but what’s in between is less certain; Mr. Robot has no place to go with the repercussions of Season One’s climax.
So it ignores them for the most part. We are told obliquely of things getting hazardous, but we don’t even witness the easy-going diluted global meltdown of James Cameron’s Dark Angel. Life is going on pretty much as normal, except when occasionally (2.10, or 2.9 where Elliot is told his credit card is useless out there now, or the limit on cashpoint withdrawals, or Esmail appropriating presidential speeches like he’s Robert Zemeckis) there’s a nod to changes, but there’s nothing pervasive as it’s too big an imaginative (and budgetary?) leap on the parts of the writers to explore the likely domino effect of the hack. One might argue that it reflects the grimly hanging on of a bankrupt financial system, but the show is set in a reflective universe (of our own), where that one last card really ought to bring down the house.
Season Two of Mr. Robot thus got off to a tepid start that emphasised this uncertainty about what to do and where to go. It has kicked into gear at various points, but this year’s Elliot reveal redux suggests the makers are putting the twist before the horse. Do they really want a show that’s all about attempting to annually pull wool over our eyes, and to what ultimate end? So Elliot was in prison all along. Well done, you’ve just trodden water for seven episodes. In and of itself, the twist was well wrung, and for me at least less obvious than the first season’s although entirely less significant. But it’s also much more potentially damaging, as it gives the series an unfortunate ‘boy who cried wolf’ vibe.
It suggests Esmail doesn’t really know how to get from A to D/E (D/E being season 4/5) without acres of filler. 2.10 illustrated just what a first-rate director he can be, with a sustained final sequence of intercutting between Elliot hacking at Joanna’s behest as the net closes in on Darlene and Cisco, and ending in a flawlessly executed long shot shootout, but as a whole, it sort of shows that, for all the show’s hacking prowess, it leaves a lot to be desired in the plotting stakes.
The episode’s opening, with Phillip Price announcing he’s doing everything he’s doing to be the most powerful person in the world, is disappointingly banal, and even the caveat that there are two individuals more powerful than him doesn’t really satisfy a series couched in paranoia and suspicion. Is that all? Is this just another show with a wicked head cheese at the top of the ladder? Working for a big bad country that’s – oohhh, China? One has to wonder just what the thinking is, since it seems, without any nuance to suggest otherwise, to be as lazy as 24’s parade of Middle Eastern terrorists (not that BD Wong isn’t absolutely dynamite, and, rather effortlessly steals Michael Cristofer’s crusty thunder).
The first few episodes are especially unpersuasive, with sub-Fight Club pranks (cutting the balls off a statue bull) and Elliot’s attempts to avoid Mr Robot (“He shot me in the head again”). The ongoing striving for a coolly referential soundtrack (The Parallax View in 2.2, some Pino Donaggio in 2.7) don’t always quite come off, while the inclusion of Operation Berenstain only raises a glimmer of interest because the stain/stein conundrum is cited as a Mandela Effect residue (certainly not for what it is in the show itself, another faintly passé surveillance scare; as with its limp controllers of the world, Mr. Robot should be assuming the worst to have real crazed cachet, and positing the monitors as already scooping every single thing they need).
It wasn’t until 2.5 that an episode grabbed my attention as thoroughly as anything in the first year, most notably for Whiterose’s expansive conversation that hits (Philip K) Dickian levels of discourse (“Some believe there are alternative realities playing out… other lives we are leading…. other people we have become…. The contemplation moves me deeply”). 2.6 meanwhile scores points for featuring ALF, much less so for thinking it could sustain its sitcom self-parody for fifteen minutes (The X-Files, despite the comparison I drew above, this ain’t, either performer- or malleable format-wise). Still, some of the better plotting has revolved around Angela’s deal with the devil and being put in tense situations that enable her to prove her mettle. Certainly more than comatose Elliot, who aside from eating his own vomit or morphing into Mr Robot (2.9) has only really sparked as a character when put in the position of entertaining Joanna’s man servant and showing his effortless tracing skills.
2.11 made little very much lucid, such that the difference between Emsail’s writing and the much-vilified Damon Lindelof couldn’t be clearer. With The Leftovers you have a series that promises not to provide answers, but is mesmerising and compelling, Lindelof knows innately how to master the kinetics of mystery plotting. Esmail just drops things in, without providing us sufficient reason to care about their whys or wherefores.
Some elements, such as E-Coin/Bitcoin suggest he’s surfing the web for conspiracy theories to manage (he could be on Ben Fulford’s mailing list), yet his actual depiction of a conspiracy theory is anodyne (some reviews have compared Price to the Illuminati, which entirely underlines how rote a depiction the show’s evil mastermind). Now, I could be wrong, and Mr. Robot could pull an almighty reveal out of its hat (such as this all being an AI construct, as some have mooted), what with its Tyrells and characters’ investment in artificial friends (Dom in this episode), but the show has managed to eke out such a baseline of soporific intrigue and deception that it becomes difficult to really care no matter what they do. As a result, Esmail has managed to jade viewers. Or at least, a fair portion of them (ratings have been down).
Other areas of 2.11 further emphasise these crutches on which the show is wearily supported: that when you make messing with reality the norm, it leads either to viewer disavowal or ceases to have much lustre. I found myself unfussed as to whether Tyrell in the back of the cab is real or not (obviously, Elliot made much of this point subsequently), or the extent to which “Mind Awake, Body Asleep” might have resulted in most of an episode in Elliot’s head (all those Back to the Future tracks).
And pilfering, or homaging, only really works if you make it your own. I’ve seen it said that the Angela questionnaire was Lynchian, but no, not really. Studied weird isn’t really weird, and Mr. Robot is so studied (“Is the key in the room?”) that it’s no more than faux-Lynchian. Esmail appears to be dropping lots of would-be tantalising clues but I’m not biting, from Whiterose’s convenient fascination with Angela (“Why are you so special to Philip Price?”) justifying not killing her, to the leading statement that her mother and Elliot’s father “gave their lives to take humanity to the next level” (“Well, I guess it all depends on what your definition of real is”).
And so the finale. A number of sites were proclaiming a shocking twist, so I was left wondering what, exactly, was this startling revelation? It must have passed me by. Unless it’s the inverted “surprise” that Elliot isn’t in fact Tyrell, which is hardly a shocker (an anti-twist). Or that, like George Lucas bringing back the Death Star, the best Esmail can come up with for Stage 2 is that, instead of a cybercrime, they’re going to blow things up (more Fight Club). So this is how you stretch out a movie into a multi-season arc. With that, the mystery of Angela’s cool-headed call from Tyrell, and Darlene being shown the agency board by Dom, it ended up a bit of damp squib, and should probably be less smug about the cheeky references to Burn Notice as an example of “fake” TV (as if that show ever showed anyone successfully invoking the Fifth Amendment).
The way this is all going, and with lines like ‘You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you’ I shouldn’t be surprised if a Mr. Robot season at some point ends with Elliot casting his eyes heavenwards, the outlines of the grid materialising before them. But I fear that it will be all much too late by then, and most of us will have been carted off in the multi-faceted red wheelbarrow of oblivion.
So perhaps the problem with Mr. Robot isn’t me; it’s that, as a self-respecting E-Corp product, it only flirts with anarchy in order to sell it. It’s actually deeply traditional and derivative, just distractingly enough in its emperor’s new hoodie to be labelled innovative.