How do you follow up one of the buzziest, most critically adored first seasons of television in the last decade?Pretty flawlessly, if you happen to be creator Sam Esmail working on Season 2 of USA’s “Mr. Robot.”
The hacker drama–which unleashed a plethora of twists and turns in Season 1’s final two episodes, including the successful deployment of hacktivist group F Society’s plan to take down the banks; the revelation that hoodie addict Elliot (Rami Malek) has been hallucinating their leader, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater); and that he’s completely forgotten cohort Darlene is also his sister–is still as slyly withholding as before, and just as addictive. But Esmail and company have sidestepped the problems of returning as a hit by adopting blinkers. Whereas some shows return and double down on what made their previous installments successful while undercutting it all by attempting to tell bigger stories (remember ABC’s “Revenge”?), Esmail serenely continues telling the story he wants to tell.
So yes, we have twists and turns (including a doozy at the end of the Season 2 premiere’s second hour) and more information withheld and then irregularly doled out. The biggest question at the center of the second season thus far is what, exactly, did happen to Elliot’s nemesis-admirer Tyrell Wellick? Tyrell’s wife, we learn, has been keeping busy, and Tyrell himself has been blamed for the hacks. But as for his current whereabouts, Elliot appears to be as much in the dark as we are–though the season opens with a flashback of Elliot with Tyrell during the E Corp hack, reaching into a popcorn machine that’s been stocked with a gun…
In fact, Season 2 finds Elliot willfully burying his head in the sand–or at least in his childhood bedroom, under the baleful gaze of his distant mother, a woman who once demanded to know how much a cast would cost for her son’s broken arm. He’s cut himself off from the digital world, filling his days with indifferent diner meals accompanied by new friend Leon, household chores, and incessant, analog journaling in an effort to keep Mr. Robot at bay.
Along for the ride are several new faces, including Grace Gummer, Craig Robinson, and Aasif Mandvi. The addition of new cast members may have been cause for mild concern, as if the year’s breakout hit would become overburdened by special guest stars demanding their own stories, but the various new characters are smoothly introduced and the series itself maintains its glossy bleakness; Elliot’s rigid new daily routine is filmed with a combination of elegance and emotional chill, as if to commend his discipline and deplore your own less ascetic tastes.
Likewise, the performances have only deepened over the last year. Carly Chaiken’s Darlene is still all sneer and eyeliner, but she’s layered in some genuine hurt and anger at the way things have played out. And Portia Doubleday has transformed Angela from a hand-wringing do-gooder into a hardened woman who seems increasingly addicted to high-risk, high-reward behavior.
Of course, the show’s centerpiece remains Malek’s mesmerizing turn as Elliot, as well as his chemistry with Slater‘s Mr. Robot. Excavating that much emotion from deadpan narration is a tough gig, but Malek continues to find new shades of neutral both in voiceover and in his scenes. And now that he know the truth about Mr. Robot, the dynamic has shifted drastically, leaving one or the other perpetually frustrated. Which means one of the major concerns of any returning hit has been voided: “Mr. Robot” has no intention of recreating its previous success on a larger scale. Just like its antihero, the show is far more interested in blowing things up and then seeing where the pieces land.