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The Summer of Our Discontent

What does ‘Mr. Robot’ mean in the age of Trump? And can its fictional revolution possibly compete with the real world?

USA Network
USA Network

Though it premiered just over a year ago, it already seems as if the first season of USA’s Mr. Robot aired in simpler times. The ‘Brexit’ was an empty political threat, Bernie Sanders was a little-known senator from Vermont, and Donald Trump’s presidency appeared to be about as likely as Roseanne Barr’s. If the first season of the show — which concerns a hacktivist collective called “fsociety” attempting to level the world’s economic playing field by erasing all consumer debt — had a flaw, it was that it occasionally felt a little too grandiose in its talk about revolution, perhaps a little too po-faced in its claim that the sky was falling. (When, at the end of Episode 9, antihero Elliot Alderson is asked why he is orchestrating the hack, a far-away expression settles on his face as he replies, “I wanted to save the world.”) But that was then. In the months since Mr. Robot last aired, the idea of revolution has gone mainstream in America. A reality-TV star–steak entrepreneur has emerged as not just a protest candidate, but the actual nominee for his party’s (sort of) presidential nomination; a self-identified socialist hung in the nomination fight until this past Tuesday. Along the way, they’ve stoked two divergent strains of disgust with “the system.” This is a strange — yet perhaps, fortuitous — moment for Mr. Robot to return for its second season, when “fsociety” has gone from a fringe sentiment to a slogan yelled (for better and for worse) across both sides of the aisle.

Still, the show sometimes hit a little too close to home. Remember that USA (the network, not the democratic experiment) postponed the first season’s finale air date because of a scene reminiscent of a shooting that took place during a live broadcast on a TV station. (How many more mass shootings have happened since then?) Mr. Robot has a queasy kind of relevance: Few shows have poked and prodded so effectively at the everyday anxieties of the digital era — life in the time of live-streamed deaths, terrorism Twitter, and the difficulty of creating meaningful acts of protest when it’s all but impossible to extricate yourself from the grid. But as dark as the show can be, it is fueled by a rather earnest belief in the internet as a vehicle for social change. Mr. Robot’s creator, Egyptian American writer-director Sam Esmail, has said that the show was partially inspired by the Arab Spring.

Esmail’s first season was nothing short of a high-wire act; when he revealed, at the end of Episode 9, that Elliot was Mr. Robot (or, more accurately, that Mr. Robot as we see him is a projection of Elliot’s deceased father), he successfully pulled off one of the most mind-bending twists in recent TV history — all the more impressive when you consider that he did it in the age of the spoiler. (I’ve since rewatched the first season and cannot believe none of us saw it coming, but I guess we all pretend in hindsight to have had the Sixth Sense figured out, too.) Season 1 was able to ride off some slick narrative momentum, as we were watching to get the answers to some pretty compelling questions: Who is Mr. Robot? What, exactly, is wrong with Elliot? Will fsociety pull off the hack? But Esmail cleared up all these mysteries at the close of the first season, and although plenty of cliff-hangers remain (like oh, I don’t know, the entire fate of the free world), Season 2 won’t be able to rely as much on mystery and narrative gimmickry. That’s one of the big challenges facing the show as it returns: What does Mr. Robot look like when we’re able to see the whole picture a little clearer? And, more pressingly, can its fictitious revolution possibly compete with the electoral circus that is American politics in 2016?

There are, I think, two types of people who like Mr. Robot: The people who are drawn to its forays into radical politics and its diagnosis of modern society’s ills, and the people who are here for all the Tyler Durden-y stuff. I respect those in the latter camp; for one thing, I cannot think of a show currently on TV that treats mental illness as seriously and complexly as this one. But, as heavily as Mr. Robot leans on the internal war between Elliot and … whatever we are going to call the fatherly apparition that is played by Christian Slater, I am way more interested in what’s going on outside of our protagonist’s mind.

Sure, the world inside Elliot’s head is compelling (you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: Rami Malek is fantastic on this show), but it’s Mr. Robot’s supporting characters that really turn it into a panorama of postmillennial discontent. I thought one of Season 1’s best arcs belonged to Angela (played with steely resolve by Portia Doubleday), Elliot’s childhood best friend; she’s lost faith in the system not only because she’s drowning in massive student loan debt, but also because the conglomerate that employs hers dumped a bunch of chemicals into her town’s water supply, giving her mom a fatal bout of cancer. F society indeed. On the other end of the moral spectrum is corporate CTO Terry Colby, a perfect caricature of slimeball white-male entitlement, mixed with the slightest dash of unease because he knows the rules of the game are rapidly changing — and not in his favor. And then there’s the voraciously power-hungry Tyrell Wellick, the Pete Campbell of Mr. Robot (I don’t know why; he just is). Toward the end of the season, he made a telling shift in allegiances, pursuing an alternate path toward world domination when he realizes that the future of power lies not with the Terry Colbies of the world, but the Elliot Aldersons.

Yes, the Elliot Aldersons. Both of them: The one the world sees and the one we see, as inhabitants of his head. In nearly every scene of Mr. Robot, it is apparent that Sam Esmail has read at least one Chuck Palahniuk book, and this aesthetic philosophy is probably the most polarizing thing about the show. It’s all too easy to make fun of Fight Club these days (like, really easy; I have a friend who believes the film birthed a genre called “farthouse,” an elegant portmanteau of “fratty” and “arthouse”). But, in the age of digitally broadcasted interests and default irony, it may be even easier to dismiss an entire TV show because one of its chief reference points doesn’t jell with who we want the world to think we are. And isn’t that kind of what Mr. Robot is about? The desire to believe that we are something more than our carefully curated cultural likes and dislikes?

Which is all to say that — whether or not a mention of The Matrix makes you cringe — the Occupy generation still needs its Matrix. And given that this is 2016, I highly doubt that the revolution’s going to happen somewhere as corporate and old fashioned as the multiplex. Mr. Robot might be our only hope.

Or — and in a strange way, this is why I love the show so much — it knows that it just as well might not be.

One of the best scenes in the first season’s finale took place after the hack, when fsociety threw an “End of the World” party at their Coney Island headquarters. It certainly looked like fun, but maybe not the sort of postrevolutionary revelry that you may have been dreaming of all season. People party like it’s 1999, literally: ODB’s “Got Your Money” plays. “So that’s it then, right?” one of the hackers asks Elliot’s sassy-genius sister, Darlene.

“That’s it?” she replies, “How about that’s amazing?!” She surveys the party. The whole season, you were led to believe that once The Hack happened, down would be up, black would be white, every law of gravity would cease to exist as we knew it. Chaos would reign! But now the hack has happened and instead it just looks like a pretty average Friday night. The moment when Darlene’s face begins to register this is, I think, one of the show’s sharpest and most poignant moments. What if the revolution comes and it’s not as exciting as you expect? How are you supposed to feel when the insurgent candidate finally folds and endorses the more established one? (A particularly timely question, on the eve of the Season 2 premiere.) What if a socialist or a woman or a rodeo clown becomes president and the system is way too gridlocked for that to even make a difference? What if your favorite TV show returns and it’s not as mind-blowing as you expected it to be?

Maybe, Mr. Robot is smart enough to suggest, these are actually the 21st century’s greatest existential horrors.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Elliot Alderson quote, “I wanted to save the world,” came in Episode 8. It was in Episode 9.