Mr. Robot is so far off the rails it is now attempting to snort them. ’Twas ever thus, you might say, and while you’d be a huge pain in the ass if you said that, you wouldn’t be wrong, exactly: The show has, from the Kubrickian jump, reveled in its Extra-ness, its Lit-ness, its Woke-ness. But Season 2.0 is a thornier, surlier, galactically more pretentious and unpleasant beast. Here is how you know:
That’s from the season premiere a couple weeks back. “Intermission.” Yeah. OK. Look. Here’s the thing about television. The commercials are the intermission. The weeklong interims between episodes are the intermission. One’s bathroom breaks, whensoever one chooses to take them, constitute a personal, impromptu sort of intermission. This ain’t Barry Lyndon, guy. This ain’t even Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. Your show’s intermissions consist mostly of Suits promos. Chill thyself.
But Chill thyself is the one commandment Mr. Robot will never honor, usually to its benefit. Season 1 had, for all its overwrought hacker metaphors and stiff speechifying, an audacity of influence, a flamboyance of style, an air of exquisite unease, and a legit sense of mystery. True, the mystery boiled down to, “Wait, isn’t this just Fight Club,” and the mystery’s solution turned out to be, “Dogg, it’s even more like Fight Club than you dared to imagine.” It was still great, though, and all that self-referentiality and auteurist self-regard is inherent to its greatness.
Plotwise, of course, it also proved to be not quite flamboyant enough: Certain real-world events since the Season 1 finale have rendered its vision of populist rage and imminent apocalypse almost quaint by comparison. Which leaves series creator/mastermind Sam Esmail desperate to top both himself and the actual crumbling world around him. The strain is evident, and he’s passing it along to you.
Season 2 is a drag so far, a dense, dour carnival of overstylized misery. There’s Elliot, knee-deep in his own vomit, shoving puked-up Aderrall pills right back into his mouth (no screencaps; you’re welcome) and generally pulling the cheesiest I’m Crazy faces he can manage. There’s Darlene, sobbing shirtless in the bathroom; there’s Angela, repeating vapid self-improvement mantras to herself and trembling like a fragile pixie in a Counting Crows song. (Sorry, all the ’90s references are contagious.) It’s Requiem for a Dream: The TV Show.
’Twas ever thus, indeed: Extreme isolation and Wi-Fi-enabled despair have always been Esmail’s greatest muses. To root for the old gang to get back together is to wildly miss the point. But for now, at least, the heist-movie playfulness is long gone, leaving the operatic anguish and stiff speechifying with nothing to play off of. Which is how you get Elliot literally giving a “Fuck God” speech that seems to go on for two hours in an episode that seems to go on for six.
The worst-case scenario here, of course, is True Detective, or, more to the point, Rushmore.
What we’ve got here, kids, is the early stages of I Wrote a Hit Play and Directed It syndrome. It feels punitive; it’s feels personal. We are extremely high on our own supply here. Even the casual dialogue so far this season has a suspiciously grandiose and clichéd quality: Rome wasn’t built in a day. We can probably find [exorbitant amount of money] in our couch cushions. The old Winston Churchill–Groucho Marx “now we’re just haggling over price” gag repurposed as a withering burn. It all feels contemptuous, self- and otherwise. Not giving you what you want is a core Esmail muse, too, and it’s silly to hope that all this paranoia and terror and conspiratorial dread will eventually blossom into a flagrantly corny and crowd-pleasing Stranger Things–style romp. But the show is not currently its best self. Esmail is sinking lower to aim higher, and all that dazzling ambiguity is curdling into mere confusion. And poor Christian Slater is getting the worst of it.
There’s a reason Fight Club ends when it does. There’s nowhere to go now with Mr. Robot, the character: Post-big reveal, he’s just the imaginary crazy guy the actual crazy guy starts arguing with when he gets angry, or scared, or bored. The first four new episodes, super-sized all, burn most of their energy grappling with this problem, vacillating between tough-guy escalation (Mr. Robot shooting Elliot in the head) and overly literal metaphor (chess battles royal that inevitably end in stalemate). Visually, the distinctive strangeness, with troubled characters lurking in the corners of the frame, is intact. But narratively, we’re trying way too hard. Further gnarly twists are required to keep this all afloat, and doubtless, further gnarly twists are coming. But this all feels unsustainable in an uncomfortably meta way.
Last night’s episode was slightly less leaden than its three immediate predecessors, at least acknowledging our desire to get all these people back together and moving in some direction, any direction, other than straight down. (That Elliot concocts this dinner-party fantasy to the tune of a music-box remake of Green Day’s “Basket Case” is Mr. Robot’s idea of a joke, but it’s a joke nonetheless.) Whether it will fulfill that desire is another, more worrisome question entirely. This is concern and frustration born of love, or at least deep fascination; this show willed itself to near greatness and internet-chatter ubiquity by embracing its wild ambitions, its pretensions, even its faults. There are glimmers of those heights still — Season 2’s best scene so far is set to an all-time Phil Collins jam, after all — but the downward spiral continues. “The minute you remove emotion from this, you’ll do just fine,” goes a particularly oily piece of advice Angela has gotten recently. We’re still waiting to see what Mr. Robot intends as a replacement.