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In the Premiere of Its Third Season, ‘Mr. Robot’ Experiments and Improves

After a rocky sophomore season, the thriller has restocked the ingredients it needs to fulfill its potential again

USA/Ringer illustration

As far as reintroductions to a show after a rocky season go, you could do far worse than Bobby Cannavale. For even the most skeptical of Mr. Robot cynics worn down by piled-on plot points and twists for twists’ sake, there’s a straightforward appeal in watching one of television’s most charismatically menacing actors haggle over the fine print of promotional punch cards. And after a season that tried even some die-hards’ patience by crossing the line between valuing character over plot and disregarding plot to the point of sabotaging characters, Mr. Robot could use a welcome back into its world as uncomplicated as a familiar face. When mystery comes with the promise of answers, it compels us to keep watching—but with its third chapter, Mr. Robot has to overcome the impression that it only plans to add to our confusion, never resolve it.

Surprisingly, however, “straightforward” describes the rest of “eps3.0_power-saver-mode.h” as much as its opening scene. In its premiere, Mr. Robot seems to have learned from its muddled and overcomplicated sophomore stumble, bringing all those lessons to bear in a stripped-down reminder of this show at its paranoiac best.

In retrospect, Season 2 of Mr. Robot could be seen as a study in the limits of Elliot Alderson’s point of view. Brought to life by a live-wire, Emmy-winning performance by Rami Malek, Elliot was an avatar for alienation under late capitalism: lonely, radicalized, claiming agency through technology, and with the dawn of his alter ego Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), literally fractured. The first two seasons of Mr. Robot sought to immerse the audience completely in Elliot’s perspective, a daring and ambitious project in a medium that typically prioritizes broad, weight-sharing ensembles. Sam Esmail hinged the success or failure of an entire series on just one character, a high-risk, high-reward strategy that paid off handsomely until its natural pitfalls inevitably caught up with it.

Season 1 showcased the advantages of assuming Elliot’s worldview, partly through novelty but mostly through undeniable effectiveness. As viewers, we knew and saw what Elliot knew and saw, a vivid exercise in unreliable narration that crescendoed with a pair of dramatic reveals: Mr. Robot was actually a manifestation of Elliot’s long-dead father, killed by a toxic waste leak at a plant owned by series antagonist E Corp; fellow hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is really his grown-up little sister. Mr. Robot’s political grandstanding about the malevolence of unfeeling corporations and the need for revolution, while sincere, was shown to have a deeper emotional foundation. The Aldersons weren’t just radicals; they were a broken nuclear family inflicting their pain on the system.

But in its second volume, Mr. Robot’s need to stay rooted in Elliot’s confusion resulted in a stalled-out plot—including, crucially, the fallout of those reveals. Instead of processing his mental illness, the decades-old trauma that illness worked to conceal, or even the cataclysmic Five/Nine Hack, Elliot spent weeks trapped in another elaborate fantasy, this time interpreting a prison sentence as a stay at his mother’s house. While Elliot continued to sort out fact from fiction, crucial questions were left unanswered, even as more piled up. Where was Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), the E Corp executive who went missing at the end of Season 1? How and when would the ominous-sounding “Phase 2” of the hack kick in? What did Elliot’s friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), now undercover at E Corp, really want? And what about the Dark Army, the mysterious Chinese hacking collective headed by the equally mysterious Whiterose (BD Wong)? Elliott didn’t know, so we didn’t either, and for 12 episodes, Mr. Robot largely spun its wheels.

One of the most striking elements of “eps3.0_power-saver-mode.h” is how willing it is to venture outside Elliot’s vantage point, even when Elliot is still present in the frame. Sometimes, the effect is largely visceral, as in an early scene where Darlene, caught between the Dark Army and the FBI, takes Elliot to an underground hacker hive and suffers a panic attack. Laser-focused on stopping Phase 2, revealed in last season’s finale as a plan to bomb the building that houses E Corp’s physical records of the information wiped out by Five/Nine, Elliot is calm, but it’s Darlene’s frantic desperation that Esmail’s camera inhabits, fixating on two potential Dark Army members and following her into the bathroom for a full-fledged meltdown. It’s a poignant moment of vulnerability for a character who needs it, having spent the entire first season as a deliberately inscrutable cipher. The scene also allows Darlene to compensate for some of Elliot’s weaknesses as a protagonist. Because Elliot isn’t fully aware of the deadly forces arrayed against him—because Elliot’s delusions mean he can’t distinguish between threats real and imagined—he can’t react with the unambiguous fear Darlene does.

At other points, however, allowing other characters to take the wheel serves a more purely utilitarian purpose. No character suffered more from last season’s stumbles than Angela, whose motivations remained entirely unclear even as she continued to climb E Corp’s ladder (and sing Tears for Fears at karaoke). This season, she quite literally announces her intentions during a conversation with Elliot-as–Mr. Robot on the subway, a move that would otherwise read as heavy-handed but now comes as a welcome surprise. Angela’s tense confrontation with Whiterose in last season’s penultimate episode, she explains, convinced her to fully commit herself to the cause of the Dark Army, which still intends to bring down E Corp by any means necessary, albeit not for the same intensely personal reasons she does. (Angela’s mother died in the same waste leak as Elliot’s dad.) Now, she nurses Elliot back to health from a gunshot wound while working with Mr. Robot to ensure Phase 2 does, in fact, move forward—even as Elliot tries frantically to stop it, which is how he got shot in the first place.

It’s wrenching to watch the two sides of Elliot’s psyche work at such direct cross-purposes, particularly since he specifically asks Angela to tell him if the persona she’s working with behind his back ever re-emerges. Last season spent hours upon hours depicting Elliot’s war with himself, even resorting to the spectacularly clunky visual metaphor of an actual chess match. “Eps3.0_power-saver-mode.h” fast-forwards straight past the internal angst, instead showing Mr. Robot easily maneuver around his host through the eyes of another character. Shifting the Phase 2 plot to someone else’s subplot is a win-win: Angela has more autonomy and clarity than ever, while the larger story of the show can forge ahead rather than stalling out in Elliot’s disorientation.

Though Elliot may be slightly less central to the premiere than he’s been in the past, Mr. Robot will never abandon its central figure completely, nor should it. Elliot’s feverish narration still serves as the show’s framing device, and it delivers one of the premiere’s best and most belated moments. As Elliot grapples with the hack, which was intended to free the proletariat from the shackles of debt, but instead created a chaos vacuum through which entities like E Corp and governments can tighten their social control, he experiences a critical moment of self-doubt. “The truth is, I’m the one to blame,” he admits, staring at an in-memoriam wall that includes several former lovers, collaborators, and friends. “I’m the problem … I did this.” The monologue is Mr. Robot’s introspection at its most productive, as opposed to its most wallowing. Elliot’s reckoning with the new world order may be long overdue, but now that it’s arrived, the crisis of confidence allows him to question his place in the world, not the world’s very existence.

Conflicting agendas, accelerating momentum, and just the right level of anxiety: “eps3.0_power-saver-mode.h” gives us the ingredients for the addictive cyber-thriller Mr. Robot has always promised to be. To set up its latest incarnation, the episode wisely clears the board, leaving off side characters like Tyrell’s wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) and FBI agent Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer). It’s possible we’ll see more of them in coming weeks, but first, the series got back to fundamentals—and with endearingly strained computer similes (the episode’s title comes from Elliot’s term for Angela’s repression) and a giant “1984” spray-painted in the background, Mr. Robot seems committed to being the most Mr. Robot it can possibly be.