Mr. Robot, Season 2 Review:
There’s a quote near the end of “Init 1” – the fourth episode of Mr. Robot’s second season – that sums up my feelings on the current state of the show: “What you have…it can be divinity, if you let it.” And although Ray is speaking to Elliot at the time, this could very well have been me talking to creator Sam Esmail about the tremendous potential I still see in his show, despite the way this sophomore season has played out so far. But once again, this episode only allowed me quick glimpses at the show I remember from last season, and hinted at the greatness it is so clearly capable of.
The episode starts with an extended flashback scene between Elliot and Darlene, and it was certainly nice to see them together again. Its a solid scene, but also about twice as long as needs to be, and shows us the true genesis of the hack from last season. Here we see two world-weary young people on the verge of making a decision that will effect the whole world, and the juxtaposition of their casual chit-chat against our knowledge of the gravity of the decision that they’re making is very effective. Their conversation does feel artificially over-packed with exposition that serves Season 2’s forward momentum rather than the story as a whole, but watching Elliot put on the Mr. Robot mask and assume the identity for the first time is undeniably enjoyable.
From there we move back to present day, where this season’s here-to-fore disparate collection of narrative threads are moving along rather slowly, and Elliot continues to be embroiled in a heated internal battle with his alter ego. It is clear that these different stories will all be coming together sometime in the near future, but that time cannot come soon enough. Because although there were some good scenes in this episode, its plot can be summed up in one sentence: Elliot is (still) conflicted about calling on Mr. Robot, Darlene is worried about the FBI and convinces Elliot to help, and Angela continues to play mind games with Philip Price. And don’t get me wrong, I realize that this show’s moral and emotional complexity is a big part of what makes it great, but Season 1 coupled that complexity with an equally compelling narrative. I’m ready to see what Season 2 has to offer in that department.
Aside from the continued slow pace, though, there were some high points in this episode. The one scene showing the FBI investigation into the arcade was well done, and every time agent Dominique DiPierro is on screen, she lends humanity and intrigue to the proceedings and commands my interest. We also got a small hint as to what might have happened with the gun in the popcorn maker during Elliot’s 3-day blackout, as DiPierro found a gun shell casing at the close of the scene. Intriguing to be sure, but that’s all we got on that for this week.
Angela’s scenes were also solid, as we continue to question her motives for working at E Corp. The scene she shared with class-action lawyer (and on-again, off-again mentor) Antara Nayar started to give me that great “I think I see what’s going on here” feeling that this show’s best moments can inspire, and the magic continued when she confronted Price with her allegations. The show is doing an excellent job of making her character difficult to read, and in the end, I’m not sure that Angela herself knows exactly what she wants. This storyline was by far my favorite of the episode, and when Angela’s journey inevitably dovetails with Elliot’s later in the season, there’s potential for some incredibly compelling drama.
And speaking of Elliot, things weren’t quite as bleak for him in this episode, which was a welcome change. Mercifully, we didn’t have to stomach anything as miserable as the “regurgitation of Adderall on the floor” sequence from last week’s episode. Instead, Elliot seems to have become more circumspect about his inner duel with Mr. Robot, choosing a chess board as the field of play. Chess is a pretty overused analogy for any sort of “battle of wits” in popular fiction, but it works surprising well here regardless. The scene where Elliot and Mr. Robot continue to reach stalemate over and over again makes a lot of sense considering that Elliot’s actually just playing against himself, and the choice to have neither of them win was refreshingly original. This leads to a new understanding or “status quo” of sorts – that the two personalities will just have to coexist and share Elliot’s life – which will hopefully, finally, allow the plot to move ahead.
There were a couple more aspects of this episode that deserve a mention. First, there was an interesting “dream sequence” (for lack of a better way to describe it) set to a piano rendition of Green Day’s “Basket Case.” These scenes have become a staple of the Mr. Robot formula, and this one works pretty well, although again, it goes on about twice as long as it should. There are also a few scenes featuring Joanna Wellick that offered a bit of solid character development and just the slightest bit of forward momentum for the plot. In particular, the scene between her and Scott Knowles was thick with unspoken hatred, and although he was more outwardly hostile, Stephanie Corneliussen’s subtle and scary performance made it clear that Joanna is the more formidable of the two. Ray, meanwhile, remains the most fascinatingly ambiguous character on the show, and I’m nervous with anticipation wondering which side of the “Good/Evil” line he may come down on as the season continues.
It’s clear from “Init 1” that this season is heading in some exciting new directions, and the show continues to feature a cast of fascinating characters played by actors at the top of their game. So far this season, Esmail has been setting up a chess board of his own – full of interesting relationships and strong personalities – but it’s time for the show to start making some big moves. In fact, it’s a little past time. There are moments of true greatness in this episode – the reveal of what “Init_1” means to Darlene and Elliot, for example – but there’s a lot of unnecessary excess as well. Once again, we had an episode that clocked in at 90 minutes with commercials, and there was very little forward momentum until the last few moments. Enough already! The chess pieces are all in place and we know each of them really well now; it’s time to let these characters make some big moves. This season can still achieve divinity, Esmail, if you let it.
Final Score: 7 out of 10