Mr. Robot, Season 2 Review:
The first season of Mr. Robot was a commercial and critical success, and it’s clear from this second episode that Sam Esmail has been afforded a tremendous amount of creative leeway from USA as a result. We knew going in that he would be directing all twelve episodes (a herculean task rarely – if ever – undertaken by one person, let alone the showrunner), but I had no idea that each episode would be so long. “Kernel Panic” (named after the critical shutdown sequence experienced by unlucky Mac and Linux users) clocked in at just under 90 minutes with commercials, and although there were some exquisitely crafted scenes, the episode did not justify its extended length.
Starting with the positives, however, the episode kicked off with a great flashback scene starring Romero and Mobley, and new light was shed on the early days of fsociety as these two discussed the sordid history of the now-iconic Coney Island arcade. Much like certain scenes from the two-part premiere, the dialogue here sounded crisp, casual and real (as if pulled directly from an unseen Tarantino or Coen Brothers film), and the ten-minute scene did a fantastic job of getting me excited to see what new adventure this episode had in store.
From there, however, we were taken back to Elliot’s mother’s house for some more torturous Elliot vs. Mr. Robot, mono-y-mono shenanigans. We did get to hear the rest of the phone call between Elliot and Tyrell that was cutoff at the end of “Unmask – Part 2,” and it was just as vague and uneventful as I expected: Tyrell can’t tell Elliot anything over the phone, of course, because it isn’t secure. And that’s okay, I’ll buy it – these are two people unusually well aware of the existence of wire-taps, surveillance and monitoring – so that makes sense. But as soon as that receiver is hung up, the part of this episode that I enjoyed the least was able to begin.
Don’t get me wrong – I understand how tough it must be for Esmail to follow up after that tour-de-force first season, especially because we now have an unreliable narrator who is very much aware of just how unreliable he is. It’s an artistic challenge to say the least, but I don’t believe that the answer is to have Elliot suffer even more than he usually does for the majority of a two-part premiere, a 90-minute second episode – and from the looks of the trailers for next week’s episode – another (potentially 90-minute) episode. And all that time, no concrete aspect of Elliot’s plot has moved forward at all. At the end of this episode, he’s exactly in the same place as he was when the season began, and it’s getting old and more than a little frustrating.
But as much as I dislike the direction Elliot’s story has taken so far this season, I can’t deny that Esmail has pulled off his vision impeccably. In this episode, Elliot decides that the only way to escape Mr. Robot’s nocturnal influence is to never sleep – a task he accomplishes with a large bag of Adderall. Watching this unfold, I felt like I had taken that bag of Adderall too, with all of the pain, mental torture and questioning of reality that would undoubtedly go along with it.
The filmmaking techniques – including quick sporadic cuts, frenetic musical cues, and just about every other filmic trick you might see in one of the Saw films – were used to excellent dramatic effect here, and it showed us just how out-of-control Elliot is feeling at the present moment. But after experiencing (alongside Elliot) the daydream/nightmare of getting concrete poured down his throat, the scene where he throws up all over the floor and then proceeds to eat the vomited Adderall bits, and the cringe-worthy tirade against organized religion at his church group, I’d had more than enough. Honestly, I can’t wait until Elliot finally gives up on this battle and starts working with the cool, collected (and admittedly devilish) Mr. Robot again. And maybe that is Esmail’s point.
Elsewhere in the Mr. Robot universe, however, things were much more enjoyable to watch. Ray really came into his own as a fleshed-out and fascinating character. It turns out that the wife he talks to has been dead for more than 5 years, he may have a serious illness himself, and he works for a group of very dangerous people who are willing to disfigure others to achieve their goals. We also learned that Ray is engaged in some sort of hacking-theft racket involving bit coin – and that he doubles as a pretty understanding therapist. Every time Ray was on the screen I was riveted and waiting for the next clue to drop, and it reminded me why I love this show so much.
Meanwhile, Angela’s story over at E Corp is really heating up. She continues to be more and more bold and daring in her conversations with Price, and he counters by extending an enigmatic dinner invitation. This leads to a brilliant pair of scenes in which Angela prepares for and then attends the dinner, and we get to see a glimpse of the psychological mind games Price has in store for Angela in the days ahead. Price is chilling in this scene, demonstrating exactly why everyone is so afraid of him. Angela, meanwhile, is faced with the next in what I’m sure will be a season of difficult moral decisions, and the stage is further set for a game of wits that I’m thoroughly enjoying.
Dominique DiPierro’s plot is also moving at an impressive clip, as her quest for answers leads her to Romero’s mother’s house, and by the end, to the same fsociety arcade where this episode began, giving “Kernel Panic” a nice, book-ended feel. DiPierro’s scenes are presented in an understated fashion, and I loved the fly-on-the-wall feeling I got watching the scenes set in her apartment. Aside from the slightly-unsubtle Amazon Echo product placement (“Alexa – Play!”), and the false-sounding line about “rolling joints for her baby brother”, I found her scenes to be the most fresh, engaging and authentic in the episode.
Flipping back to the less successful aspects of the episode, I can’t help feeling that Romero’s death was unnecessary. Gideon’s death last episode – or any number of other events – could easily have been enough to instill mortal fear in Mobley and Trenton. And although I liked the setting of Trenton’s apartment, the scene between her, Mobley and Darlene didn’t cast any of the characters in a particularly intelligent light. The Darlene I know could have come up with some much better words to convince her co-conspirators to calm down, and Mobley basically played the role of a wildly-paranoid exposition machine. That said, Romero’s death and this apartment scene do (potentially) move the dark army story forward in a significant way, and if Esmail and Co. pay this off well in the episodes to come, I’ll have no problem forgetting these small gripes completely.
What it comes down to is that Mr. Robot has become a very different show this season, and I am prepared to be completely fine with that. I love the more expansive nature of Season 2, with more settings, characters and subplots than ever before, and hopefully it will all weave together into a cohesive whole by the end. And I get that the “I am Mr. Robot” reveal last season was a game-changer for Elliot, and that his life is going to get much more difficult before it gets any easier, but I would also like to see a less decompressed approach to his story in the episodes ahead. I love all of this show’s characters so much – especially Elliot – and I would have liked to see his story move forward a bit more than it has now that we’re (technically) three episodes into the season. There’s no doubt that stylistically Esmail is firing on all cylinders – I’m just waiting for the story to catch up.
Final Score: 7 out of 10