Reviews / TV Shows

Mr. Robot “Unmask” Review (S2E1&2)

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Mr. Robot Season 2 Premiere Review

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Allow me to start this review by expressing the opinion that Season 1 of Mr. Robot is a mesmerizing, near-perfect season of television. I’ve seen some exceptional TV over the years, with lots of amazing moments and some great, mind-bending twists, but Mr. Robot‘s freshman year brought more to the table in terms of story, perspective, mood and surprises than any other show in recent memory. It’s obvious from nearly every frame that creator Sam Esmail eats, sleeps and breathes the world of Mr. Robot, and as a result, I can’t think of a show with a more unified and well-developed vision and world view.

And it’s not just the supposed “big shocking twists” that make the show so surprising and refreshing; it’s the twists behind the twists that really make it sing. Moments like the vicious, unplanned murder on the roof at the end of episode seven, and the triple “twist inside a twist inside a twist” revelation that ends episode eight are what elevate this show so far beyond its Fight Club inspiration, and allow it to stand out amidst the other dark and gritty shows available to viewers in this new golden age of TV.

In addition to the great writing and world building, Season 1 also brought us an ensemble cast of fascinating characters that continued to surprise me up until the post-credits scene that closed out the season. Elliot is brilliantly cast and marvelously played by Rami Malek, and with the exception of his reaction to the body in the trunk at the end of the sixth episode, I think he nailed every scene he was in. The rest of the cast – Darlene, Angela, Gideon, Mr. Robot, etc. – were also exceptional, and each character had an arc that grew or changed their character in some way, while also feeling authentic and realistically flawed.

And while I could have done without the drug dealer subplot and the prison escape sequence in the middle of the season, the rest of the season was so solid – so incredibly capable of exploring often-overlooked aspects of the human condition – that I can’t stay mad at any small misstep for very long. In the end, Mr. Robot‘s first season was masterful, and left me awe-struck and excited (but also a bit nervous) about the journey ahead.

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As we move into Season 2 with a two-parter entitled “Unmask,”, a lot seems to have changed in the world of Mr. Robot. Elliot has moved in with his mother, and is locked in a vicious battle with “Mr. Robot” inside his own fragmented psyche. Darlene, meanwhile, has become the de facto leader of fsociety and is more gung-ho than ever about the mission. Gideon has fallen on some really hard times in the aftermath of the E Corp hack, Wellick is in the wind, and Angela is settling into her new job at E Corp rather nicely (albeit in a disturbingly cold and ambitious way). All of these status quo changes had a nice feeling of authenticity to them, and laid the character groundwork for some exciting fireworks to follow.

Meanwhile, we were introduced to some brand new characters, and some of last season’s smaller characters have become a larger focus. The first of the new characters is Leon (played by real-life rapper Joey Badass), a friend of Elliot’s back home who recently discovered Seinfeld for the first time, and who offers some light comic relief. His character was relatively bland for me here, but hopefully we’ll see going forward exactly why Esmail chose to place this chess piece on the board. Next up is Craig Robinson (a seemingly odd choice for a show like this) who plays Ray – a dog-lover who approaches Elliot out of the blue to partake in some as-yet-unrevealed shady business. His role is very enjoyable to watch, especially as his jovial, talkative mood plays the perfect foil to Elliot’s terse demeanor. And finally we have Grace Gummer (who I really enjoyed in the summer series Extant, btw) playing Dominique DiPierro – a federal Agent assigned to dig into the case surrounding fsociety and the hack. We saw very little of her in this double episode, but she appears to be another promising addition to the show.

More surprising than the newcomers to the show, however, was the new emphasis on the big bads over at E Corp, as we now have a trio of corporate chiefs who will seemingly do anything to keep the company and their own lavish lifestyles afloat. The ring leader of the trio – CEO Philip Price – was well-established last season, and comes even further into his own here as a calm and calculating political master. I spent most of last season hating him, but this episode made me appreciate how great this role (and the portrayal by Michael Cristofer) really is. Busy plotting beside him are Scott Knowles – the new CTO who lost his wife last season – and Susan Jacobs – corporate counsel for E Corp (and smart house victim extraordinaire). Jacobs comes across as a pretty irredeemable and cold character, but I think Scott Knowles may have a bigger heart than we yet know. I predict that his character may surprise us as the season continues.

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Tyrell Wellick’s wife Joanna also comes to the forefront in this episode, displaying a predilection for S&M, and a personality designed for abject cruelty and ultimate survival. She is one of the most intriguing variables in the current status quo, and her scenes were full of intriguing hints regarding Tyrell’s whereabouts. Throughout the episode, we saw flashbacks that almost gave us some solid info about Wellick and Elliot’s actions during the missing three days, but it was the phone that Joanna received on the bottom of a jewelry box that provided the only tangible evidence of her missing husband. Well, up until the very last moments of the episode, anyway.

Going back to Season 1 for a second, it almost seems like the mystery of the three missing days was written into the season once Esmail knew that Season 2 was a certainty, and although it watered down the Season 1 finale and came across as a bit forced, I won’t fault him for it. After all – it’s this mystery that remained at the forefront of my mind between seasons, and that has propelled us into Season 2 with incredible velocity. I’m dying to know what happened in those three days, as well as where Wellick is and what he’s planning, and it’s an excellent added bonus that Elliot is in the dark on these questions as well. For a show that was built around a first-person narrator for most of the first season, it seems fitting that we are still on the same blurry page as Elliot, at least as far as this main mystery is concerned.

But regardless of how this central mystery is eventually resolved, it has already served as a nice macguffin to pull us into the new conflicts and mysteries of Season 2. First we have the continuation of fsociety under Darlene’s leadership, and the new hacks they have planned to disrupt E Corp’s attempts to rebuild their monarchy. This episode’s hack of E Corp’s credit data system ends up forcing CTO Knowles to burn $5.9 million dollars in front of a crowd of onlookers (and the whole world online), and pushes the David and Goliath story at the core of the narrative forward nicely. I’m definitely worried about Darlene’s mental state going forward, but then again, I think I’m supposed to.

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Also in the city, we have the ongoing mystery of Angela’s motivation as she begins to excel in her new public relations role at E Corp. Seeing Angela move further toward a seeming congruence with E Corp’s mentality is rightfully disturbing, but her moment of triumph in securing an exclusive Bloomberg interview slot was undeniably pleasurable to watch, especially after her multiple moments of failure in Season 1. Regardless of which side she ultimately chooses to take in the E corp/ fsociety war, this is a woman who is in the midst of an intense personal and ideological conflict at the moment, and certain moments – like when she’s reciting affirmations along with a self-help video – are both heartfelt and difficult to watch.

The final side to this ongoing conflict is that of the “Evil” Corporation in question, and the scenes between the three E Corp heads were a great new addition to the show’s formula. For the first time in the series, we really see the other side of the conflict, and although so far the show hasn’t given us any good reasons to sympathize with these characters, it did give me a new level of insight into their motivations. The standout here, of course, was Cristofer, who much like Donald Sutherland in the Hunger Games series, plays the villainous Price with such enjoyable relish. Developing this other side of the story was a smart move by Esmail, and one that will no doubt bear narrative fruit as the season continues.

But while I love what’s going on in the E Corp / fsociety aspects of this episode, I was a bit less enamored with the Elliot and Mr. Robot material, and more specifically, the setting. I get that Esmail was trying to make Elliot’s hometown area and his self-imposed isolation feel a bit depressing and disconnected from the real world, but it just felt so…depressing and disconnected. I just wasn’t having a good time whenever the episode shifted to this location. Even the attempts to add levity to the situation – Leon and his Seinfeld musings, Ray and his Tarantino-esque speeches about his wife and his attempts to engage with the antisocial Elliot – just didn’t work that well for me.

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I realize, of course, that this episode had a lot of weight on its shoulders, needing to accomplish a large number of goals in its run-time. And these scenes in Elliot’s hometown – especially the ones in Elliot’s bedroom between him and Mr. Robot – are providing the set-up for some big payoffs later. You know – like that great, inevitable moment when Elliot says “F*** It,” and sits down at a computer again for the first time? Or when Mr. Robot finally relents and tells Elliot what really happened in those missing three days? Those moments will feel earned and will be great to watch, but I hope that the new relationships in Elliot’s life (with Leon and Ray in particular) also lead to some interesting stories and payoffs down the line.

And speaking of payoffs – poor Gideon, right? He was built up throughout the last season to be the closest thing to a truly altruistic character, and then…BANG! Who is this gunman anyway…was he sent by someone, or was he a fighter for some cause the show has yet to identify? Only time will tell, but I will really miss Gideon. The show did attempt to tarnish his character a bit in the scene where he threatens Elliot in his mother’s dining room – I can only assume that was done to soften the blow of this death, but it didn’t make it any less painful to watch. I guess we’re seeing where good intentions may lead you on this show, eh? Perhaps Angela has learned this lesson already and has the right idea moving to the dark side?

All in all, this two-part opener does an admirable job of continuing Elliot’s story while also adding new mysteries and establishing new journeys for characters old and new. Season 1 was all about Elliot and the initial E Corp hack, but this season the plot is expanding beyond its erstwhile narrator into new, decidedly compelling territory. And while I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next as much as ever, I really hope the story takes us out of Elliot’s hometown relatively soon. Ray and Leon can come with him, of course, and I’d certainly like to know what Tyrell had to say after the camera cut away at the end of the episode. Something tells me, though, that these answers will take some time to emerge.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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