Season Two’s new direction is validated with a trio of excellent episodes and one expertly-crafted twist
Watching the first four episodes of Mr. Robot‘s second season, I fluctuated back and forth between equally strong feelings of optimism and despair. I found myself waiting for the show to regain the magic of the first season, but also fearing that Esmail may have been given too much creative freedom this time around and lost the plot as a result. In fact, the show’s plot was my most consistent complaint with episodes 1-4, as the Elliot portions of each episode in particular offered little to no forward momentum in the actual story. Spending time in Elliot’s hometown was pretty miserable for me, with a constant, pervasive clausterphobia choking every scene, and a handful of dimly lit and dismally decorated sets providing the visual backdrop.
My hopes would rise a bit, however, whenever the action shifted away from Elliot, allowing the show’s phenomenal supporting cast to take center stage. The scenes featuring Angela, Darlene and newcomer Dominique DiPierro in particular offered that charming, yet disaffected take on modern life that Mr. Robot delivers better than any other show. As I look back at my reviews of these first four episodes, I recognize just how conflicted I was feeling: continuing to love some aspects of the show so much, but also deeply questioning the new path Esmail had charted for Elliot. And that takes us to Episode Five.
Episode Five – “eps2.3_logic-b0mb.hc”
“Logic Bomb” took a little while to gain its footing, but once the action moved to China for a deep dive into the world of Whiterose, things picked up considerably. It turns out that Whiterose also has a male persona who serves as the Minister of State Security for China, and this “new” character engaged in some compelling verbal sparring with Agent DiPierro against a backdrop of lavish excess and a large number of clocks. These scenes were fascinating to watch, as both parties are exceedingly intelligent and used light chit-chat and seemingly innocent questions to draw intel out of the other. This is Mr. Robot at its best – where the eccentricities of human beings are juxtaposed against the formalities of the modern world they inhabit, and we get to see how well each character is able to maintain their individual facade of normalcy.
Joanna Wellick is another character who demonstrates this dynamic well, as she is a master of assuming a proper public identity while committing heinous acts behind closed doors. But although the episode was called “Logic Bomb,” I felt that her actions here were rather illogical, and certainly not in line with the way her character has been portrayed thus far in the series. We understand her to be utterly ambitious and willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve her goals, but as she killed her henchman and insisted that he remained conscious to witness his own horrible death, she showed a sense of cruelty that trumped the cold efficiency that previously defined her character. It was a creative decision, sure, but one that diminishes the character in an attempt to make the episode more jaw-dropping and brutal.
This episode was nothing if not intense, and the scenes between Elliot and Ray were mesmerizing for me. We’ve been wondering since his appearance whether or not Ray is a “good” guy, and in this episode we get at least a temporary answer: no, he’s not. The reveal that Ray is running a Silk-Road-esque black market website that allows users to peddle illegal drugs, guns and even human sex slaves was hard to watch, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the fact that the show started surprising me again. And the way Ray acts as an innocent victim of circumstance in all this makes him somehow even more ominous – or perhaps childlike? I’m not sure just yet, but again, the show is playing around with public and private personas to brilliant effect. The climactic shootout between DiPierro and the Dark Army in the airport was merely icing on the cake of an episode that went a long way toward getting me excited about the show again.
Episode Six – “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes”
“Master Slave,” meanwhile, took things in an entirely different direction, and started of with an 80’s-TV-inspired intro reminiscent of last season’s “Da3mons” episode (and its withdrawal-induced hallucinations of Elliot’s childhood). This time around, Elliot, Darlene, and their parents are driving around in a convertible within a laugh-tracked-sitcom, heightened-reality world, with a body in their trunk, a Gameboy in Darlene’s hands, and a run-in with ALF. It was trademark Mr. Robot surrealist humor, and was a study in contradictions – being both joyful and dark, revealing and mysterious.
It turns out that this is Mr. Robot’s way of shielding Elliot from the physical torture he is currently enduring at the hands of Ray and his crew, and the dream was thematically inspired by the booming TV in the hospital room he is being kept in. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but smile at how clever it all was. At this point in the season, mini-reveals are everywhere, and although some may view this as Esmail trying to prove just how clever he is, I don’t mind at all. I’ll take an overly-twisty show jam-packed with reveals over a by-the-numbers and predictable one any day of the week.
The rest of the episode revolved around Angela and Darlene’s joint mission to hack the FBI’s computers, and watching the operation go down was an all-around pleasurable experience. The high points for me were when Angela is forced to think fast and flirt her way out of a difficult situation with an inquisitive FBI agent, as well as the showdown between Angela and Dipierro right before the hack is completed. Again, we have two clever characters squaring off, with hidden agendas bubbling just below the surface of the conversation, and the result is truly compelling to watch. I also enjoyed the conversation between Angela and Darlene after the FBI hack when Darlene offers to fill in any details that Angela hasn’t already figured out about the 5/9 hack. Here we see two characters lowering their guard a bit with one another, and although it was still a chilly interchange, it provided an interesting counterpoint in such a contentious episode.
Episode Seven – “eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme”
And that brings us to Episode 7, “Handshake,” or what I like to call, “The episode that vindicated all the questionable decisions made thus far in Season 2 of Mr. Robot.” This episode was exceptional from beginning to end, and brought back the Season 1 tradition of packing multiple twists and reveals into a single episode for maximum impact. And because two points make a line, Esmail has now revealed to us his trademark plotting strategy. In both seasons, he chose to build tension throughout the season with small ebbs and flows of information, all building towards a huge, rush of narrative release right around the 7th or 8th episode. And for Season 2, “Handshake” served as the release valve.
Much like Season 1’s eighth episode “Whiterose,” “Handshake” contained multiple reveals that cast the season in a brand new light, including: (1) that Ray started the black market website with his deceased wife, (2) that Elliot did indeed murder Tyrell Wellick at the end of Season 1, and (3) that Elliot’s new friend Leon works for Whiterose and the Dark Army, and is capable of perpetrating tremendous violence to protect Elliot from harm. At least two of these could have been episode-enders in and of themselves, but the best reveal – the reveal that recasts all of the smaller reveals so far this season in a new light – was saved for last.
Okay, so let me try to set this huge surprising twist up for you the way I saw and felt it.
At the end of the episode, we see Elliot and Krista talking about Elliot’s mental state and his perception, and as they go on, the scenery around them starts to look a bit more institutional in nature. And that was when it hit me, like a bolt of lighting to the temple – BLAM! I paused the TV there, jumped up off the couch and started pacing – almost dancing – around the living room, with the joy of feeling both fooled and clever at the same time. “Elliot’s been in the hospital this whole time!!!” I yelled out loud to my viewing partner and the world at large. I then un-paused the TV long enough to learn that he was actually in prison. I still felt clever, and relieved, and excited all at the same time. “Oh my God,” I said, with zero sarcasm. “This changes everything!”
And while this twist does change everything about this season for me, I wasn’t referring to the forward momentum of the plot or the ramifications this might have on the other characters. Rather, I was thinking back, to how much I disliked so many aspects of the previous 4 episodes, and about how in one fell swoop of genius plotting, Esmail wiped away literally all of the issues I had with them.
Issue 1: “Elliot’s hometown is so depressing, clausterphobic and one-note” – Swoop! Gone! It was supposed to be depressing, he’s in prison and trying to cover up the experience and his actual surroundings by imagining he’s in his childhood home.
Issue 2: “Elliot’s story is going nowhere. I like the plotline involving the other characters, but man, Elliot’s story really isn’t going anywhere, plotwise. And why does Elliot rarely get to interact with the rest of the cast?” Swish! Blammo! Erased! His story was going nowhere because he couldn’t go anywhere, and aside from visiting hours, the rest of the characters couldn’t access him.
Issue 3: “Things just don’t make sense. How did someone like Ray find out about Elliot? Why is Elliot all of the sudden sitting at basketball courts all day? Why is he suddenly interested in attending a religious self-help group? Why does he have a new best friend named Leon?” Presto-Explaino! The “Elliot’s in Prison” twist explains it all, and with such a beautiful simplicity.
Since early on in this second season, I’ve also been saying that Esmail might have been given too much creative freedom and let things go too far out into left field. I pointed to things like the extended length of the episodes and how long we spent inside Elliot’s mind battling with Mr. Robot as decided negatives. And while I still agree with my genuine reactions to those elements of the show, I now realize that I was feeling exactly the way I was supposed to feel watching those scenes. I still feel that the first few episodes are a bit longer than necessary, but I now understand all of the decisions Esmail made in those episodes and love almost all of them.
I acknowledge, however, that this was a bold move, and one that may very well infuriate a lot of viewers. Esmail seems to know it too. At the end of the episode, Elliot acts as Esmail’s onscreen surrogate, speaking to the audience and offering an apology for pulling the wool over our eyes for so long. He then promises that he won’t ever do it again. I honestly hope that he’s still lying.
But yes, to take the main character of your show and sideline them for the first seven episodes for the sole purpose of pulling off a shocking twist like this is a bold and undoubtedly divisive move. I would argue, however, that Esmail utilized the supporting cast of characters to move the story forward, and in turn, freed up Elliot to be used solely in service of this season’s big twist. This accomplishes multiple things: (1) We get to know all of the other cast members – like Darlene, Angela, Whiterose, Price, etc. – better than ever before, (2) We get introduced to fantastic newcomers like Dominique DiPierro, Ray and Leon, (3) We get a much deeper look at the inner-workings of Elliot’s mind, and (4) Viewers like me who live for a brilliant twist are indescribably happy. And let’s not forget that Esmail needed to find a way to keep Christian Slater on the show and still essential in a post-“Elliot knows Mr. Robot isn’t real” world. When you consider all of the benefits of this approach to season 2, it’s clear why Esmail decided to take this path forward in the show.
The Ride Ahead
The best news of all is that I’m more excited than ever to see what happens next on Mr. Robot. After most “shocking twists” are revealed (I’m looking at you, Wayward Pines) I’m generally less invested in seeing the rest of the season play out, but the opposite is true here. Now we are given some answers – some really big answers – but as with any brilliantly designed serialized show, the answers have led us to even more intriguing questions. Do we really know what happened over those three days after the 5/9 hack? Who is Ray really (now that the curtain has been pushed aside) and what happened to him after Elliot “turned him in”? What is going on with the Dark Army, Whiterose and the Chinese government and how does it play into the plans of Price and E-Corp? And that’s just scratching the surface.
This trio of episodes – “Logic Bomb,” “Master Slave,” and “Handshake” – worked really well together, offering a series of compelling plot events and utilizing a variety of storytelling techniques to ensure that the show never becomes stagnant or loses momentum. In fact, the entire first half of the season has been like a meticulously planned theme park ride, with each emotional rise and drop carefully orchestrated by the ride’s designer. And as the car coasted back into the station at the end of the seventh episode, I was ready to start begging the ride operator to let me stay in my seat for another ride. That is exactly what I want from a TV show as I reach the end of an episode – surprise, excitement and infinite curiosity for the ride ahead.
“Logic Bomb” – 8.5 out of 10
“Master Slave” – 9 out of 10
“Handshake” – 9.5 out of 10