You might wonder, watching the past few years of prestige television, if drama is having an identity crisis. As comedy increasingly encroaches on its territory, tackling subjects like depression, captivity, racism, abortion, and mass shootings with sensitivity and intellectual heft, drama seems to be compensating by going full-throttle toward bleakness. Season two of Netflix’s Daredevil was a gory, 13-episode slog through mutilated body parts and sexualized torture; Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience made the story of a high-class sex worker into chilly psychological horror; True Detective’s sophomore season seemed to mistake brooding intensity and seething darkness for narrative cohesion and recognizable dialogue. TV’s grimness has even been echoed in film, with Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman being pilloried by critics for its unrelenting self-seriousness.
Sometimes bleakness pays off (The Americans), and sometimes it doesn’t (True Detective). But rarely does it feel as accusatory as it does in Mr. Robot, the USA hacker drama that became a surprise hit last summer and even beat out Game of Thrones for a Golden Globe. Elliot (Rami Malek), the psychologically troubled antihero of the series, rails constantly against the corrupted trappings of modernity—corporations, capitalism, government surveillance, et cetera. But he’s also infuriated by everything he feels excluded from, which includes society. Malek’s Elliot is so beguilingly vulnerable onscreen that he entices viewers into identifying with him. But that often means we root against ourselves: In the universe of Mr. Robot, which is even darker and more joyless in season two, it increasingly feels like the audience might be Elliot’s enemy.
Whether or not this feels refreshingly cynical or ideologically irritating will probably depend on your tolerance for the stylized hallmarks of Mr. Robot’s first season—electronic music that lurks insistently in the background then crescendoes to illustrate Elliot’s mental fragility, extended shots that swoop over and around their subject as if stalking it, filters that render every scene pallid and antiseptic. Another mainstay is the show’s distinctive treatment of viewers—Elliot regularly breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to us, and share thoughts he can’t share with others—but while the audience was framed as a confidante in season one, now we’re an antagonist. “Hello again,” Elliot says midway through the first episode of season two. “I don’t know if I can tell you secrets like before. Friends are supposed to be honest with each other, and you weren’t.”
Mr. Robot is created by Sam Esmail, who wrote the majority of the episodes in the first season. Its sprawling and perhaps deliberately confusing plot traced Elliot’s path from a socially reclusive, morphine-addicted programmer to the architect of a scheme to erase public debt that ultimately disrupts the global economy. Recruited into a group of anarchic hackers called fsociety by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), Elliot eventually came to realize that Mr. Robot was an extension of his own mind—a Fight Club-inspired twist that reveals how fragile Elliot’s psyche was, and how unreliable he was as a narrator. As fsociety’s plan to hack a bank/monolithic institution named E Corp escalated, so did Elliot’s mental breakdown, culminating in the final episode of the season, where he woke up in an SUV three days after the hack was executed, with no memory of how he got there or what happened.
Season two is directed in its entirety by Esmail, and thus feels more auteur-driven, sometimes to its detriment. It does promise to fill in some gaps—one of the first scenes shows Elliot working with E Corp’s disgraced and homicidal CTO, Tyrell Wellick, to precipitate the hack that takes down the corporation. But with Elliot’s mental state as precarious as it was at the end of last season, it’s almost impossible to discern what’s real and what’s a figment of his psyche. A month after the hack (now referred to in calamitous parlance as 5/9 for the date on which it happened), he seems to be living in self-imposed exile away from computers, sticking to a routine that involves three meals a day in a diner with his new friend Leon (played by the rapper Joey Bada$$), watching basketball in the park, and going to group meetings in a church. But he still sees Mr. Robot, who’s now a full-blown antagonist enraged by Elliot’s digital detox.
It’s doubtful how long Elliot’s period of isolation can last, given that the FBI is investigating the attack (Grace Gummer joins the series as an agent pursuing Elliot’s old boss). As the ramifications of the hack play out, it remains questionable how much good it actually did, and whether E Corp was in some way involved all along. Part of the problem is that Elliot’s worldview allows for only seeing flaws, not solutions: In his inner monologue, he indicts both “the infinite loop of insanity” that defines his own existence and the comfortable “sameness” that most people experience in daily life, “to go along with their NCIS and their Lexapro.” He despises capitalism and selfishness, but is also deeply uncomfortable around people. The hack he executed to free people from debt led to a global financial crisis, as well as countless E Corp customers being unable to prove that they’d ever paid any of their bills.
There are some outstanding moments in season two that testify to Esmail’s ingenuity. A scene in which one of E Corp’s lawyers is attacked in various ways (scalding shower, blasting music, incessant burglar alarm) by her SmartHome is tech-driven psychological horror that communicates fraught anxieties about a hyperconnected world. Joey Bada$$ offers fleeting moments of humor as a Millennial who’s only recently discovered Seinfeld. One climactic scene plays out in a park to the soundtrack of Phil Collins’s “Take Me Home,” in what seems to be another deliberate nod to American Psycho. Elliot’s childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) is suddenly sphinx-like in her new job doing public relations at E Corp, hypnotizing herself with inspirational slogans that preach success.
But Elliot’s indictment of modern life—of cellphones and Facebook and wine bars and office jobs and 401ks—is presumably also an indictment of people who watch critically acclaimed but low-rated thrillers on cable television. This is a subversive move for a TV show to make, and many of Elliot’s rants feel alarmingly akin to someone screaming, “WAKE UP SHEEPLE” on an InfoWars message board.
Season one worked because in its earlier episodes Elliot seemed a little like a superhero, using his hacking powers for good(ish) to get child pornographers arrested and to let his therapist know that her boyfriend was married. It also had a deliberate narrative structure that led toward a singular event tied to its protagonist’s mental state (much as Homeland links all major global terror attacks to Carrie forgetting to take her meds). Now, things are much murkier, and the question of whether the show will recover its focus or remain mired in psychological trauma will define whether season two succeeds or fails. Malek’s hollow-eyed charisma can redeem a hero who’s deeply troubled but essentially noble in purpose; it can’t carry a show whose defining quality is cynicism.