The following post has spoilers for the most recent episode of Mr. Robot.
“What’s happening? Where are we going?” asks Elliot Alderson, hacker extraordinaire and one-half of the personality known as Mr. Robot. He’s sitting in the backseat of a convertible with his sister, Darlene, who’s playing a video game in which Elliot is being beaten up by mobsters. Everyone in the car—Darlene, Elliot’s mom, his dead dad—cracks jokes about cancer and domestic abuse and despair, while canned laughter swells around them. There’s someone in the trunk, yelling. There’s a cameo by ALF. Someone is casually, graphically, murdered. Elliot can do little but look around wildly as the absurdity of his ’80s sitcom nightmare grows and grows.
Mr. Robot’s second season has regularly offered lines that serve as obvious meta-commentary. So it’s no surprise that Elliot’s questions from Wednesday’s bizarre fifth episode, “eps2.4_m4ster-slave.aes,” pretty neatly capture what was so spectacular about the show’s first season, and why the second has so far been an overwrought jumble. Last year, Mr. Robot regularly prompted viewers to ask themselves, “What’s happening? Where are we going?” but it was in the spirit of excitement, of willing to be swept away by the creator Sam Esmail’s mesmerizing directing, Elliot’s genius and foibles, and ambitious storytelling. Wondering the same in season two has felt much less satisfying; the questions often feel borne of confusion and frustration and boredom, rather than curiosity or suspense. At the halfway mark of its second season, Mr. Robot has unfortunately succumbed to so many of the mistakes that it elegantly avoided last year—narrative sprawl, unchecked pretentiousness, and a lack of momentum and cohesiveness.
The show still has plenty of ambition, as indicated by the aforementioned 17-minute opening sequence, which felt as though it had been written with “Too Many Cooks” on repeat. At first, the scene recalled some of season one’s audaciousness: Think of the brilliant dream sequence where Elliot and Angela ate fish in an office-restaurant hybrid, server lights blinking in the background. But where that earlier scene knew when to pull back, when to let moments linger just long enough, Wednesday’s sequence seemed to luxuriate in its own weirdness past the point of narrative or artistic usefulness.
It played up the horror of Darlene’s mom sticking a lit cigarette in her arm before punching her unconscious to a raucous laugh track, of Angela pausing to smile at the camera for her sitcom intro before continuing to sob next to her mom’s casket, of Elliot’s dad coughing up blood into his hand. And it all went on for 17 minutes. It was later revealed that Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) had taken over Elliot’s consciousness in order to protect him from the violent beating he was receiving at the hands of Ray’s (Craig Robinson) goons.
Such formal and tonal experimentation can be hard to come by on TV, especially on basic cable (though the likes of FX are changing that), so on some level Esmail and USA deserve credit for breaking with formula so imaginatively. But the scene also distills the kinds of excesses Mr. Robot has been especially prone to this season. Last year, the show displayed a knack for teasing out new mysteries and subplots while putting old ones to rest, all while pursuing its main thread: F Society’s attempt to take down E Corp. This year has been filled with so many apparent digressions (the Seventh Seal-esque chess match, countless Philosophy 101 soliloquies about the nature of reality and truth, Joanna Wellick’s romantic life, Whiterose’s sartorial interests), that it’s often unclear what kind of a story Mr. Robot wants to tell anymore. Rather than resolving some mysteries from season one (where is Tyrell?) the show is simply offering answers to questions few people were asking (“Who exactly thought of the name ‘Mr. Robot’?”)
It doesn’t help that for much of season two, characters were so scattered that their storylines rarely intersected in meaningful ways. Only recently have a few converged: Angela and Darlene are now working to hack the FBI in order to hide their involvement in the downfalls of AllSafe and E Corp. Elliot is helping out as best as he can when he’s not engaged in various existential and ontological struggles. The FBI Agent Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) is digging around in Angela’s business. When characters do meet, their dialogue often borders on overwritten (See: Any Mr. Robot screed) or just plain goofy (“Control is about as real as a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow.”)
All of which is to say that, right now, Mr. Robot is at risk of being remembered as one of those shows with a stellar first season that couldn’t quite keep the magic for season two. Notable examples include UnREAL, True Detective, Twin Peaks, and The Walking Dead (which eventually regained its footing for a while). Each of these shows had significant behind-the-scenes changes between seasons that affected what eventually went up on screen, whether it was showrunner departures, network interference, or not enough network interference. USA took a big, but reasonable risk letting Esmail serve as the director and showrunner for the entire season. This has led to virtuoso scenes like Elliot’s Adderall high and the House of Technological Horrors but, oddly, not to a cohesive overall vision.
Perhaps all of Mr. Robot’s current woes wouldn’t feel so disappointing if it hadn’t already proven that it could execute on its peculiar premise. The show didn’t need to reinvent or outdo itself—it simply needed to follow through on the new and interesting threads it set up in the first-season finale. But it did need, above all, consistency. It has that on at least one front: Malek’s performance, which continues to carry the show even in its weaker moments. The rest of the cast has been strong too, particularly Portia Doubleday as Angela (easily the best character by the end of last season). There are likely many fans who feel Esmail has earned enough goodwill that he deserves our patience for the rest of the season. And there’s still a good chance that the final six episodes will justify the excruciatingly slow build up and thematic muddle. When Mr. Robot tells a dreaming Elliot in the most recent episode, “This is temporary; we always did have a destination,” it’s one of those moments where you hope that he’s right.