…But the show isn’t down for the count yet.
Note: I’m going to dance around the story details a little bit, and talk about the grand arcs for the characters overall, but this article will be mostly SPOILER FREE for the events of Mr. Robot Season 2. I’ll be back sometime later this week with a more spoiler filled, event heavy piece, but only the broad strokes of the season will be discussed here. Trust me, I’m a blogger — proper spoiler code is the equivalent of our Hippocratic oath. In any case, on with the article.
There was a while there, back in the summer of 2015, where Mr. Robot seemed to be a legit phenomenon. Every media outlet I can think of was covering the show with fervor, marveling about this odd new series on USA that was unlike anything else out in the humdrum summer TV season. That sense of enthusiasm and excitement lead to widespread critical acclaim, and even awards love for lead character (and, let’s be honest, series MVP) Rami Malek. Yes, from the moment the show began, Mr. Robot seemed on track to become one of the modern TV greats, up there with shows like Hannibal, Breaking Bad, The Leftovers, etc. But before that could really happen, one thing needed to happen.
A stellar second season.
Now how important is a second season to a new series hoping to make its mark? In my opinion, it might be the most crucial of them all. Because making a great first impression is one thing — you have the advantage of the show being the new, shiny thing on the block, and the sense of wonder and surprise is more present than ever during this season. With subsequent seasons (starting with the second) that sense of new is completely lost. The only thing really propping up a show at that point is quality, so you better be able to present a lot of it if you hope for viewers to stick around.
It’s a situation heavily unique to television, and one that all the “best” shows have to contend with. Breaking Bad, Hannibal, The Leftovers, The Wire — the list goes on and on. All these shows managed to take their strong starts and make something even better, thus cementing their status as the upper echelon of television. Simply put, the best TV shows are the ones that start out well, and keep getting better. Even if something is of extremely high quality, it doesn’t mean much at the end of the day if their second season is an absolute crater (see: True Detective Season 2.)
Which brings us back to Mr. Robot, whose second season concluded less than a week ago. Now that the dust has settled a bit, it’s time to reflect: did the show prove itself to be more than a one-hit-season-wonder in its sophomore run? Can we add it to the same staple of TV series that the greats of the millennium sit comfortably in?
I’ll be blunt here: no, probably not. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem too late for the show to get there.
Which, I know: kind of stands in complete opposite to the whole second season rhetoric I’ve been spewing for paragraphs now. But I guess it is important to note that, even if a show falls out of “best of” favor, it’s not like a rebound is entirely out of the realm of possibility — shows can always be great in any season, regardless of the weak material that might have proceeded it. But that doesn’t mean the damage isn’t done: if a show has a weak second season, it’s hard for it to come back to its formal level of glory and acclaim. And in the age of Peak TV, that’s even more so.
Because, 10 years ago, Mr. Robot Season 2 probably would have been better received. It has some weaknesses yes, but overall I still think it was a good season of television. Unfortunately, people no longer seem to have room in their lives for “good” shows, even if the lower quality is clearly in service of setting up a grander, far more exciting arc. Which really gets to the root of the problem for Mr. Robot Season 2 — more than anything, it feels like a table-setting season of television, one that is holding the major plot very, very close to its chest.
Let’s make things clear though: I think it’s fine for a show to be coy with “answers.” If I wasn’t, there would be no way that Lost would rank so high in my personal list of favorite TV shows (as it currently stands, it’s like #6, so…) But that Lost comparison is an apt one, because that’s what Mr. Robot Season 2 felt the most like to me — the second season of Lost. Both are pretty big drop offs from the quality of the first season (Lost a little more so), and both suffer from a lack of clarity, an overabundance of questions, and just a shockingly small amount of plot advancements.
When I think back to Lost Season 2, there’s little memorable episodes there: all the hatch stuff was interesting and Desmond was a great new character, but none of the overall mythology and plot really advanced all that much in the second season. The performances and production values were still for the most part stellar, but the writing just failed to grab me in the way that the first season constantly did. It still made for quality television at the end of the day, but lacked the drive and sense of wonder that really made the first season stand out.
Half way through that I switched to talking about Mr. Robot Season 2. Did you notice?
In all seriousness though, I don’t want you to come away from this thinking I hated the second season of Mr. Robot — the show is still really good, and still is capable of some of the very best TV out there. This year especially I simply have to commend the impeccable direction from creator Sam Esmail, who had the balls to direct every single episode of the 12 hour season. That’s a super crazy accomplishment that very few TV directors can come to matching, let alone showrunners/creators. And it wasn’t like this was some half-assed hack job either: Esmail’s direction was nothing short of stellar, and in conjunction with cinematographer Tod Cambell (perhaps the true MVP of all of this), he was able to create some truly striking framing and imagery. Just for that alone, Mr. Robot is still very much worth watching.
Once again though, it’s just the plot that disappointed this season. Some of it made for good television: I especially liked the slow dissolve of Fsociety following the big hack of ECorp from last season, and seeing their various levels of paranoia and fear play out was very well done. Carly Chaikin in particular got a lot of great material in Season 2, as the pressure of leading Fsociety proved to be a bit too much for her. And though opinion of the character varies greatly, I actually really enjoyed Grace Gummer’s take on the character of Dom — the hardened, expert FBI agent is a rather stock one, but Gummer managed to bring enough spark to the character to make her at least interesting to watch. Arguably there was a little bit too much of her (whole swatches of episodes focus predominately on Dom and her investigation, it seems), but I’m not going to complain too much about that. I just like having Meryl Streep on my TV screen and, in a pinch, her red headed little clone will do too.
The real problem of the season surprisingly rests in its two biggest characters: Elliot and Angela. In the case of a latter, it’s all a bit of a confusing mess — Portia Doubleday does a good job with the material she is given, but boy does it seem like this show is just spiraling with her character. She’s the Karen Page of Mr. Robot: a character that the show can just pull to and fro to accomplish whatever the hell they want to accomplish, characterization be damned. Some of the things that Angela did this season border on incompetent, and more than anything was just kind of confusing. What does she contribute her? What is ultimately her purpose on the series? What is she even trying to accomplish? It seems the answers to all these questions changed scene to scene, and while her final appearance in the season was certainly interesting, I’m still not entirely sure how the hell she got there from where she was last season.
But really, it’s the Elliot storyline that failed me the most this season. Yes, it has its highlights, and yes Rami Malek remains as good as ever (and so does Christian Slater, for that matter.) But ultimately the season gives Elliot next to nothing in terms of his use in the main plot, stranding him on his own little plot island for 2/3 of the season, and then failing to use him in a substantial way afterwards. In fact, Elliot’s presence was barely felt for most of the season, and while the occasional lack of the character from the proceedings was interesting (I was a big fan of the episode without him completely, for instance), I think the show was starting to forget that the character of Elliot was what made Mr. Robot interesting in the first place.
Storytelling wise, it makes total sense why Elliot would be in the state he was in at the beginning of the season: he dealt with quite a lot towards the end of Season 1, and its inevitable that the character (and the show itself) has to have a bit of a comedown following such large turn of events. But the main problem here was how long that comedown takes, and how little seems to happen in the meantime. I have no aversion to an introspective character study of this sort (I loved much of the same material in The Leftovers Season 2), but there just wasn’t enough there to support the six or seven episodes that Elliot spent arguing with Mr. Robot, ESPECIALLY when it seemed like it was all for nothing (as the final moments of the season finale spell out.)
And even if the beginning of the season featured a career best performance from Craig Robinson (which it very much did), the storyline petered off the more it went along, ending rather anti-climatically and with a pretty rote twist that everybody saw coming since the very first episode of the season. The most intriguing aspects of the Elliot/Mr. Robot storyline were introduced half-haphazardly towards the very end of the season, but got little payoff otherwise, as the focus shifted back to Tyrell, to rather disappointing results (that character is a whole other barrel of problem worms for the season, but it basically boils down to this: if you’re going to have a season long, constantly brought up “mystery,” it better result in something interesting or cool. With the Tyrell mystery, it simply didn’t.)
If it was any other character, the fact that Elliot’s storyline was so undercooked wouldn’t be that big a deal: there was enough other interesting things going on that the season still could have been great. But for my money, the reason to watch this show at all is for Elliot — he’s the main character, and a stellar one at that. Getting a glimpse at his twisted mind and bizarre POV was what drove Mr. Robot to its heights last season, and without a strong storyline for him, the whole enterprise kind of fails to reach its true greatness. Which is exactly what happened this season.
But like I said at the way tippy-top of the page, it’s not too late for Mr. Robot. Yes, a less-than-great second season certainly dampers its reputation quite a bit: already viewership has dropped substantially, and word-of-mouth isn’t nearly as strong as it was last season. While in the summer of 2015 it felt impossible to not hear people raving about this show, the chatter this time around was far more tempered and subdued. Mr. Robot didn’t deliver an amazing second season, and as weird as it might sound, in the current TV climate, it’s hard to get back from that.
But Season 2 is still a quality season of television, and still has plenty of things to remind viewers why they started watching in the first place. Sam Esmail is a very strong filmmaker, and even if not everything jelled in the way he probably hoped it would have this season, I’m hoping he’ll learn from the experience to craft a much stronger Season 3. After all, the third season of Lost was one of the show’s best, and there’s no reason the talented people behind this show can’t do the same here. Yes, Mr. Robot has likely lost the chance to be the TV sensation it once was back in its first 10 episodes, and that is a bit of a shame. But the opportunity to be a great, exciting TV series? As a good portion of Season 2 shows, that’s still very much within the show’s grasp.