Mr. Robot returned to television this week, bringing audiences back into the anxiety-ridden reality of hacker extraordinaire Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). After the series suffered a Season 2 slump--buckling a bit under the weight of the increasingly layered, nuanced world Sam Esmail created--it’s hard not to wonder if the show can now reclaim a bit of the brilliance that made Season 1 so compelling.
When the series premiered in 2015, the story introduced audiences to social outcast Alderson as he worked to make sense of his budding relationship with the show’s title character (Christian Slater) and take down global conglomerate E-Corp--or as he calls them, EvilCorp. A complex mystery began to unfold. In its second season, the story spent a lot of its time following Alderson as he grappled with his ever-complicated relationship with Mr. Robot--a Tyler Durden-esque alternate personality modeled after the hacker’s abusive father.
As audiences return to this world, they will be met with a powerful new component in Alderson’s strange anti-hero psyche: a guilty conscience. Is it too late to fix all the damage in the 5/9 attack which led to a global economic crisis? That’s the gist of the new conflict Season 3 introduces in the premiere episode, "Eps3.0power-saver-mode.h."
As complex as the character of Elliot is--Rami Malek’s Emmy wins are very well deserved--it’s been shown time and again that he’s not one to make the best decisions in the face of adversity. And while his old friends, Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday), and fellow resistance fighter/sister, Darlene Alderson (Carly Chaikin), are still there for him, it’s boggling just how many formidable opponents Alderson has accumulated along the way.
From the sinister Dark Army exploits of Whiterose (BD Wong) to EvilCorp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Christofer) to FBI agent Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer), Elliot has racked up a bunch of enemies along the way. The most notable threat, though, has come from Mr. Robot himself--who has stepped into the proverbial driver’s seat from time to time, leading Elliot to extended blackouts.
This major detail is one of the driving factors that leads Season 3 into new territory. Angela's team-up with Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom)--the dude who left Elliot with a bullet in the stomach in the show’s Season 2 finale--alludes to an unexpected partnership in fsociety’s cryptic-sounding Stage 2, it’s revealed that Ms. Moss is aware of Elliot’s alter-ego and has been colluding with Mr. Robot to take down the company that killed her mother.
When you think about it, the formula that has helped Mr. Robot work--aside from Elliot’s fourth wall-breaking internal monologues--are the variety of partnerships that has led our hero down this anarchic path. Season 1 found Elliot and Mr. Robot taking on the threat of corporate greed. Season 2 put Darlene in the leadership role of resistance hacker group fsociety, as Elliot spent his time sequestered away. Now, in Season 3, it seems that teamwork will make the dystopian dream work as Angela, Tyrell and newly introduced fixer Irving (Bobby Cannavale) all join Mr. Robot in their mysterious efforts to make Stage 2 a reality.
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There’s something frustrating about the story Mr. Robot is telling, though: the timeline for the series still exists firmly in the year 2015, putting some 20/20 hindsight into play. Barack Obama is still president and the ramifications of Elliot’s collusion with the Dark Army haven’t completely been felt, as of yet. But Sam Esmail, who once again directs every episode, doesn’t shy away from giving winks and nudges to the audience--alluding to America’s cultural chaos and political strife by giving glimpses of Donald Trump’s rise to power.
In its first two seasons, Mr. Robot solidified its foundation on an anti-establishment thrust with a geeky hacker in a position of power even he never expected to achieve. With the global picture of capitalism, greed and destruction still opening itself up to Elliot and audiences alike, it’s clear that Season 3 has its work cut out for it.
“What if I told you we could make it like none of this ever happened?” Angela posed this question to Elliot in the premiere’s final act. It’s an intriguing notion that will probably act as a through-line in these new episodes. Realistically speaking, Elliot can’t just undo all the damage he’s caused. Then again, it’s possible that Stage 2 is the clean slate Angela is aiming for.
After viewing the Season 3 premiere, it’s clear that the series has learned from a few mistakes. Honing its focus in on the characters and conflicts that matter most--keeping Whiterose’s ancillary threats temporarily in the background--the stylized series is reconnecting with Elliot, giving our hero an inner conflict that feels organic and new. Elliot Alderson has always been the empathetic center of the story; as long as the series maintains that focus, Mr. Robot will be just fine.