Mr. Robot Recap: Season 2 Returns to Elliot's Madness

I'm worried about Mr. Robot. No, not the Tyler Durden-esque id of main character Elliot Alderson. I'm worried about Mr. Robot the TV show.

The rookie of the year of last summer's TV season returned to the air last night (July 13) with a 90-minute, two-part episode that suffered at times from a plodding pace and a story that focused a little too much on Elliot and his mental unrest. But not all hope is lost, as the show's attention to technical detail remained both engaging and informative, its dark sense of humor elicited some chuckles and its beautiful aesthetics continue to wow in its sophomore season.

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A word to the newbies: If you missed the first season and are thinking about jumping in with the season 2 premiere, I don't recommend it. You'll have so many questions that need answering, you'll be spending more time consulting Wikipedia summaries than looking at the screen. Get up to date by finding season 1 episodes to stream before diving in here.

Editor's Note: This review contains spoilers for the events that take place in Mr Robot's second-season premiere.

Part 1: Internal Struggles Drag On

Rami Malek's performance remains as haunting and hypnotizing as it was in season 1, but his ongoing struggle with Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), his id that takes the form of his dead father, took up more time than necessary in the premiere.

Of the handful of the first-half scenes where Elliot and Mr. Robot battled for control of his actions, only their initial encounter felt important. It established Elliot's journal and the gunshot wounds inflicted by Mr. Robot as narrative devices that signify Elliot's mental stability, but the show could have waited for the second half of the premiere to have the two meet again. We already knew about Elliot's dad pushing him out of a second-story window from the first season. We didn't need to see it again as a flashback.

I don't have a ton of faith that this pattern will improve, as showrunner Sam Esmail said that Mr. Robot's focus will stay on Elliot's identity crisis. That may that sound like a grand old time for some, but characters such as Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliussen) need development, as they seem as cut-and-dried as when the show introduced them.

This episode gave Darlene an OK amount of time on-screen — someone has to lead fsociety's selfie-loving, backward-cap-wearing, PBR-guzzling army — but it felt like lip service that didn't push her forward as a character. Ms. Wellick is in worse condition, stuck in the role of masochism enthusiast.

And while I love a good laugh at smart home technology, the season premiere spent too much time showing off the hacking of a connected shower, projection television and stereo system. Yes, troll the rich and break their wearables, but don't drive the joke into the ground with the audience.

Mr. Robot's Tech Side Still Works Well

It took Mr. Robot 35 minutes to get to the security technology storytelling it's known for, but it was worth it, as the show reminded me why it earned my respect in the first place. The CryptoWall ransomware used to hijack E Corp servers borrows the name of an actual malware program, taking a page out of headlines we at Tom's Guide report on every day. And Mr. Robot showed that this software can't be implemented by remote upload, but by hand, as fsociety's Mobley (Azhar Khan) posed as an IT technician.

The small details kept coming with the Joker logo splattered on the locked desktops. It's the calling card of The Jester, a real-life unidentified hacker who describes his or her grey-hat hacking as patriotic and has claimed responsibility for attacks on WikiLeaks, 4chan, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Islamist websites.

There's a large degree of difficulty involved with Mr. Robot's second season.

The Jester's motto, which appeared under the logo, reads "There's an unequal amount of good and bad in most things," which coincidentally ties back to Elliot's battle against his Mr. Robot alter ego, who is all too willing to ruin or risk lives to change the world. This attention to detail is attributable to Kor Adana, the show's writer and consultant, a former network security analyst at Toyota.

All of these details led to one of the more human moments of the premiere, as we found an E Corp bank customer fed up and frustrated by the bank's inability to access funds after the ransomware attack. Sure, the hacktivists erase civilians' debt, but they've created chaos that wrecks the lives of responsible citizens in the process.

Part 2: Cinematography and Characters Save The Day

Fortunately, the premiere got a lot better after its intermission, as the focus moved away from Elliot and Mr. Robot. The second half started with more of the beautiful cinematography the show is known for, featuring a Financial District bonfire that was a joy to watch. Esmail and director of photography Tod Campbell moved from wide shots to closeups and then to on-the-ground angles, and shuffled those images around in a hypnotic rhythm.

Angela (Portia Doubleday) didn't appear until the second half of the premiere, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much the show let her develop, as she didn't get this opportunity last season. Shirking past controversies and seeking solace in cutthroat negotiations, late-night infomercial affirmations and random hookups, she's finding her own ways to survive the crippling loneliness that permeates the show.

Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer) looks to be a great addition as an FBI agent who curses in fluent Farsi and carries herself with a positive mental attitude that the series will likely try to rid her of. Ray (Craig Robinson) adds even more to this cast, as a loquacious dog-owner from Elliot's old neighborhood who wants to employ him for his skill set.

Leon (Joey Bada$$) may or may not be another figment of Elliot's imagination, but his ramblings about Seinfeld's depictions of the meaningless of life added much-needed levity. Who would have thought that meditations on the nihilism of George Costanza could serve as an ideal garnish to an episode filled with gunshots to the head and children falling out of buildings?

To Be Continued

There's a large degree of difficulty involved with Mr. Robot's second season. The show no longer benefits from the lack of expectations for content on the USA Network, long known for pretty people, thin plots and beautiful locales.

Our extended stays with Elliot don't need to feel this problematic, but his bleed-the-rich and burn-the-debt sentiments don't ring with originality, and neither does the repeated motto "control is an illusion." Sure, Mr. Robot and Elliot want to change the world, but their platitudes are rote and uninspiring.

Esmail proved last season that he's adept at setting the table for future moments, so maybe his chessboard needed the seeds planted in this premiere. It's unsettling that the show pivoted from favorite to difficult in two episodes, but I'm excited for next week, as we will hopefully see the return of Tyrell Wellick. If we're lucky, we might get some answers as to his overall connection to Elliot and fsociety.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.