Being “over the top” is a part of Mr. Robot‘s modus operandi–the ‘big bad’ is a corporation that our hero calls “Evil Corp”, after all. This week’s episode, however, takes it to the next level, at times pushing the series out of the realm of the possible and into the land of zany coincidences and laughably dramatic monologues.
Jumping right back where we left off, this week’s Mr. Robot finds Elliot asked by Evil Corp–specifically Tyrell Wellick, a tech-wizard himself at one time–to join them in their plans for world dominance. Okay, it’s not that direct, but it might as well be. The rest of the episode follows in this manner, as Elliot waffles between keeping his work-a-day life and throwing in with Mr. Robot’s increasingly mysterious crew.
The episode’s pacing is actually right on the money, moving us swiftly from storyline to storyline, each influencing Elliot’s decision in some way. Take, for instance, this week’s B-story–or the “monster of the week” side plot–wherein Elliot’s drug dealer–sleazy sweetheart, Shayla–has increasingly worrisome interactions with her supplier, leading Elliot to take matters into his own hands. Much like in his dealings with his psychiatrist’s con-man boyfriend from last week, Elliot’s interactions with his dealer’s dealer–an irrevocably evil bloke named Fernando Vera–forecast his reasons for the way that he handles Mr. Robot and his crew, as well as Evil Corp.
It’s just too bad about the dialogue and the handling of characters this time around. Where last week’s Mr. Robot played around with the idea of “evil”–sometimes stopping to consider the slow path it takes to go from average guy to mogul bent on world domination–this week we start out with Tyrell pushing us into the deep end of “evil” with his instantaneous power grab. For those keeping score at home, Tyrell was the very same guy from last week who “still liked to use Linux, because he was legit, and still cool and just like you, hacker bros.” Now all of a sudden he’s ruthless and quick to take over in the stead of Evil Corp’s fallen ruler, Terry Colby. It’s symptomatic of the weakness in this newest Mr. Robot; nearly every character is turned up to eleven. Fernando, the previously mentioned morphine supplier, isn’t just a drug dealer with a ‘tude. He’s a killer, a gun runner and a rapist. And why does he stoop to such means, you ask? Oh, because he realized that he hates himself and that same self-hatred gives him the power to rule the world, only from his little stoop–thus the reason why he can’t make the political/economic moves of the equally evil Tyrell. It’s post-True Detective character work, reveling in the depravity of modern man, but it doesn’t get us anywhere interesting. I get that Fernando presents Elliot’s morality with a dilemma, but Elliot’s ultimate decision doesn’t really say much different about his character than what we learned last week. More than anything, Fernando represents a guy who definitely ISN’T Elliot, even though they have similar character traits, proving that Elliot should definitely be our hero, uh-huh, oh yeah. Even Elliot is given short shrift in this week’s Mr. Robot, going from the quasi-druggy of last week–where his toking lead him to some realistically bad consequences–to becoming a full-on morphine addict this week, starting off the episode by doing four lines of morphine-blow. I won’t lie, it leads to an interesting sequence that plays up Elliot’s paranoia in a fascinating way, but you’re still left scratching your head and wondering, “Wait, why’d he do that again?” Outside of the lazy character work, we also get a cheap cliff hanger this week, one that seems ultimately pointless and phoned-in compared to last week’s legitimately surprising ending. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s another instance where the writing just feels off in this week’s Mr. Robot.
Luckily, the star actors all bring it this time around, with Christian Slater seeming especially comfortable as the mysterious Mr. Robot. Slater delivers on a charm level that makes him a natural as a group leader, never forcing the audience to question what compels Elliot to return to the hacker collective in the face of their dubious actions. Rami Malek returns with his same commitment to the role, making those aforementioned morphine scenes much more bearable where they would probably feel even worse in the hands of a less talented actor. All the other players, however, seem to fall down on the job, potentially because directing duty has shifted from the ever-capable hands of Mr. Robot‘s premiere episode director, Niels Arden Oplev, to the show’s creator, Sam Esmail. I don’t want to pounce on Esmail all throughout this review–after all, the premiere episode was one of the most engaging television pilots of the last few years–but either his writing or directing leads to some really lame character moments that I don’t think rest solely on the actor’s heads. Tyrell’s Martin Wallström in particular, either just doesn’t have the chops for–what should be–a fairly complex part, or Esmail isn’t hitting home the potential gravitas of the character to him. Darlene–the femme fatale of Mr. Robot’s crew–also came up short for me, coming off as annoying and childish, rather than the stand-offish character we got in Mr. Robot’s premiere, who clearly had some baggage that she was bringing to the table.
There’s a moment, somewhere in the middle of the episode, where Slater’s Mr. Robot says emphatically, “The world is a dangerous place, Elliot, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” It’s a salient point, one that seemed to be the ethos behind many of the messages in Mr. Robot‘s pilot episode. It exists here as a buoy amongst a sea of “extreme” scenarios and character personalities, promising that at its core, Mr. Robot still has a strong and willful purpose. I have faith. Sam Esmail dropped the ball with Mr. Robot‘s sophomore effort, but it’s still one of the most intriguing and engaging shows airing this summer and is easily the best thing on the USA Network, as I talked about in last episode’s review. There’s such a thing as a sophomore slump, and often times it takes an artist getting past that creative bump in the road to do some of their best work.