Friday, August 19, 2016

Thoughts at the halfway point of Mr. Robot's divisive second season

There's a growing trend in this current age of TV, marked by a buildup/teardown cycle that occurs with high-buzz shows, but it has been especially pronounced this year.  The 100 slowly began to gain momentum with some critics of note (and a few critics who aren't of note, including myself) over its first two seasons, only for it to have an uneven and controversial third season earlier this year.  Then there is Lifetime's behind-the-scenes drama Unreal, which recently concluded an absolutely disastrous sophomore season, just after it lit the world on fire with its smart, exciting, Peabody award-winning first season.  It's almost as these shows realize their newfound position in the spotlight, and choke under the pressure.

We're seeing a little bit of that on a smaller scale with Mr. Robot too.  Its first season came out of nowhere, on a network known for breezy, "blue skies" programming and from a creator who previously had no experience writing television.  Straight from the pilot the show established itself as a visually stunning, narratively trippy oddity and only became more so as it went on. But up until a week or two ago, the critical consensus surrounding its hotly anticipated second season is that it has been a step down from the first, with many asking themselves "where is this all going?" by the end of each episode.

This happens all the time when a show gets the "You have to watch __________" treatment, for a number of reasons.  The first is that alot of people caught up on Mr. Robot after hearing all of the fawning praise about it, so it's likely that they binged the first season in a very short amount of time.  Now that they've had to adjust to weekly viewing, it makes the show seems slower and more adrift than before.  For a similar example, look at certain internet comment sections for episodes in the beginning of season four of Breaking Bad, where people complained about the show being more listless than usual.  Breaking Bad was always a deliberate show, it just seemed more so after so many people binged the first three seasons based on the building buzz.

The second reason is a matter of expectations.  When a show first arrives there's no baggage attached to it, nor is there the overwhelming notion that it will be good.  (Expectations usually only come from shows with a big name attached behind the scenes, like Vinyl.)  People underestimate the role surprise can play when it comes to loving a show.  Once that series has already established itself and built up goodwill, that surprise is taken away.  It's hard not to feel like there's alot of that going on with the second season of Mr. Robot and people chalking it up as more of a disappointment than it actually is.  That's not to say that some shows aren't deserving of the harsher criticism that comes with the loss of surprise, because like I said, season two of Unreal was an unmitigated disaster.  But it does feel like the "oh, it's bad now" hand-wringing that comes with these shows that have a meteoric rise is a little overstated sometimes.

All of this is a very long and complicated way of saying that I don't agree with the complaints about season two of Mr. Robot.  In fact, I think that it is several orders of magnitude better than it was in its first season.  Granted, it helps that I was never as sold on the show as others were at the height of its hype hurricane last year.  Where season one landed the show on many critics' top 10 lists, it failed to even make my top 20.  (It was number 41.  There's alot of good TV out there!)  This was a show I liked, and I consider the first season's big twist to be one of the finest rug pulls I have ever seen.  Yet I remained unconvinced that it was ever going to be a series that I could come to love.  It was just too chilly and detached, too indebted to its influences.

The first season of Mr. Robot felt like a textbook example of style over substance.  A large portion of that style was clearly cribbed from Fight Club, a film I don't enjoy very much, which certainly didn't help matters.  But it wasn't just the Fight Club nature of it all, it was that the show seemed to push all of its visual and narrative tools to the limit, with every shot featuring a character in the corner of the screen dwarfed by the background space, and its invitations to the question of what is real or not.  After a while, it was numbing and a little boring.

This year, it feels much more like the style enhances its substance.  Much has been made about creator Sam Esmail's decision to direct every episode of the season, and even though critics showed concern about him burning himself out, it really does seem to have made a positive impact on the show's aesthetic.  There's a clarity of vision that just didn't come through when he had to resort to delegating.  Visually and tonally, season two has been bolder and more breathtaking than ever before.  Esmail has broadened the palette he's working with, relying less on Fincher-isms and adding Kubrick to his arsenal, with so many frames having that wide-open and meticulous construction the latter was known for.  But it goes deeper than just visual cues.  A more electric creative energy runs through every aspect of this season, from the creation of a fake art film to explain the origin of the FSociety mask, to a title card cut that felt like something straight out of a horror movie, to a 20-minute segment done in the style of a 90s sitcom.

Another one of my gripes with season one was that I didn't feel anything for the characters.  That was just a byproduct of the show's general chilliness, but I'm the kind of person who needs to be engaged with a show's characters in order to truly love it.  Twists and turns only go so far if it's not rooted in meaningful character progression.

Maybe Esmail realized this too, as he's made a concerted effort this year to really dig into what makes these people tick.  Where season one was a plot-driven techno thriller, this season is more of an ensemble drama.  It has done so by bringing supporting characters like Darlene and Angela to the fore.  The latter is an especially wise choice given that Angela has always been one of the more fascinating characters, and this increased focus has only solidified that.  Some people find her storylines tedious, but to me she's the key to understanding the show.  In a way, all of these characters are people with a need to be recognized, and her specific desire for validation -- through the mantras that she whispers to herself when she's all alone and her quest as a warm-blooded person attempting to adapt to this cold-blooded world -- is the most overt expression of that.

There's also the addition of a completely new character in the form of Dominique Dipierro (played by Grace Gummer), the FBI agent tasked with bringing down FSociety.  On paper, she's just an assemblage of tough cop cliches -- intense devotion to her job, doesn't get along with her peers, almost inhuman detective skills -- but Gummer is giving a career-best performance in the role.  And Dom is given life beyond a stock type in the moments where we see her outside of her job, riddled with anxiety and an inability to sleep at night.  She's an extension of one of the main themes of Mr. Robot, especially this season: above all else, this is the story of lonely spirits shuffling through a crowded, hyper-connected world.

At this point Elliot, the show's ostensible protagonist, is the least interesting character.  This would be a problem if the show still had the same structure it did last year, but its transition into being a rich ensemble piece helps matters.  And despite being out at sea narratively, he still ties into the arc of the season thematically.  A few episodes back, Dom has a conversation with Minister Zhang, who we know to be Whiterose (B.D. Wong), where she explains why her FBI job appeals to her.  That explanation contains one of the most important lines of the season, as she says "I'm disgusted by the selfish depravity of the world, but at the same time, I'm utterly fascinated by it."  But it could have easily been a line that came out of Elliot's mouth.  Or any of the central characters, really.  That's one of the most interesting ideas holding this season together, the notion that all of these players are driven by similar impulses, and yet they act on those impulses in divergent ways.

So I've loved this season of Mr. Robot so far and have found so many fascinating things to pluck out of it, but judging from this week's episode, I'm not so sure the show is interested in the same things about itself that I am.  At the end of "h4ndshake.sme," the popular fan theory that Elliot has been in jail all season was proven to be true, and I'm still working through how I feel about it.  Esmail seems like a smart guy who trusts the savviness of his audience, so it's possible that this development wasn't meant to be a revelation for us.  After all, he's stated that Mr. Robot (as played by Christian Slater) not actually being a person was not supposed to be a surprise in season one, and this is the closest analogue to that.  But what made the Mr. Robot reveal in season one not feel disappointing is because it was used as a smokescreen to hide the twist that Elliot and Darlene are brother and sister.  If this season is not building to some other bombshell, then I'm not sure what the point of spending seven episodes moving towards something that ultimately doesn't affect the way most viewers take in the show is.

It just seems like a miscalculation no matter the angle you approach it from.  If it was meant to be a bigger twist than it is, then I don't know why Esmail thought he could get away with it after he primed the audience to look for things like that in the first season.  If it's not meant to be twist, then his desire to return to the well of Elliot having distorted perceptions of reality is troubling.  Not only does it lead to some of the show's more self-satisfied stylistic detours, but it's also getting a bit repetitive already.  (And again, did it really need to take seven episodes to get to this point?)

Still, I'm feeling very high on this season, despite my trepidation about the most recent episode.  I never thought I'd be in a position of loving it so much, and ironically, right around the time that everyone else started to slightly turn on it.  That's fine, I don't mind being on the minority (and possibly wrong side) of the internet consensus.  My only worry is that Sam Esmail will take in too many of the criticisms of season two and muffle his creative vision.  For better or worse, his is a style that deserves to operate unfettered.