This review contains spoilers for parts one and two of Unmasked.
There’s an interesting, understated moment near the end of eps2.0unm4sk-pt1.tc, the typically byzantine spelling of “Part One” of the Mr. Robot season two premiere.
A woman is in line at Evil Corp’s Bank of E, desperately trying to show the teller behind the counter that she has paid off all her bills with the bank but the teller isn’t having it. The teller says that since F Society hacked into Evil Corp’s systems and erased all of their consumers’ debts, people have been presenting falsified documents showing that they’ve paid off their debts.
It’s interesting because it goes so far against the unbridled and unfocused euphoria that closed out USA Network’s surprising flagship drama in its first season. By the end of season one, Elliot and F Society had won! They wiped out everyone’s debts. The banks were screwed and the people were liberated. Now in season two here we find out that the banking system in the United States doesn’t just view the absence of debt as proof that people are no longer in debt to them. Instead, it’s a sign that everyone is in debt to them until they can prove otherwise.
On one hand, that’s pretty frustrating narratively. It promptly cuts the legs out from a lot of momentum Mr. Robot had going into season two. Sure, there are signs of financial catastrophe. President Obama regularly appears on television warning of grave financial consequences, people pay for almost everything in cash and the Wall Street bull gets fixed. On the other hand though, how much has really changed?
As a grand statement on society and the entrenched nature of those in power and those underneath, it’s logical and satisfying. As a next step in a fun story, it’s a little frustrating.
Still, it might have been the best way to begin season two. Unmasked* takes all the momentum and lingering mystery from season one and immediately puts them on hold to reestablish itself as a seasonal story with presumably a beginning, a middle and an end.
*While I’m one of the few who finds Mr. Robot’s episode titles clever and fun instead of forced and annoying, I’ll be using the “translated” version of the episode titles from here on out in this review.
It feels like not much happens in “Unmasked” which is a strange thing to say about an hour and a half of television in which Gideon is shot in the neck at a bar and Evil Corp CTO Scott Knowles is forced to burn a pile of $5.9 million in public. It’s also true. Because for all of Unmasked’s running time, it’s reverted Elliot back to his analogue state.
Elliot deciding to remove himself from all access to the internet and technology until he can make sure he has control over Mr. Robot is at first disappointing to all those who want to see Elliot fuck shit up with his smart phone (I include myself among those viewers). It is also a perfectly logical way for Elliot to confront a problem. And Elliot is nothing if not logical.
Also, while Mr. Robot season one was almost universally beloved, a common complaint was that the show frequently prioritized style over substance. By getting Elliot offline, in his mom’s house and grabbing breakfast, lunch and dinner with the Seinfeld-obsessed Leon (rapper Joey Badass in a small but unexpectedly stellar performance), the show puts Elliot’s struggles with Mr. Robot at the center of the show’s DNA where it belongs. Making a post-twist Mr. Robot relevant to the proceedings on Mr. Robot isn’t just an issue of placating Christian Slater, it’s pretty damn crucial to the entire structure of the show.
Plus it doesn’t mean the show still can’t be stylish. Elliot flashing from his last moments with Tyrell Wellick (in which Chekov’s gun makes yet another appearance but STILL doesn’t go off) to his being pushed out of a window as a child to the introduction of his analog routine as Lupe Fiasco’s Daydreamin’ blares is the kind of stylistic flourish that rightfully made this show a must-watch in its first season.
Elliot’s inaction may at times be disappointing but it is crucial for how it leads up to his final interactions with Mr. Robot in part two. Elliot discovers from Ray (Craig Robinson in another strangely cast but fully satisfying role) that they spoke the previous night about Elliot helping Ray out with a hacking project. Elliot has no recollection of this and realizes that Mr. Robot took over his persona at night without him realizing it.
The final twenty minutes or so are a tennis-like back and forth between Elliot and Mr. Robot for an upper-hand in Elliot’s brain. That may not sound as exciting as the degenerate hacking of last year but it somehow works.
“What will you make me realize… that they see me?” Mr. Robot asks Elliot then steps back as he knows he’s mortally wounded him. In response Elliot laughs and laughs and laughs. Advantage Elliot. Then as the episode ends, Elliot falls asleep during a church support group and wakes up in a hallway, on the phone… with Tyrell Wellick. Advantage Mr. Robot.
Of course, Elliot’s struggle with an internal battle puts some pressure on Mr. Robot’s ancillary characters to perform and they are only partly up to the task. Darlene is now solely in charge of fSociety in Elliot’s absence and uses some sophisticated hackery to make E Corp counsel Susan Jacobs’ smart home uninhabitable to establish a new base of operations. Risky and ludicrous? Of course. But also quite cool.
In the second hour of the premiere, the other woman in Elliot’s life, childhood friend Angela, finds some success as Evil Corp’s new PR lady. Her sudden change of character still feels quite abrupt though. And no amount of self-help videos can change that.
On the whole, we still don’t know where Tyrell Wellick is and we still don’t know who was knocking on Elliot’s door at the end of season one. And that’s fine for now. Mr. Robot is focused on getting everything in place for a season that will hopefully stand on its own. It just can’t forget to keep bringing the style as it works its way through the substance.