In the series premiere of Mr. Robot, the titular (and imagined) character explained to our protagonist Elliot that the hackers of fsociety don't communicate at all online. "Our encryption is the real world," he says.
"How do you talk to each other then?" Elliot asks.
That's more true today, two full seasons later, than it was back then. The characters we love shared very few scenes with each other in the show's sophomore season, and that's proving to be a problem. We need something to care about besides the confused insides of Elliot's head, and the characters of Mr. Robot are uniformly so great, so magnetic, that they pull focus from the Elliot vs Mr. Robot dynamic that showrunner Sam Esmail seems to see as the show's center. We may not know that much about them, but Esmail has a gift for hinting at rich shared histories whose rough contours we can appreciate even if we don't get them in full. (I'm thinking, for example, of Darlene and Angela's exchange in ballet class. That scene remains an amazing bit of shorthand for how well two characters who never interacted much onscreen really know each other.)
But these people haven't talked to each other in too long. Despite Mr. Robot's style and polish, despite the care with which it buries hints and clues at a level of detail that rewards the show's most dedicated detectives with exciting extras, Season 2 forgot to build in any stakes. Remember Shayla? Remember what it felt like to watch a scene that wasn't a paranoid invitation to code-crack, that gave us space to care about these characters and their motivations and relationships?
The closest Mr. Robot came to "relationship drama" this season was Elliot's ongoing battle with Mr. Robot. It's an interesting conflict in its way, but Elliot's experiments in getting shot in the head by his imaginary father are no substitute for dramatic tension between people with real rather than metaphorical connections. Nor, frankly, did we need to see Elliot's struggle with Mr. Robot relitigated quite so many times with so little resultant clarity. (The chess game is a good example of how little some of these scenes achieved. Not only did it feel like a rare step into cliché; it was also maddeningly inconclusive. They're perfectly matched! They are the same! We knew this.)
But more frustrating than the chess business and the isolated spheres to which Esmail banished his characters this season is the fact that the show's deep dives into Elliot's psychology aren't reliable and they don't build. They don't help us achieve a larger understanding of Elliot's central relationship with his second self. Take the famous ALF episode, in which Mr. Robot turned for 19 minutes into a parody of a '90s sitcom. The major revelation — Mr. Robot can protect Elliot! — made an amazing kind of sense. If Elliot conjured Mr. Robot from scraps of his childhood, it seemed poetic that some of the good got mixed in with the bad, that Mr. Robot's abusive dominance exercises could — in an emergency — guard Elliot's emotional and physical health. That's a moving and pretty powerful story worthy of what this show can do at its best.
But as revelations go, this one turned out to be irritatingly impermanent. By the end of the second season, Mr. Robot appears to be no principle of protection at all. He's reluctant but ultimately willing to let Elliot die for the sake of going forward with "Stage 2." Esmail has said that this show is at its heart about Elliot's journey. It's a psychological study, in other words. So what are we to make of Mr. Robot's suicidal indifference to Elliot's fate — not as a matter of plot, but as a matter of Elliot's psychology? Has Elliot's entire paternal fantasy gone bust? If so, why? Was every theory he came up with about his connection to Mr. Robot wrong? If so, how? And most importantly: To what internal conflict or issue is this plan of Mr. Robot's attached? Why is the whole individual formed by Elliot, Mr. Robot, and any other "alters" so fixated on this project of debt elimination?
We still don't know, and that's making it a little bit hard to care. Elliot's unreliability is so extreme that it makes anything we experience from his point of view automatically suspect. And that point of view infects the show in ways that make it unwise to invest emotionally in anything happening onscreen. The last episode began with Elliot lucid dreaming and ended with him "lucid waking," I guess — how that framing affects the events that took place in between is anyone's guess. It seems like it ought to mean that we're somehow trapped in Elliot's perspective; in practice, that doesn't seem to be the case.
Here's why that matters dramatically: The show encourages paranoid reading to such a degree that it's almost impossible to just sit and enjoy a scene. Take a recent scene in which Angela confronts Elliot on a subway and tells him she's going to confess. It ends in a kiss, and it would have been a terrifically effective and humanizing bit of drama in a show that needed that — but instead I was trying to figure out what was really going on. There was an ear on the poster! A caption about the discerning listener! Did this mean the feds were listening? Was Angela wearing a wire? Is she setting Elliot up? Those questions drown out the dialogue. And it's a shame, because Esmail writes great dialogue, but he's trained viewers to read through and past it. It's a shame because we almost never see Angela and Elliot share screentime anymore, and it would have been nice to know whether we could take a break from code-cracking to feel something for them.
In lieu of coherence, we get repetition. Season 1 ended with one stage of fsociety's plan, undertaken by an unconscious Elliot. Season 2 ends with another. We spent much of Season 2 following Elliot as he tries to piece together what he did during the 5/9 hack; we have every reason to believe he'll spend much of Season 3 trying to reconstruct his actions during this one.
In the meantime, we get a lot of suggestive hints: The Lolita overtones are building. Darlene famously goes by D0loresH4ze — Lolita's real name in Nabokov's novel — and Angela's breakthrough during Whiterose's peculiar interrogation came when she said "the key was in my fist, my fist was in my pocket," another Lolita reference. (The full quote is "And she was mine, she was mine, the key was in my fist, my fist was in my pocket, she was mine.") Does this mean there's a link between Darlene and Angela? Were they both molested? Or is this just a spurious, roving, ambient connection? (I fear it may be the latter). William Carlos Williams' red wheelbarrow has risen to prominence as the title of Elliot's notebook, a cipher for Tyrell's father, and a restaurant menu. (Let's hope we live to see it glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.)
But we also get a lot of discouraging examples of how clues can generate bad readings: Joanna thought Tyrell was sending her those gifts, that he was extending their private language. He wasn't. (Why not? Who knows?) Darlene thought she was reading the FBI; it turned out they were reading her.
It's true that the show is full of delicious Easter eggs, but at this point they're starting to seem worryingly decorative. Let's hope that next season, some of them hatch.