Mr. Robot can be an arrogant turd of a show. A polished-to-the-point-of-stylized turd, to be sure, but frequently whiffy and unmoving nonetheless. Like Fight Club, its most glaring influence, the tech drama’s critique of consumer capitalism is largely rooted in hipster snobbery: Ugh, look at all of us (but mostly them) drinking the same Starbucks coffee and watching the same sitcoms and going to the same boring job day after day. It’s middle-class discontent, only glancingly concerned with systemic inequality and definitely not interested in poverty. (It’s one thing to be educated but broke like the student loan–burdened Angela, played by Portia Doubleday, and quite another to be poor.) Mr. Robot rails against the "comfortable sameness" that capitalism ostensibly instills — haughtily likening it to zombiedom — as if the chaos and anxieties of hacker Elliot’s (Rami Malek) existence ever did anything for him but exacerbate his mental illness.
Season 1 of the USA Network show ended in the first step toward Elliot’s revolution, with the deletion of all records of Evil Corp’s loans. The hackers, in particular Elliot’s sister, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), threw a party. But can the loss of wealth lead to the end of capitalism, or at least a fairer version of it? Creator Sam Esmail has cited the Arab Spring as another influence for Mr. Robot, but what we learned from the Great Recession just a couple of years years prior is that ordinary people — the very ones Elliot is trying to "save" — bear the brunt of the suffering when markets plummet, and that late-stage capitalism is more resilient than the Terminator.
Revolution isn’t just difficult to pull off — it’s hard to imagine. The second season of Mr. Robot, which returns with back-to-back episodes tonight (July 13), has a big job ahead not only depicting, but also conceiving it. Thankfully, Esmail knows from history that revolutions need to grow in order to be something more than a stunt. Darlene takes charge of the Anonymous-like hacking group Fsociety — and is quickly (and rather realistically) compared to George W. Bush for attempting to rally her troops into battle. (Big surprise: Anti-establishment types don’t take kindly to being told what to do.) Across town, Elliot struggles to maintain control over his angry impulses, which manifest in the hallucinatory guise of his dead father, "Mr. Robot" (Christian Slater).
The show has yet to fully exploit the disjoint between Elliot’s good intentions and Mr. Robot’s burn-it-all nihilism, and the confident, slow-revealing premiere doesn’t mind making us wait for it a while longer. Like Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, Elliot’s a compelling symptom rather than a protagonist, and so the claustrophobic chamber scenes between Malek and Slater dueling for dominance fail to engage. Joey Bada$$ and especially Craig Robinson’s warm appearances as light comic relief are, well, relieving, and provide hope that Elliot can finally find a way out of his punishing alienation. Grace Gummer and Aasif Mandvi also join the cast this season as FBI agents, as the government takes a special interest in Fsociety.
But the most auspicious story line by far is its vaguest: The revolution itself, which has begun, it seems, without an endpoint in mind. Enemies are always easy to spot; solutions are far trickier to find and apply. We don’t know yet what the world the hackers are fighting for looks like, but I’m much more eager to hear their ideas — or watch them fight for competing visions — than listen to any more of the introduction-to-globalization lectures Mr. Robot has to offer. The $5.9 million that Fsociety makes Evil Corp light on fire demonstrates what we all know: Revolutions can destroy aplenty. What’s much more intriguing is what they can create.