USA Network

Mr. Robot At Midseason: An Excruciatingly Slow Burn, Another Big Twist

It’s time for this show to abandon the trickery and get back to telling a compelling story

[Note: Spoilers up to the seventh (August 17) episode of Season 2.]

Nobody likes themselves in their entirety. There are features — or, rather, bugs — that we all wish we could amputate from ourselves, or at least hide from view: claws that lash out, a tremble at the ordinary, a salivating desire to please. Strip Mr. Robot (USA Network) of its hacking heists and capitalism critiques, and what you’re left with is a guy whose self-loathing is matched only by his self-righteous condescension toward the rest of the world. Elliot’s (Rami Malek) fugue personality, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), is just a heightened expression of what we’ve all got: destructive impulses and cravings for escapism.

Creator Sam Esmail evidently hoped that the conflict between the parts of Elliot that he claims as himself and those that he rejects could sustain a half-season. But internal conflict gains intrigue mostly when it’s forced into action, when it has to react and maybe rearrange itself in response to a new situation. That’s largely why the drama’s sophomore year has been so stagnant: With Elliot stuck in what we now know is a prison cell (a twist that should’ve been revealed by the third episode at the latest), cut off from his fellow hacker insurgents and the revolution he started, Mr. Robot replaced actual plot (and even character development) with mind-fuck chess games. Especially after the hurtling story lines of Season 1, this summer’s installments have felt like a zombie version of the series: slow, single-minded, mostly empty inside.

It’s impossible not to be impressed with Esmail’s chillingly gorgeous direction or mischievous yet evocative play with music. But overlong episodes, self-satisfied cleverness (ugh, that ’80s sitcom stunt), and pacing problems that betray a lack of story and focus at best and a crass self-indulgence at worst have exacerbated the stultifying barrenness of a follow-up season where nothing really happens until five installments in. It’s only when a pair of Chinese assassins start massacring the FBI at a Beijing hotel that the drama finally jolts awake from its queasy reveries.

That Grace Gummer’s government agent Dom, a Season 2 addition, has so quickly become the show’s highlight is telling: The show is failing not just Elliot, but pretty much every other character as well. Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is determined to continue the anti-bank revolution, but essentially waits around until she can track down the highly track-down-able Angela (Portia Doubleday). As for the newest employee at Evil Corp, I’ve never understood why other viewers care about Angela as much as they do; Doubleday’s great, but Angela’s anger at her mother’s death feels elusive and fading, even as the writers bring it up over and over again. Just as numbingly repetitive are Joanna’s (Stephanie Corneliussen) sex games with men who don’t measure up to her missing husband, Tyrell (Martin Wallström) — we get it, she’s broke because she spent all her money on red ribbons.

At the season’s outset, I was most interested in how Elliot and Darlene’s occupy.com movement would play out, since “changing the world” is still Elliot’s superhero/vigilante fantasy. Perhaps (even) more patience is required, as there’s frustratingly been no acknowledgment so far that the revolution has made everything worse for ordinary citizens, at least in the short term: people can’t access their money, their houses are being foreclosed upon without due process, and restaurants require cash up front, since there’s no such thing as socially contracted trust anymore. A disillusioned nihilist like Elliot might argue that people need to be more suspicious of one another in general, but all his efforts seem to have accomplished is to sow chaos and paranoia, making everyone else as uncomfortable as Elliot has always been.

That’s why the lonely but well-adjusted Dom is such a welcome relief. She seems transplanted into this world from, well, ours — a functional grownup who actually knows how to deal with her problems. Sure, she needs to sex chat with strangers to get off on a forlorn night, and her gloomier thoughts take her to the end of the world, but her solitariness, unlike Elliot’s, is a choice — not a prison. And despite her isolation, she’s curious and caring enough about the world to want to protect it, not just turn it upside down.