Mr Robot has existed at the forefront of its medium from its very first episode. The USA Network, somehow gaining an inherent understanding of television’s relationship with the internet overnight, released the first episode of its risky new drama online a month before its broadcast on television – and in doing so, the channel managed to get to grips with something a lot of channels are failing to grasp; that young people are watching television online, and that they want it to be immediately, universally accessible.
In the lead up to season two, it was hard to think how the network might top the buzz. Mr Robot felt new and fresh and exciting the first time round – but season two had big shoes to fill, both in terms of quality and buzz. But the USA Network once again stepped up their game, and once again understood something fundamental about its audience. Younger viewers very rarely watch television when its actually on television. It’s why services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are so successful – particularly when they team up with channels to offer shows internationally, so viewers in multiple countries can watch their favourite shows almost as soon as they’re released. Netflix saw success with this model when broadcasting Breaking Bad in the UK, and now Amazon Prime have picked up the same model with Mr Robot.
But it was how the USA Network approached the lead-up to Mr Robot’s second season that was really exciting. Two days before the two-part season two premiere was broadcast, the first part was shown online. Not just on the USA Network’s site – but on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even Snapchat. This shows a surprising level of engagement that other online services are just failing to meet; you only have to look at British channel BBC Three for an example, which has recently moved online and now feels like a non-entity, largely due to a failure to engage with its core audience. By broadcasting Mr Robot online for only a few hours, USA Network not only created a sense of exclusivity, but discouraged pirating and somehow managed to get younger audiences to be watching something at pretty much the same time in the same places. Which, these days, is nigh-on impossible.
But was it enough? Despite an aggressive online marketing campaign, Mr Robot’s premiere hit an all-time low with its premiere, with a total of 1.04 million viewers. Hopefully the show’s six Emmy nominations should give the show a bit of a ratings boost next week – and add an extra layer of hype to this season.
All the hype in the world, however, can’t make up for actual quality. Fortunately, Mr Robot’s return has that in spades. This season starts off pretty much where the last left off, shifted a month or so down the line. Tyrell Wellick – still missing – is shouldering the blame for the fsociety hack. Angela is working in PR, Darlene – the complete other end of the spectrum – is guiding the after-effects of the revolution, and Elliot is battling it out for control with his alter-ego, Mr Robot himself.
There was a shift in the inherent dynamics of the show last season when episode nine revealed that Mr Robot was a figment of Elliot’s imagination. The show’s writer and director, Sam Esmail, has managed to juggle that shift perfectly, and the two-part premiere largely focussed on the new fight for control, a concept that’s dominated Elliot’s life since he was first introduced to the audience. The struggle for dominance is expertly realised, both narratively and visually – Mr Robot shoots Elliot in the head, Elliot gets right back up again and continues to hold onto control via a rigid routine and some extreme journaling – but, like most of the show, it’s really Rami Malek’s acting that makes the beats work. One particularly eerie scene that sees an unhinged laughing fit is chilling, and without Malek throwing his all into the moment, it would have felt strange and awkward.
With the changed dynamic, however, the show has become a fraction less cerebral and internal – leaving some more space for secondary characters to step up to the plate. This felt successful and a little lost all at once; whilst I’m sure the show will get into the rhythm of its new crop of characters soon, the scenes focusing on Angela, Darlene, Joanna and their various subplots felt a little scrappy, as if there wasn’t quite enough time for their moments to breathe. Mr Robot is certainly a show that, whilst always feeling well-paced, is never in a particular hurry; narratively and visually, Esmail likes to take his time, allowing the focus to settle on a particular moment or set-piece if it feels deserved – which means a rushed moment can stand out starkly, leaving the women of the show feeling a little underserved. That being said, the direction of their stories arguably are feeling more exciting than Elliot’s; in contrast to a character who seems fairly stuck in his own head, Angela and Darlene’s stories seem particularly sweeping and broad. There’s something epic and revolutionary about Darlene’s current path, which is nicely-contrasted by the moments that take her aside and allow the audience to see her vulnerable and struggling. And Portia Doubleday, who plays Angela, should certainly be commended; her coldness is well-matched by a certain frantic energy that belies her self-doubts, and whilst a lot of praise is heaped on Malek and Christian Slater, her performance promises to be stand-out this season. It’s exciting, with these orbital characters, to try to figure out where they may clash and come together, and Angela and Darlene seem dead-set to go head to head. Hopefully Esmail has ensured that his supporting crew don’t get lost within the multiple narratives the show is juggling.
A particularly interesting narrative is that of Tyrell Wellick and the mystery of his disappearance, a plot dragged over from last season. Elliot and Mr Robot’s battle for control hinges on Wellick – and the show goes pretty far to build the underlying assumption that Mr Robot killed him after the fsociety hack. Yet the end of the premiere disproves that, which was almost relieving. Not only was Wellick one of the most interesting and intricately layered secondary characters from the first season – preceded only by his wife, Joanna, portrayed by a pitch-perfect Stephanie Corneliussen – but the question of his disappearance was already beginning to drag by the end of the premiere. Fortunately, Esmail didn’t fail to disappoint – and so, with a creepy Bonsoir Elliot, Wellick was back.
This moment is exemplary of Esmail’s real skill. A lot of the beats in Mr Robot are easy to see coming; I can’t say anyone was particularly surprised to learn Mr Robot was Elliot’s alter-ego. I also can’t say that I was surprised to find out Wellick was alive – it would have been an odd choice to reveal his death in a promo scene – and the way the sequence played out laid out some fairly obvious beats for the audience to follow. But there’s something about Esmail’s writing, his ability for pace and timing, that make these obvious moments exciting and fresh. With Tyrell’s reappearance, it was the eerie throwback to his and Elliot’s first meeting that really gets the audience in the gut. Again, timing was perfect here – any longer and the mystery around Tyrell would have dragged and felt drawn out simply for the sake of being drawn out. But Esmail, both in this moment and his entire show, keeps the audience twisting, desperate for the eternal question – what comes next?
A lot of big-budget dramas are leaning towards the binge-watch option – whilst Orange is the New Black popularised it, it’s now a model that’s been picked up by almost all of Netflix’s original content – in a way that the episode-to-episode hook, the cliff-hanger, felt like it was dying a death, only hanging on via various HBO Originals. But Esmail and the USA Network are, somehow, bringing back traditional viewing habits in innovative ways. Just as they got their audience – used to pull television and watching their shows when and where they like – to watch television online at pretty much the same time, Esmail’s bringing back the hook and leaving his audience just the right level of desperate for answers. And the hype is justified – not by insane plot twists or shock deaths of fan-favourites (or basically every other device Game of Thrones has employed to keep viewers watching six seasons of what is essentially a show about people having very, very long conversations and occasionally stabbing or having sex with each other), but by the quality of the show. Mr Robot is finally proving what should be obvious; that innovation in television is, at the end of the day, about understanding your audience.