Feel Free To Get Off the “Mr. Robot” Ride Now

The best part of riding a roller coaster is often the first lift hill. While waiting in a way-too-long queue, the anticipation for the ride only simmers because the mind is restless and bored. Is this terrible wait time-to-ride time ratio even worth it? Yet, somehow, during that slow climb to the first drop, excitement builds exponentially. All of the sudden, the brain thinks, “This is really happening and holy shit, it looks incredibly dangerous.” The imminent thrills are typically right in front of the riders, in plain sight, but that does not take away from the natural release of endorphins that occurs when the coaster lets gravity take over. After that drop, it does not matter if some of the loops and bunny hills cannot compare to the very start of the ride because the initial acceleration was strong enough to carry everyone to end so fast that they barely noticed. The only people who get off of roller coasters without a smile on their faces are the ones who should not have gotten on the ride in the first place.

What that gratuitous, paragraph-long allegory is trying to say is this: the experience of watching a great television drama is a lot like riding a roller coaster over the course of days, weeks, months, or years, depending on whether the viewer was on the train at the beginning or just binged it all on Netflix during one rainy weekend. Mr. Robot’s first season was a near-perfect thrill ride, much like the Coney Island Cyclone often present in the background, and its promise of more crazy loops and fun drops in the future seemed like a sure thing. Unfortunately, the second season did not deliver smooth navigation through inversions and instead opted to jerk the audience sideways through a series fits and starts.

Season one occasionally felt as exciting as the best episodes of Breaking Bad, but with a surreal point of view and a focus on a younger set of characters and a more contemporary set of problems. Season two occasionally felt like a series of art-house films that no one could articulate how much they actually enjoyed.

To get specific, showrunner Sam Esmail apparently decided to eschew clear character motivations in favor of making the audience question whether anything on screen could be trusted. Elliott, the show’s antihero, was revealed to be insane in season one. He spent a majority of season two isolated from the rest of the characters and straight up lying to the audience because, well, he is crazy, right? His childhood friend, Angela, hides her emotions from everyone in order to advance her twin goals of revenge and self-actualization.

That sounds like a great narrative hook, but it ended up making her actions nearly impossible to trace with a straight line. Elliott and Angela’s unrequited love story has received maybe half an episode of attention total, so calling it undeveloped feels generous[1]. The shows’ many powerful antagonists speak to each other in vague soliloquies about, um, power, and end up sounding more like comic book villains than real people. Elliott’s interactions with these characters take place almost entirely off-screen because the show’s main suspense-building technique is withholding information from the audience, over and over again.

All of this makes for an incredibly frustrating watch week to week. Mr. Robot no longer shows things like weekly plot advancements and climactic revelations that make the audience say, “This show is crazy”; it now just tells everyone watching that this is, indeed, a crazy show.

Airing these grievances almost feels a bit nitpicky, because Esmail’s vision can still be as interesting as it is confusing. There were scarcely few moments of clarity, but those scenes admittedly delivered. The collision between new FBI character Dom’s arc with its natural foil, Darlene’s lawless leadership of the remaining hackers, was luckily grounded in reality, easy to follow, and downright exciting[2]. The acting and cinematography remain superior to most other shows currently airing. It feels difficult to quit on a show that started off so great and remains so well made, especially after committing so much time to it already, but it would be even more difficult to blame anyone for giving up on it now.

At the beginning of this season, some wondered what exactly the show’s main goal was, and what sort of picture its thematic threads were weaving. There were a lot of fan theories out there, and very few of them were completely disproven. Right now, the answer seems to be all of the above and none of the above simultaneously.

Consider the indulgent rollercoaster metaphor intro as a tribute to this show’s habit of using self-aggrandizing dialogue and artful obfuscation in place getting to the point. As stated with Angela’s karaoke choice, everyone on this show wants to rule the world. Unfortunately, everyone watching Mr. Robot is back to waiting in a queue with no end in sight, increasingly doubting that the ride will be worth the wait.

*     *     *

[1] Their kiss during the third-to-last episode was among the most unearned “will they, or won’t they” moments ever.

[2] Especially during Angela and Darlene’s Ocean’s 11-esque hack of the FBI.

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