'Mr. Robot': How TV's Hit Hacker Drama Keeps Getting Better

USA's breakout cyberthriller returns for an even stronger second season — and takes its paranoid premise to the next level

Rami Malek in the new season of 'Mr. Robot.' Credit: Michael Parmelee/USA

In the excellent new season of Mr. Robot, we see our hero Elliott make a desperate attempt to reboot his entire life. He's still a brilliant but messed-up hacker in a black hoodie, a lonesome punk kid with a drug problem and a head full of toxic social anxieties that make it tough for him to interact with other humans. But he decides to break his Internet addiction. He moves back home with his drunk mom in Queens. He keeps to himself and shoots hoops. He stays offline, which for him is a real agony. He's turning his life into an "analog nightmare." But it won't work. He's still haunted by his old friend Mr. Robot — the alter ego who recruited him into an underground gang of techno-anarchist monkey-wrenchers who call themselves fsociety, bent on bringing down the corporate capitalist system. Thanks to Elliott, the global economy is a pile of smoldering wreckage.

Mr. Robot came out of nowhere to dazzle the world last summer. Sam Esmail's cyber-vigilante fantasy has its own off-kilter visual style and its own let's-name-names revolutionary bravado — which seemed especially weird on the USA Network. But most importantly, it has a fantastic star: Rami Malek remains perfect as Elliott, with his soulful eyes and a face drawn so tight he always looks like he's about to snap. In the superb first season, Elliott was a morphine-gobbling computer genius whose life changed when he met a mystery man on the subway named Mr. Robot — a never-better Christian Slater. The mystery man lured him into a hacker collective's Coney Island hideout. But after helping the group known as fsociety break into the capitalist system and sabotage the bad guys in Evil Corp, Elliott got a doozy of a surprise twist: Mr. Robot is just a hallucination, wearing the face of Elliott's father, who died of cancer when he was a little boy.

So now Elliott's fighting to grab control over his own bad brain, cataloging the damage inside his head and squaring it with the damage he's done to the world outside. He gets no peace from his sister, fsociety ringleader Darlene (Carly Chalkin), or his best friend, Evil Corp insider Angela (Portia Doubleday). He drops out and stays away from any kind of Internet connection — as he writes in his paper journal, "it's the only way to keep my program running like it's supposed to." But he can't get away from Mr. Robot that easily, because he is Mr. Robot — that's the drug he's addicted to, the Mr. Brownstone he can't stop dancing with. Even when he talks to the audience in his voice-over narration, he can't trust us. "Sometimes I wonder what you hide behind, my silent friend?" he asks. "What mask do you wear?"

Mr. Robot has a wonderfully zesty adolescent energy, right down to its teen-punk sense of morality — the villains are called Evil Corp, which isn't quite the self-deprecating joke it seemed to be at first. Esmail is directing the entire second season, along with co-writing every episode, a bit of auteurism in the tradition of Louis C.K.'s Louie or Steven Soderbergh's The Knick. The cast gets new faces like Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ as Elliott's friend and Grace Gummer as an FBI agent tracking him down. It looks like nothing else on TV — the show revels in whoa-dude thrills that make it too vulgar for some prestige-TV types, though it's the vulgarity of it that gives all the revolutionary bluster a kick. It's steeped in the glory days of 1970s paranoid-loner cinema: Elliott has the haunted look of Gene Hackman in The Conversation or Charles Bronson in The Mechanic. We see everything through Elliott's eyes, with his intuitively simplified sense of right and wrong — from the get-go, this has always been a story where a guy who's mean to his dog in public is a guy who cheats on his girlfriend in private. But after learning the truth, Elliott has lost his self-righteous edge, and that makes him a deeper, more dangerous character. He can't tell who his real enemies are anymore, because he can't trust his own mind.

Ultimately, Mr. Robot isn't really a fable about technology — it's about solitude, a drug that can play hideous tricks on the brain. Elliott knows there's a gap between what he thinks and what really exists out there in the world — it is the drama that happens in the no man's land between the two zones. For Elliott, computer code is a language he's mastered to insulate himself from other people, and it served him well up to a point; the question for him is whether he can get beyond that point or whether he's doomed to remain a wounded adolescent, trapped inside his own head forever. All the high-tech splendors of the modern world are just another seductive reason for him to stay home and zone out alone — which is where he gets into trouble. And the reason Mr. Robot hits home is that it's hardly just one guy's problem. There's a little Mr. Robot in everyone.