Elliot catches a glimpse of 2017 and doesn’t like what he sees.
By the rules of its own design, Mr. Robot shouldn’t be noticeably changed by the hellish developments of 2017. After all, it’s a show that thrives on chaos, disorder, and the nervous energy of an America on the brink of willful collapse. Plus, the show is still set in 2015, so there’s no logical way for it to incorporate the massive storms–political and otherwise–of our present day. Right?
Wrong. Did we really expect politically outspoken, ever-experimenting showrunner Sam Esmail to keep his world separate from ours? On some level, Mr. Robot’s post 5/9 vision of America is more orderly than our own–yes, it has rolling blackouts, unapologetically corrupt CEOs, and a complete breakdown in currency, but it also has keen political and corporate leaders rushing to respond to the crisis. In the third season premiere, Esmail used this unsettling truth to his advantage to compose an unforgettable, reality-bending sequence that essentially played out as a complete series reboot.
After recovering from a gunshot wound and the realization that his worse half, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, performing the devil-on-the-shoulder routine with magnificent abandon) had gathered fsociety to plan a follow-up terror act that would further cripple the world economy, Elliot (Rami Malek) took to the streets to do some of his signature internal soliloquy. It was then, around the 34-minute mark of its 23rd episode, that Mr. Robot changed its mind about what it wanted to be. Elliot usually speaks directly to us in his head, the audience taking on the role of some unexplained delusion, but in “eps3.0_power-saver-mode.h” he began saying every few lines out loud on screen, giving his internal discord a physical voice. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it distinction, but what follows has all the subtlety of a punch in the face.
As he walks down a dark, stage-like New York street lined with citizens–some preparing emergency supplies, others fist-fighting, and many just waiting for whatever comes next–Elliot begins to regret the formation of fsociety. “Did my revolution just bury our minds instead of freeing them?” he asks, referencing their backfired attempt to redistribute wealth by taking down conglomerate ECorp. “5/9 didn’t get rid of the invisible hand: it turned it into a fist that punched us in the dick.” Quick cuts of the Fox News logo, protests, falling glaciers, and Klan meetings flash across the screen as he intones that the world “packaged fight into product, turned our dissent into intellectual property.” There’s a quick cut to an NBC logo, accompanied by the station’s signature chime, in case the reference to a station (also the parent company of Mr. Robot’s USA Network) that critics say normalized Donald Trump’s behavior wasn’t clear enough. Then there’s a flashback to the pilot, when Elliot, then still believing himself a helpless cog in the machine, said, “Fuck society.”
Back in Elliot’s present day, before looking directly at the camera, Malek practically spits out his words: “Yeah, I fucked society alright.” The visuals, monologue, and music all swell like some horrific orchestral crescendo, and then we see our present–Elliot’s nightmare of a future. As he asks us what the future might look like if we “choose weakness over strength,” more real news images appear, referencing the Muslim ban, Trump’s inauguration, Theresa May, James Comey, Vladimir Putin, MAGA rally violence, the border wall, and major corporations like Google and Monsanto. The images stop as Elliot pauses at a dreamlike memorial wall papered with photos of his dead friends. Lightning strikes. “I’m the problem,” Elliot finally decides. The scene lasts nearly three-and-a-half minutes.
Shocking moments are old hat for a show which capped off its near-perfect first season with a Fight Club-esque split personality revelation, then nearly sunk the entire series with an ultra-slow-burning, semi-pointless “he’s actually in prison!” plot in its second. The manic energy and stylized darkness are still present here–at some points, this sequence is reminiscent of Tyler Durden’s “all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world” speech in Fight Club–but Esmail’s premiere provides a more deeply felt shock than any before it. The emphatic implication is that the show itself was wrong and maybe even dangerous in its original portrayal of pseudo-anarchic hackers–or perhaps anyone purporting to bring a swift end to “American carnage”–as the heroes we need. In a bold and surreal choice, the mental horror show that Elliot envisions, convincing him after two seasons of work to finally divorce himself from fsociety’s self-destructive cause, is his fear of our own present. From this moment forward, the line between reality and fiction in Mr. Robot will become marvelously, frighteningly blurred, as Elliot vows to keep his world’s 2017 from looking as bleak and fractured as our own.
When he’s not explicitly condemning Trump and the culture of fear that allowed him power, Esmail is exploring the theme of a do-over in other strange ways. Whiterose (BD Wong) opens the season by explaining a basic version of string theory, something that seems like narrative posturing until we realize that Angela (Portia Doubleday) seems to buy into it on a weirdly literal level. While Angela contemplates her dream of doing a second take of her entire life (which as she tells it, sounds suspiciously like time-travel–please, TV gods, don’t let Mr. Robot do time-travel), Elliot optimistically joins the ranks of ECorp, doing his best to fix the damage he’s wreaked on the global economy while staying within the legal limits of a torturously slow-moving bureaucratic process. Of course, this doesn’t actually seem like it’s going to work. Slater’s Mr. Robot is already undermining Elliot’s actions again, even while Malek drolly compares his involvement in 5/9 to embarrassing himself in front of a crush or a boss.
The show has co-opted a more absurd tone to accompany Elliot’s change of heart, another fitting adaption for 2017 given the increasingly absurdist nature of stories emerging from the 24-hour news cycle. We see Elliot wearing a “Property of Josh Groban” T-shirt, and later crying while watching Dancing with the Stars, all while somewhere in the distance Bobby Cannavale argues about proper punch-card etiquette. Before, the show’s lighter moments–think QWERTY the fish talking during Elliot’s season one hallucination, or last year’s sitcom episode–were still played straight as pieces of a larger puzzle about Elliot’s mental state, but now they seem to serve as Esmail’s playful nods of recognition to an idiosyncratic world gone batshit. These bits of levity also make the show’s darker moments, like Mr. Robot’s threatening introduction to Elliot’s therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben, restrained and wonderful as always), efficiently suspenseful by contrast.
The newfound optimism of Mr. Robot doesn’t seem built to last. The tentative good that Elliot is working towards feels small compared to the cosmic chess game going on between ECorp and the Dark Army, and there are already clues hinting that more points of Elliot’s narration aren’t accurate. Still, after all the showmanship and shock, Mr. Robot would do well to stick with Elliot’s newfound concern for society. It’s a solid core for a show that often borders on glossy emptiness. Plus, Elliot has hope where he once only had bitterness, and in 2017, that’s worth exploring.