Everyone’s favorite mentally unhinged, hoodie-wearing hacker, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and his associates, both real and imaginary, return tonight for season three of Mr. Robot. It’s been over a year since the show’s complex season two wrapped up, so a look back (and ahead) seems very necessary.
Thankfully, we’ve done that work for you.
Mr. Robot’s first season had two focal points. First, the events leading up to the devastating hack of multinational conglomerate E Corp (a.k.a. Evil Corp), launched by ragtag revolutionaries fsociety with help from the China-based Dark Army. Second, and more importantly, the gradual revelation of how fragile Elliot’s mind and grasp of reality really was. Bigger subplots followed Elliot’s longtime friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday) and her disillusionment with her own life and career, and the destructive ambitions of Evil Corp executive Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström). The season ended on a cliffhanger, with Wellick missing in the wake of the hack, and Elliot—an unreliable narrator, still coming to grips with the fact that his constant companion Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) was a) his dead father and b) imaginary—unable to recall his role in any of it. Most urgently: who was pounding at his apartment door, and what was the meaning of the shocking post-credits meeting between time-obsessed Dark Army leader Whiterose (B.D. Wong) and Evil Corp CEP Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer)?
Those questions and many more were explored in season two, which ran two episodes longer than season one and was more expansive in its scope, not to mention way more violent. It was set in the aftermath of the infamous Five/Nine hack, an event that destabilized not just Evil Corp’s finances, but the world economy. Instead of the characters’ actions affecting just themselves and the people in their immediate lives, they had global repercussions, and we saw this played out over frequent cutaways to TV newscasts reporting on the latest hack-related crisis.
Instead of feeling triumphant, the various members of fsociety lived in fear of being captured, either by the FBI or the increasingly hostile Dark Army. We got seven episodes deep before a very guarded Elliot admitted to the viewer—who he still spoke to directly, via inner monologues, but was reluctant to trust again after the events of last season—that he wasn’t really living a “perfectly constructed loop” at his mother’s house. Instead, he was serving an 18-month prison sentence for stealing a dog from his therapist’s sleazy boyfriend, a laughably minor crime compared to the hack, but the one that got him busted. (That knocking on the door at the end of season one? It was the cops, there to arrest him.)
On the inside, Elliot had one ally, Seinfeld super fan Leon (Joey Bada$$), later revealed to be a soldier for Whiterose. He also had a major foe in Ray (Craig Robinson), the prison’s crooked warden, who exploited Elliot’s computer skills to help run his sketchy dark web marketplace. Ray’s subplot existed mostly to draw out the Mr. Robot side of Elliot’s personality, and his alter ego appeared more and more frequently to shield Elliot from various horrors. This fluid POV resulted in one of the weirdest Mr. Robot episodes yet, in which Elliot—beaten to a pulp by Ray’s thugs—briefly believed he was stranded in a nightmarishly surreal 1990s sitcom, complete with laugh track and ALF cameo.
Essentially, though, Mr. Robot’s focal points remained the same in season two: the hack and its ever-complicated aftermath (including the stormy alliance between the Whiterose, whose public identity is a high-ranking Chinese government official named Minister Zheng, and Evil Corp’s Price), and Elliot’s tenuous grasp of reality. The latter is further complicated by the fact that he now knows he’s not all there, and that he’s battling for control of his own mind most of the time.
We’ve already discussed hoodie-clad Elliot Alderson and Mr. Robot, Elliot’s more confident, more ruthless other personality. Nobody can see Mr. Robot except Elliot. In season two, Elliot finally understood that Mr. Robot (who looks exactly like his dead father, and makes Elliot do things he can’t remember) does not exist outside his mind. The only other person who can see him is the show’s third main character, the viewer. You are so important to Elliot that when he momentarily allows himself to dream of a happy future, in which everyone he’s ever known and liked gathers together in celebration, there’s an empty seat at the table waiting just for you. Hello, friend.
Also in play: Elliot’s sister, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), left running fsociety in her brother’s absence. Her devotion to the cause never wavered, but her emotions often got the better of her, and her leadership skills were sometimes less than inspiring. Angela got an ice-queen makeover after she ascended to a posh job at Evil Corp, but her brittle yuppie facade and weird self-affirmation regime soon began to crack. We got confirmation as the season went on that Price and Whiterose lured her into the fold for nefarious reasons having to do with her past. And speaking of Price and Whiterose, we spent a lot more time with both in season two, but they’re both still incredibly enigmatic. The biggest question that remained unanswered throughout the season: what’s the reason behind Whiterose’s keen interest in Evil Corp’s still-toxic Washington Township plant—the very facility that caused the cancer that killed Angela’s mother and Elliot and Darlene’s father?
Another season two enigma was Evil Corp’s Tyrell Wellick—virtually MIA until the penultimate episode. Elliot was pretty sure he killed him at the arcade after the hack, but he couldn’t quite remember and Mr. Robot wouldn’t tell him the truth. Mostly, Tyrell’s presence was felt via his wife Joanna, who (in season two’s most tedious subplot) took up with a bartender even as she kinda held out hope that Tyrell would return.
Season two’s most prominent new character was Dominique “Dom” DiPierro (Grace Gummer), the introverted, joint-rolling, Alexa-berating, whip-smart FBI agent assigned to the Five/Nine hack. She’s survived two Dark Army shootouts (so far), doesn’t take shit from her superiors, and frequently has a lollipop jammed in her mouth, Kojak-style. She has no life beyond the bureau, a fact that’s either going to help her solve this case or make her chase it forever.
We obviously don’t know too much about season three yet, but the biggest new cast addition looks to be Irving (Bobby Cannavale), a used-car salesman who is apparently also working for Whiterose. Released yesterday, the first few minutes of the season three opener are very heavy on Irving, who demonstrates his exacting personality both while ordering fast food (at the Red Wheelbarrow, natch) and while stopping by the scene of a gruesome shooting. (More on that below.) Based on that first real glimpse, Irving kind of evokes Mike Ehrmantraut, the enforcer on Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad—but knowing Mr. Robot, he’ll certainly have his own distinctive flair.
When last we saw them:
- Elliot was bleeding from a gunshot wound in the stomach, administered by Tyrell when he tried to interfere with “Stage 2,” essentially a scheme to destroy all of Evil Corp’s paper records. Turns out Tyrell and Mr. Robot (working independently of Elliot) set up the plot with the Dark Army without including the rest of fsociety. In the opening moments of season three, which pick up immediately after the season two finale, we see Irving checking on Tyrell and Elliot and summoning a doctor to assess the situation. (Presumably, there’ll be no dream-state ALF appearance this time around, but you never know.)
- Angela, having just formed an alliance of sorts with Whiterose, was en route to Tyrell and Mr. Robot’s secret lair, knowing that she needed to be the first face Elliot saw when he woke up. Tyrell and Angela both agree that they love Elliot. Make of that what you will.
- Speaking of Whiterose, she agreed (as Minister Zheng) to loan billions to Price to help bail out Evil Corp when the US government refused to help him out. (Just to clarify, this is Mr. Robot’s other character with two identities: Whiterose is a glamorous transgender woman; Minister Zheng is a man.) In return, he agreed not to shut down that damn Washington Township plant Whiterose is obsessed with.
- Darlene was in FBI custody, still splattered in her boyfriend’s blood after he was taken out by the Dark Army, and in utter shock at how much Dom really knew about about fsociety and the hack. (Her exact words were “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”)
- Boring Joanna Wellick had convinced her boring boyfriend to try and frame Scott Knowles, Tyrell’s former Evil Corp job rival, for the murder of Scott’s wife, Sharon. Of course, everyone (including Scott and Joanna) know that Tyrell did it.
- Having fled New York out of fear for their lives, fsociety hackers Mobley (Azhar Khan) and Trenton (Sunita Mani) have settled uneasily in Arizona, working at an electronics store. But as they’re nervously discussing whether or not it would be possible to reverse the Five/Nine hack, they’re approached by a stranger in the parking lot: Elliot’s prison buddy, Leon.
It may have lost a bit of its novelty after the first season’s Fight Club-style reveal that Mr. Robot was Elliot’s imaginary friend, and season two may not have ended in a way that pleased everyone, but Mr. Robot is still one of the smartest shows on television. In addition to its gripping, twisting, layers-of-mystery plot, it depicts a near-future world that’s both sustained by and corrupted by technology—and manages to make you care a lot about a guy whose life is dangerously confusing on even his best days. The performances are outstanding—Malek and Slater have been suitably awarded, but the whole cast kills it; the interplay between Wong and Cristofer is always unbeatable—and the show is gorgeously filmed. Also, there’s no show on TV right now that uses music more creatively. It’ll be hard to top the money-burning scene set to Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” (or the kidnapper van that tootled “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” from its stereo), but season three will surely contain some sonic gems among its many surprises.
Mr. Robot returns tonight on USA.