The revolution is here—and it will be televised, Friend. Tonight, in fact, as the highly anticipated season 2 of Mr. Robot premieres.
The unusual show struck a chord with audiences last summer and garnered immediate praise from critics and the public, even stealing a Golden Globe from Game of Thrones. Now, the program will have to sustain that interest as it continues the arresting story of Elliot Alderson, a mentally unstable hacker and member of the anarchic hacktivist group fsociety.
An amalgam of Fight Club, V is for Vendetta and The Matrix, the show was initially conceived of as a feature film by creator Sam Esmail—but his big-canvas aspirations haven’t been lost in the move to smaller screens. The show’s striking visuals, layered storytelling, and evocative music all contributed to its success. But it’s the portrayals of Elliot and fsociety leader Mr. Robot (by Rami Malek and Christian Slater, respectively) and the spot-on accuracy of the hacks that have endeared it to more tech-minded viewers.
Season 1 was a slow and elegant build to a massive hack of the multinational conglomerate E Corp (aka Evil Corp), one aimed at encrypting all of the company’s data and erasing its backups—and thus virtually eliminating all consumer debt. On the brink of that hack, though, Elliot suffered one of his many blackouts; instead of seeing the moment it actually occurred, we watched Elliot wake up inside the SUV of discarded E Corp CTO Tyrell Wellick, with no memory of the epic event. Elliot’s memory loss wasn’t restricted to just his hacks, however, he also moved in for a romantic kiss with his sister Darlene before she recoiled in horror and reminded him who she is. That incident triggered a buried memory in Elliot, which led him to the season’s big reveal—that Mr. Robot was Elliot’s own alter ego, in the form of his long-dead father, a victim of E Corp’s criminal greed and neglect.
This year the show promises to get darker and go deeper, as Elliot simultaneously battles E Corp, dogged FBI investigators, and his own addictions—not to mention his numerous internal demons, all embodied by the bold and reckless Mr. Robot. There may even be an epic battle looming with Chinese superhacker Whiterose and the Dark Army, which fsociety engaged to help it take down E Corp last season, but clearly has its own agenda. As the new season begins tonight, here’s a look at some of what we think—and hope—it will bring.
The Layers We Love
Season 1 was thick with meaning; subtext popped up in everything from the books that Mr. Robot read to the names of the album titles Elliot scribbled onto the CD-Roms containing his archived hacks. When Shayla, Elliot’s neighbor/drug supplier/girlfriend, was murdered, he stored his relevant hacks for her on a disk he labeled The Cure — Disintegration. Shayla’s shocking death, of course, marked the beginning of Elliot’s disintegration and descent into acute madness.
Kor Adana, a staff writer and technology producer for the show, tells WIRED that this season will continue to be rich with callbacks and Easter eggs that he hopes viewers will take the time to ferret out. Sharp viewers already spotted one in the trailer—a real phone number instead of a Hollywood number written on the side of an evidence box. The number went to a recorded message for E Corp’s helpline. “Following recent events we are experiencing heavy caller volume,” the voice said, before another one—a computerized voice familiar from fsociety’s previous videos—breaks in to say in a threatening tone, “In order for the light to shine so brightly the darkness must be present.” The quote comes from Francis Bacon.
Soliciting not just viewer’s eyeballs, but their action as well, marks a big change for Season 2. “I’ve been trying to plant Easter eggs dating back to Season 1,” Adana says. “So much of my job is proving to people who are above me that these little details matter. The phone number is something that we fought [for] with the legal department.” Adana largely lost that battle; aside from the marketing gimmick in the trailer, the staff wasn’t able to use real phone numbers in Season 2. But he did succeed in getting permission to use real IP addresses. “I know what kind of audience we have,” he says. “Even if it’s on the screen for a millisecond, they’re going to screenshot it and try to ping the servers.”
The Fight For Control—Self and Otherwise
Mr. Robot is a hacking show about justice and righting social ills, but at its core the show is primarily about control: the societal control that corporations like E Corp maintain, and that fsociety is fighting to abolish.Then again, what is hacking about if not control? It’s Elliot’s primary mechanism for controlling a world he otherwise feels powerless in. “Whoever controls the exist nodes controls the traffic,” he told a frightened criminal about the Tor network in the pilot episode.
The question remains, though, whether Elliot is in control of himself. “I hate when I can’t hold in my loneliness,” he said in one voiceover as he huddled alone in his apartment crying. It’s little wonder that the archived hack file that Elliot keeps on himself, in order to jog his memory when he escapes reality—is labeled “Root@Elliot.” Root refers to a computer’s core—when a hacker gains root on a machine, he has total control of it.
But there’s an even larger control that Mr. Robot is grappling with: control of the soul. Free will and destiny, spiritual consciousness and awakening were prominent themes and undercurrents in Mr. Robot, as they were in The Matrix. The spiritual overtones have been sometimes overt, as when Mr. Robot was reading Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection at the pier in Season 1 just before he pushed Elliot off the railing to the ground to wake him up. Similarly, when a coffeeshop patron slugged Elliot in the face in Season 1, Mr. Robot helped him up with clear disappointment. “I’m only supposed to be your prophet,” he told Elliot. “You’re supposed to be my god.” And when Elliot rifled through the family photos he’s hidden away to remind himself of who he is, the first image he saw—the image that led to the discovery that Mr. Robot is really him—was a snapshot of his father standing before a crucifix with his arms outstretched, mirroring the Jesus behind him.
The show will continue to explore those questions, says Adana. “Control is … the major theme in Season 2,” he told WIRED. “How much control you have. Whether things are predestined, whether you have the ability to change your fate. You’ll see that with the dynamic between Elliot and Mr. Robot as Elliot struggles to maintain this part of himself or try and control this part of himself. There are some other things that I can’t really talk about in terms of other types of books and callbacks to religious metaphors that you’ll see in Season 2, but by the end of the season you’ll feel that you get a lot of it.”
Every Hacker Needs a Nemesis
One big fault we found with Mr. Robot last season was the lack of skills that fsociety’s other hackers exhibited. That wasn’t the case, apparently with Whiterose, the mysterious leader of the Dark Army—the powerful Chinese hacker group that helped fsociety take down E Corp and that we hope to see more of this season.
Whiterose, who we saw only toward the end of the season, turned out to be an enigmatic transgender woman (played by BD Wong) who made only two brief appearances. The first, one of the best scenes of the season, involved a meeting with Elliot in the faraday room where she informed him, with blatant disdain, that E Corp had bested him by installing a honeypot on its network—a fake server or server partition masquerading as a juicy target to lure fsociety and trap it.
The second scene, though, was a bonus for anyone who stuck around after the credits of the season finale. A diminutive Asian man, Whiterose reverted to his given gender, walked from a limousine into a hotel atrium, where he sat down next to E Corp’s CEO. As the two spoke, it became clear that this wasn’t Whiterose’s first encounter with the Evil CEO—and that they weren’t entirely hostile with one another. All of this suggests that we might be in for a hacker showdown between fsociety and the Dark Army, if the latter has indeed switched sides. But if Whiterose remains on the side of revolution, we may finally see Elliot team up with someone who surpasses his skills.
Clues From a Leak
On Sunday, USA Network briefly streamed the first half of the two-part premiere, giving viewers a glimpse of what’s in store. When the season opens, it’s a month after the E Corp hack—dubbed “5/9,” after the date it occurred. The hack succeeded beyond hope—E Corp’s servers, including backups, have been wiped clean, erasing records of debt for millions of people. But the hack has had other consequences as well. The global economy is in chaos, the credit system has collapsed, and panicked E Corp customers are lining up at their doors to liquidate their accounts.
All of this barely registers with Elliot, who is living an even more isolated life than before, if that’s possible. Now he’s bunking in his mother’s home—living a self-imposed exile from computers. Or is he? If we learned anything in Season 1, things aren’t always what they seem in Elliot’s world. There’s just enough that’s off about the living arrangement with his mother to suggest that this domestic picture may be a figment of his imagination as well. In any case, Elliot is sticking to a strict and sterile regiment to keep his demons at bay. He eats all his meals with the same acquaintance each day (played by rapper Joey Bada$$), attends group therapy sessions at a church, and records everything he thinks and does in a composition notebook. If he can just maintain control of his thoughts and actions, he thinks, he can keep Mr. Robot suppressed and maybe even annihilate him altogether.
You already know how that’s likely to turn out.