Mr. Robot had such a concise first season, not only because it just had ten average-sized episodes (minus an extended pilot), but because it had enough plot to fill all of those episodes. The more I watch this second season, which has now reached the halfway point, the more I’m realizing that it’s not just the extended episodes that have been bringing the season down, as this one is really only a few minutes longer than your average episode of television (this was 50 minutes while your average episode of Mad Men is 48 minutes). It’s that there really isn’t that much plot to move through.
Clearly, Sam Esmail has a plan. While the plot is moving at a glacial pace, which would be okay if the characters were more interesting, it is clear that we’re working towards a very specific final point for the season. The issue is that there doesn’t seem to be much happening in between the beginning and the end. Really, Elliot’s story here is about him coming to terms with his mental illness, with the notion that Mr. Robot is a part of him forever, and while each episode pushes him a little closer to that, we’re halfway through the season and not enough has happened to spread neatly over those episodes. We get some fun flashbacks and some interesting dream sequences (don’t get me wrong, I LOVED the 90’s sitcom scene, even if it ran a little long), but the actual movement of the plot isn’t enough to justify all of the flashbacks and dream sequences.
Take, for example, the 90’s sitcom scene that ran for the first third of the episode. What purpose does it serve? Well, it’s there to show how Mr. Robot serves a distinct purpose for Elliot, how he can keep Elliot from the more brutal aspects of his reality. Past that, there really isn’t a whole lot that the scene does. It’s fun, and that does count for something. Esmail’s ambitious nature is part of what makes Mr. Robot worth something. The fake commercials, the laugh track, the goofy opening credits, it all showed such a level of enjoyment that Esmail has for his work. But it was a little long, and it kept the episode as a whole from being tight and concise.
Because the rest of the episode, the part with Angela and Darlene trying to hack the FBI, THAT is the Mr. Robot that I know and love. It’s a plotline that infuses some urgency into the narrative, and when that is juxtaposed with the relaxed pace of the season so far, it feels relentless and exciting. It takes such typical tension-building elements (Angela needs to learn to hack on her own, and quickly!) and feeds it into a typical spy thriller narrative. Darlene needs to sneak into a room at a hotel to help run the hack! Angela has to sneak up to the restricted floor and schmooze a creepy and nosy employee! Angela has to get to a terminal so she can troubleshoot the WiFi when it decides to go offline! Oh no! Dom found her! It’s an episode that has such a weird way structuring its storylines, as seen in the way that it meanders through its first 20 minutes, screams through its next 25, then meanders through the final scene. But the Darlene/Angela content was as great as Mr. Robot has ever been, and it shows.
Mr. Robot is, more than anything else, going through some growing pains. Esmail has all of these great ideas and all of these fascinating inspirations, but doesn’t necessarily have the story or the execution to follow through in a wholly compelling fashion. In the age of the auteur-driven television show, there are two people who exemplify the two possible extremes: Matthew Weiner and Kurt Sutter. Weiner structured Mad Men with a perfectionist vision, creating a show that feels elegantly chiseled out of stone as a result. Sutter, on the other hand, structured Sons of Anarchy with such a level of excess and self-indulgence that it collapsed under his image. Esmail, right now, is skirting the line between the two. Mr. Robot is a great show with a brilliant vision, but it needs to shed some of its self-indulgence in order to really BE great. We’ll see, as the season goes on, which showrunner Esmail is more like.
What did you think of this episode of Mr. Robot? Did you like the sitcom intro? Let me know in the comments!