Saturday, August 6, 2016

Out of Focus: USA’s Mr. Robot (Season Two)

At the end of my most recent review, which looked at some of the problems facing Lifetime’s surprise 2015 summer hit UnREAL, I mentioned some concerns about USA’s Mr. Robot, a show that’s also experiencing troubles in its second season. At the time, I’d only seen the season debut, a lengthy double-header that felt scattered and lethargic but which appeared to be planting the seeds for some interesting developments later on. Unfortunately, this season has so far remained as sluggish and unfocused as its initial episode, prompting me to wonder whether it’s lost its way. Mr. Robot’s first season ended with a spectacular hack that crippled the global financial system but left the perpetrators of that coup scattered and confused. Following that up was going to be a difficult task, even if the show’s unique visual style and Rami Malek’s outstanding performance as the main character, hacker Elliot Alderson, hadn’t attracted so much attention and caused the next season to become so highly anticipated. That success has apparently led to creator Sam Esmail being given near-total creative control over the show, which also suggests that we can blame him for the new season’s flaws.

The fundamental issue with the second season of Mr. Robot so far is its lack of focus. As I mentioned when I briefly brought up Mr. Robot at the end of my review of UnREAL’s second season, the most compelling scene in the season premiere (technically the second of two closely-connected, back-to-back episodes) involved a character who had only occasionally registered on the show up until then (and who has since faded back into only intermittent relevance). The season’s now five episodes in, and various characters are still trapped in wildly divergent narrative arcs, none of which promise to intersect in any meaningful way any time soon. This unfocused quality stems in large part from the vacuum created by Elliot’s withdrawal into a cloistered life while he tries to deal with his mental illness and the consequences of his massive hack into corporate conglomerate E Corp. In the first season, we tended to hear or see that name rendered as “Evil Corp,” which is Elliot’s name for them and a reflection of the fact that we’re mostly seeing the show’s events through his fractured psyche. However, working with such a far-flung cast of characters in so many different storylines dilutes the power of experiencing the world through Elliot’s mind and diminishes the show’s unique voice. There’s a theory floating about that his isolation is related to yet another forthcoming narrative twist, one akin to the revelation of the identity of “Mr. Robot” in the first season; if the theory’s true, Esmail hasn’t executed the skew in perspective with sufficient skill to make it worth the slog through a world less tinged with Elliot’s unique sensibility.

Indeed, I’m beginning to wonder if the show’s narrative complexity isn’t hiding the fact that it may subtly be turning into a more conventional drama. The endless proliferation of plotlines and plot twists propels many lesser shows, and, while I don’t doubt that Esmail has some overarching scheme in mind that will unify the various narrative arcs, he hasn’t made them compelling enough to get me excited about that payoff. The part of the show involving the Chinese hacker outfit known as the Dark Army feels especially superfluous. Furthermore, their leader, Whiterose (B.D. Wong) isn’t all that interesting, which is rather damning when the character in question is a transgender person with a high-ranking position within the Chinese government. There’s even a faint whiff of Orientalist stereotype: in one recent scene, Wong walks visiting FBI agent Dom DiPierro through an eerie hall filled with clocks and shows off a closet full of valuable Chinese robes, and we’re invited to see him through Dom’s eyes as a vague, inscrutable menace.

B.D. Wong as Whiterose

Dom, played by Mamie Gummer, is one of the agents assigned to investigate the hack perpetrated by Elliot and his comrades, and she’s quickly become one of the best parts of the show. Dom is socially awkward but professionally adept; Gummer manages to somehow convey both her blithe disregard for social niceties and an underlying awareness of just how badly she’s failing to relate to those around her, as well as the pain that causes. She also gives the show an understated and badly needed sense of humor, something which it increasingly lacks. Unfortunately, Dom’s function within the story further points to Mr. Robot’s denial about its conventionality. Not only do she and Elliot parallel each other in obvious ways, but their cop-criminal/hunter-hunted dynamic verges on the overly familiar. Pruning much of the rest of the show and focusing on that relationship might prove fruitful; there’s nothing wrong with conventionality when it’s done well. However, Esmail’s stylistic flourishes and tendencies towards narrative excess suggest that he may not fully grasp how his show has developed, and it suggests that an exciting, albeit less edgy, drama may be in danger of being smothered by too much extra material.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR'sCognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

No comments:

Post a Comment