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T.V.’s best drama returns as ‘Mr. Robot’ enters its third season

By Jonah Koslofsky

Section: Arts

October 20, 2017

When it comes to “Mr. Robot,” my objectivity has been compromised. But then again, that’s kind of the point of the show. If my headline didn’t give it away, I absolutely adore USA’s highbrow hacker drama, which returned for it’s third season last Wednesday. Go watch it. “Mr. Robot” isn’t perfect, but with a strong anchor in protagonist Elliot (in a career defining performance from Rami Malek), and a truly cohesive and coherent vision behind-the-scenes, this show is worth your attention.

There’s a term in film criticism known as “auteur theory.” Basically, the idea is that good pieces of art are the product of a single, committed, creative individual. “Mr. Robot” proves the merits of auteur theory. The entire show comes from the mind of the one-and-only Sam Esmail. Esmail, whose only other IMDB credit is the tiny indie movie “Comet,” actually envisioned the show as a feature film before adapting it for television, and acts as the show’s creator and showrunner, as well as single handedly writing and directing every episode of the second and third seasons. This is inherently a risk for any network, because what if this guy—who’s essentially making the entire show—can’t handle the magnitude of his responsibilities on set? What if his vision creates something that’s not very good? But USA’s risk ends up paying off abundantly, because Esmail gives “Mr. Robot” this unique, consistent and extremely compelling aesthetic.

The filmmaking here is top notch, with a visual language that speaks to the viewer as much as any of the dialogue. In a lot of ways, “Mr. Robot” is a show about loneliness, which Esmail (along with cinematographer Todd Campbell) illustrates by shooting conversations in a very unconventional style: When a character speaks, their head is usually in the bottom corner of the frame, whereas “normal” camerawork places the actor’s head in the middle/top of the frame (this is a part of conforming to the rule of thirds). Esmail’s also got a love of impressive single-take shots. This is the type of quality that you generally only see in films like “Birdman” or “Children of Men,” but here it is on basic cable, underscoring the surreal nature of Elliot’s world.

Most of the people I know who’ve seen this show have only watched season one, and that’s understandable. The first season is a brisk 10 episodes, while the second gets bogged down with 13 and includes some installments that are self-indulgently over an hour. But like I said, in season two, Esmail got the chance to experiment and expand his world, as well as his filmmaking tools. Season two isn’t nearly as good, especially the first five episodes, but it’s back half ratchets up the tension while doing a lot of setup for things to come. Furthermore, the second season had an emphasis on show’s ensemble of female characters that so few shows are interested in providing. It’s clear that season one was Esmail proving himself, the whole first act of the “Mr. Robot” story, while season two was Esmail off the leash, doing and making exactly what he wanted, supplying that impressive aesthetic at every turn.

More than any other show, “Mr. Robot” respects the intelligence of it’s viewers. I have to touch on the beginning of the third season, so spoilers from here for the first two seasons. Still with me? Basically, season three looks like it’s going synthesize a middle ground between seasons one and two, to pretty great effect. Season two ended with a lot of questions and a bullet in Elliot’s gut, but Esmail seems to be moving the story slowly but surely towards answers. More importantly, the pace has sped up. After an imperfect season premiere that spent a little too much time with Elliot and verged on self-parody, the second episode might be one of my favorite “Mr. Robot” installments of all time. It’s brisk and engaging, and a major death rearranges the show’s chessboard of characters to great effect. But what really got me so into season three is the evolution of Elliot and Mr. Robot’s relationship. While the pair used to share the screen constantly, these two sides of Elliot’s personality have broken and gone their separate ways. The result is that every character on the show—including the character that only exists in Elliot’s head—is working against our protagonist. Like I said, much of the show is about Elliot’s loneliness, and three seasons in he’s more alone than ever. In the end, the true test of the third season is going to be whether or not Esmail can incorporate science fiction elements into the show without compromising his grounded tone, but aside from a misstep or two in the first episode, I’m remaining optimistic that he can.

In a golden age of television, “Mr. Robot” exemplifies exactly what T.V. should be: an engaging masterpiece that isn’t afraid to take risks, backed by a strong cast and well-rounded female characters. It might not be perfect, but it has a creator who seems to know exactly what he’s doing, and that’s what matters.

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