Photo: Michael Parmelee/USA Network

“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?” —George Orwell, 1984

Elliot Alderson has had enough. Of the revolution, of the stress, of the worry and fear and the guilt of knowing that he has contributed—however unintentionally—to the pain of others. The 5/9 hack was meant to bring down Evil Corp; instead, it seems to have decimated the very people in whose name Elliot was trying to make the world a better place. The resulting financial crisis, rolling blackouts, and the failure of the U.S. dollar have left the country in ruins, but not in the way Fsociety had hoped. He didn’t prevent unfeeling corporate interests from dominating the rest of us. “I made it easier for them,” he thinks. The weight of unintended consequences.

And so he pumps the brakes. He shuts down the back door that was allowing the Dark Army access into E Corp’s recovery program, preventing them from carrying out the final destruction of the company and all its paper trail of records. Imagine if Fight Club had ended with Ed Norton calling off the controlled demolition of the credit card companies, and saying, “Whew, okay then, disaster averted for now.” That’s what Elliot accomplished with his move, and while it may be the right one, it’s a bummer to watch. We hope for a better world, not a slightly less terrible one with no chance of improvement beyond that. Elliot has capitulated, and the question lingers in the air: Is it really because he went too far, or is it that he didn’t go far enough?

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Mr. Robot’s season-three premiere is a surprisingly morose and muted installment. “Power-save-mode” may be a reference to Angela, but it fits the episode itself, the show turning away from tumbling any further down the rabbit hole, instead hitting pause on the intrigue and pulling back from the radical nature of its story. Like Elliot, it seems wary of going too far too fast, hedging its bets and sending its protagonist headlong into an explicitly counterrevolutionary stance. The activist “let the chips fall where they may” mentality that drove the hacker and his coterie of allies has been replaced by a defeated version of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.

And the series suffers somewhat from having Elliot retreat into his shell. The biggest issue is that Elliot is now working against the very ideology that drove his actions—and our interest—for two seasons. Everyone but him now seems to be working to bring about the end of Evil Corp—and that includes the viewer. Where once we were his silent partner, in the dark about the same things he was, witness to events and people beyond his purview but still learning at much the same rate he did, now we’ve been clued in to machinations about which he’s explicitly kept ignorant, and we want them to succeed, because it means a better story.

Also, all the others knows more than him, and in much the same way. Sure, Mr. Robot knows more than he’s saying, but that’s always been the case. Now, it’s true for Angela, Tyrell...just about everyone but Darlene is pulling the wool over his eyes, and it makes for a frustrating state of affairs. Not everyone needs to be in on the conspiracy, doing everything but tenting their fingers and smiling knowingly with insider information whenever they’re onscreen. This is the risk of a story built upon layers and layers of intrigue—without some strong narrative choices, every character save Elliot ends up basically saying, “I can’t tell you right now” whenever he (or we, by extension) try to move forward. Thank God for Darlene’s no-bullshit attitude; it’s an island of relatability in a sea of obfuscation.

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Photo: Michael Parmelee/USA Network

But there’s a new face in town, too, and he’s a major addition to the narrative. Bobby Cannavale’s mysterious operator (identified as “Irving,” as seen on his business card for Irving’s Auto Square) is a chatty and amiable sort, happily conversing with whoever happens to be in front of him, unless he doesn’t like what they’re saying. We know he works for Whiterose—and the Dark Army, by extension—but there’s not much to go on yet, save his quirky confidence and casually efficient manner of getting things done, such as using a car security system to stop the FBI cruiser following his taxi. He views Elliot as just another fellow employee (“I don’t have an employer,” Elliot shoots back), one who has the right to pull the plug on his own operation, thanks to Whiterose’s belief in creators. (That someone literally trying to create a different world has a respect for those who come up with new ideas isn’t all that surprising.) And even when he’s threatening Elliot by threatening Darlene, Irving doesn’t seem to see the troubled young man as anything but another business associate, one who can have whatever principles he wants as long as he doesn’t press his luck. Irving respects principles—especially when they have to do with getting a free milkshake from his completed punch card.

Waking up from his gunshot wound, Elliot quickly learns Angela took him in after Tyrell and the others handed him over, and is assured any police involvement will result in her swift death. Still, he manages to close the back door, going with Darlene to the hacker space in order to use their dedicated fiber connection to shut it down (though not uninstall it). His sister is pissed off, believing Elliot worked with Tyrell to bring about Stage 2. “It wasn’t me,” he insists, but that innocence doesn’t prevent her from telling him to fuck off when he callously uses Cisco’s death as motivation to follow his lead. (Mr. Robot is really taking advantage of the loosening standards about how often you’re allowed to say “fuck” on certain cable programs.) Elliot ends the episode alienated from both Angela, who pulls back on that kiss, and Darlene, who thinks her brother has been lying to her, or at least keeping her ignorant about working with Tyrell Wellick. He’s distant from his friends, his mission, and even us—there’s not much to grab on to at the moment.

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Photo: Michael Parmelee/USA Network

But what we do have is Angela. Elliot’s best friend, always insecure about her place in the world, has had her Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment after meeting Whiterose, and it’s changed her entire world. The woman who was always feeling like she didn’t have a place has found one—or rather, she now believes in the possibility of a world where she would feel at home. Rather than try and make a home here, she’s signing on for creating an alternative one. It’s enough to get her to do the one thing that she never would before: Betray Elliot, and lie to his face. Robot is right: She can rationalize it all she wants with talk about completing what Elliot started, of helping him along, but this allies her with those he doesn’t trust. It’s a great speech she delivers, explaining her choice—one that almost makes up for the unfortunate move earlier in the episode. When Elliot announces she “doesn’t love people who love her,” it’s a weirdly patronizing move that puts Angela in the realm of the hoary “I deserve her love, but she doesn’t do the right thing” category of retrograde cliches, the kind of writing about women Esmail used to do back when he wasn’t very good at it. Hopefully this doesn’t pop up much going forward.

But Angela’s episode-ending monologue isn’t the only intriguing one. During Elliot’s walkabout, where he sees the devastation wrought by 5/9 and its fallout, and goes on the rant about the mistakes he’s made (all of which turns out to be in his head, as it ends with a Red Wheelbarrow BBQ employee asking him to leave), there’s an odd moment. Fuming about the corporations and power brokers who commodify rebellion, he spits, “This is what they do,” and suddenly it shades into the TV pundit we’ve seen ranting periodically in the background of scenes all last season. “You know what the next step is?” he announces on camera, and then smash cut: We’re back to Elliot answering his question. “Lobotomizing us into their virtual reality horror show.” “Why? So they can take away your power,” his TV doppelganger continues.

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The cry of resistance will be televised, and the explosive words of a radical hacker will be indistinguishable from those of a cable news talking head. True subversion blurs into its opposite, which is what scares Elliot so bad about the “fuck society” spirit he launched into the world: It seems to have inspired those bent on wrecking everything. The cut to Donald Trump here isn’t just cheap provocation. It’s the fearful acknowledgement that this language can look good from all sides, and fascists are never more appealing than when they’re wielding the language of the left. All sides believe they’re fighting the good fight, regardless of knowledge or empathy. That’s something to keep you up at night.

Photo: Michael Parmelee/USA Network

But Mr. Robot, despite all the ways “power-save-mode” gets tangled in its own web of conspiracy, continues to hold out the hope of a grand transformation. And we glimpse it during the opening credits, when Whiterose is discussing Stage 2 with her assistant. After all the foreboding talk about Elliot’s rage being used in service of the project—right until he dies serving the project, that is—the camera pans out, and begins retreating through the endless corridor of a massive metal structure that looks nothing like a power plant. “Do we see reality as it is?” says the tour guide who passes them in the hallway. All the allusions to time and reality last season aren’t just a fancy metaphor for something more practical. Whiterose is going to change the world. No, more than that: She’s going to change its past. Unless Elliot knows something we don’t. Which is entirely possible—remember the plan? Robot was just supposed to be the prophet. Elliot? Robot means for him to be the god.

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Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to Mr. Robot reviews, everyone. I’ve missed you—this is one of the richest comment sections on the site, in my humble opinion, and I look forward to hearing all of your thoughts on season three of the most philosophically jam-packed show on TV.
  • Roll call of the missing in action: Phillip Price, Dominique DiPierro, Joanna Wellick, and of course potentially deceased Trenton and Mobley, last seen staring down the visage of Joey Bada$$’s dangerous Leon.
  • “Property of Josh Groban.”
  • The song that accompanies Robot’s digital machinations toward the end is Daft Punk’s “Touch,” a fascinatingly ambiguous song that praises human connection even as it longs for something more.
  • “I’m not getting you a fucking number four.” There’s the Darlene we know and love.
  • Speaking of Darlene, I think that’s the first we’ve seen of these “attacks,” or at least the first time they’re explicitly mentioned. It does make me think the moment we were reintroduced to her at the start of season two, crying on the floor before she addressed the Fsociety crew, was probably another case of one.
  • I think we all long for the real-life mute button.

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