TV isn’t quite the escape it used to be these days. The Handmaid’s Tale unflinchingly taps the vein of misogyny seething just beneath America’s surface; Black Mirror makes us question every piece of technology around us; the nightly news generally sends us into a rage spiral; but Season 3 of Mr. Robot is perhaps the purest distillation of our current anxieties, a funhouse mirror reflection of our world. It shows just how close to dystopia we truly are, teetering on the edge of a button waiting to be pushed.
Whether that’s a nuclear button or a hacker’s keyboard is almost beside the point. Mr. Robot has certainly been prescient so far.
There’s a reason why images of the real world fit so neatly into show creator Sam Esmail’s narrative. The Season 3 premiere features one of the show’s most evocative moments yet: as Elliot realizes that his so-called revolution has empowered Evil Corp and the capitalist machinery that fsociety was trying to dismantle, his monologue is juxtaposed with images of U.S. President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, riots, protests, and swastikas. They’re images of our world that are far scarier than fiction.
“They’ve packaged our fight into product, turned our dissent into intellectual property, televising our revolution with commercial breaks,” Elliot intones. “They’ve backdoored into our minds and robbed our truth, refurbished the facts and then marked up the price.”
Last season, Mr. Robot employed some audio trickery to make it sound like President Obama was weighing in on the 5/9 hack, and not much time has passed in the show’s world, which is still stuck in 2015 — Trump, Brexit, they’re presented as what-ifs.
“Who knows what could come from this?” Elliot asks. “What if, instead of fighting back, we cave? Give away our privacy for security? Exchange dignity for safety? Trade in revolution for repression? What if we choose weakness over strength? They’ll even have us build our own prison.” (No surprise, that observation cuts to images of the border wall, with Trump supporters touting signs of encouragement.)
It’s not a subtle message, but it’s effective. Mr. Robot isn’t encouraging anarchy or violence, having made it clear that such action is destructive no matter which side of the argument you’re on. It’s telling that even Elliot’s idealistic vision for freedom from corporate greed has been co-opted by an equally opportunistic faction, working under the auspices of changing the world and freeing the sheeple from their capitalist brainwashing, when Mr. Robot and Whiterose are just as unconcerned about the consequences for little guys as the conglomerates are.
And then there’s Angela, Elliot’s best friend, who has — unbeknownst to Elliot — seemingly aligned herself with Mr. Robot in their quest to get revenge on Evil Corp. It’s quite an evolution from the everygirl character she was presented as in Season 1, but “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” and there’s no character quite as tortured as Angela (even Elliot). This uneasy alliance is certainly the most compelling nugget in a premiere full of fascinating developments, including the introduction of Bobby Cannavale as scene-stealing used-car salesman Irving, who adds energy and humor (thank goodness) to every scene he’s in.
The line between fiction and fact has never been more blurred, and Mr. Robot seems intent on erasing the lines completely. At New York Comic Con this past weekend, USA Network launched one of the most impressively elaborate activations at the con, staging a “launch party” for E Corp’s new fictional cryptocurrency, ECoin, complete with an in-character appearance from CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer).
Some superfans (and a few curious journalists) were enlisted to join fsociety and help stage a coup at the event, which culminated in masked members of the group crashing the party, bringing down E Corp’s logo and giving the room an fsociety makeover, before premiering the first episode early, much to the rapturous response of the crowd. (This experience proved that I’m a lot happier observing the revolution from the safety of my couch, alas.)
The takeover started with its anxious participants being escorted into a bus with papered-over windows (but only if you knew the password, natch) where a surly hacktivist in a hoodie and shades checked our IDs and asked vaguely ominous questions about our next of kin, before sending us off to a black van to receive go-bags stuffed with Mr. Robot masks and E Corp credentials.
Our group was tasked with breaking into Phillip Price’s dressing room, planting bugs and cracking the lock on his briefcase for intel on E Corp’s next move — with just enough time for a (very real) shot of whiskey before we were sent to “mingle” at the party and wait for fsociety’s signal.
Said signal came during Price’s speech, which started out on a suitably nihilistic note: “We live in dark times. It appears our civilization, when left to its own devices, only seeks new ways of destroying itself. Dangerous anarchists, passing themselves off as revolutionaries, have tried — and failed — to undo everything we have done.”
But he spoke too soon — those anarchists soon hacked Price’s presentation to throw up fsociety’s logo instead, marching onto the stage and scaring off the pompous CEO, their presence prompting the crowd to don their own fsociety masks in solidarity. Then, a video from Mr. Robot began to play.
“Phillip Price would have you believe that our attempts to destroy Evil Corp have failed, but Phillip Price is tragically mistaken,” the masked man gloated on the video. “We have only just begun. Brothers and sisters, we know where your true allegiances lie, and we’ve brought the revolution to you, here, in this room. To open your eyes once again to the truth and show you the future we are fighting for. You are the first to witness what the rest of the world will soon discover: everything is about to change.”
The first episode of Season 3 certainly makes good on that promise. While Season 2 was a bold experiment that saw Esmail dabbling in different genres and tones as director of all 12 episodes, the story was sometimes as muddled as our unreliable narrator.
Now, Elliot’s mind is clear, and the show seems more focused, vibrant and vital than ever — even as forces, both internal and external, are working to undermine him. Last year, Mr. Robot had the upper hand, but this time around — with Elliot and Darlene on one side, and Angela and Mr. Robot on the other, the board has been reset, and the chess game has real-world stakes (and, thankfully, is back to being metaphorical).
While it’s tempting to seek out entertainment that’s pure escapism when reality is so distasteful, Mr. Robot Season 3 manages to be confrontational without being unpalatable — reminding us that change, for good or ill, requires collaboration. Evil (Corp) might be flourishing for now, but on both sides of the screen, it’s becoming obvious that fewer people are prepared to sit back and do nothing.
Mr. Robot Season 3 airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on USA Network.