To say Mr. Robot loses its luster in its its third year isn’t entirely accurate. It does, after all, look as stunning and beautiful as ever, dripping with the usual, compelling ambience. But something’s definitely off, particularly early on as the show struggles to regain narrative coherence after a messier, riskier second term. Ultimately, the ship rights itself and the old magic is delivered, but there are rocky moments along the way.
Mr. Robot chronicles the life of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a misanthropic computer hacker who becomes a pivotal figure in an digital insurrectionist group called fsociety. Elliot participates in an operation designed to bring down the monolithic megacorporation E Corp, a plot that has world-economy-shattering consequences which he’s still learning to live with as the season begins. Elliot’s revolutionary acts have largely been driven by his relationship with a mysterious man named Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who—spoiler alert—turns out to be his own alter ego, the Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jeckyl. In the aftermath of his 5/9 hacks, which have deeply damaged society, Elliot comes to learn that fsociety’s revolution has been hijacked by the shadowy forces of “the Dark Army,” a sprawling network of operatives controlled by the world’s power-mad financial elites. The Dark Army has repurposed Elliot’s revolution, capitalizing on events in a callous, sinister power grab. As Elliot battles these evil machinations, he engages in a complex, cat-and-mouse game with Mr. Robot—an internal battle to decide whether to put the brakes on fsociety’s original paradigm-shattering vision, or see it through to an even more devastating new stage.
The third season’s early stretches lack structural focus, rendering its super-serious tone weirdly ineffectual as the show struggles to regain narrative momentum. Everything turns a corner, fortunately, with the logistically impressive “eps3.4_runtime-error.r00,” a real-time, long-take episode that thrusts its heroes into crisis mode when the intricate, devious conspiracy takes another earth-shattering step forward. The episode serves as a reminder of what Mr. Robot is capable of at its most inventive, even as it turns away from the show’s signature style of disorientingly framed static shots and pure, old-school filmmaking. Indeed, the entire season—even the weaker episodes—is consistently striking, and later, as the Machiavellian plot threads start to cohere again, it once again feels like the brilliant genre hybrid of near-future science fiction and conspiracy thriller that originally hooked me. The show’s secret weapon may, in fact, be its bleak, psychologically penetrating atmosphere. It masterfully layers a film of traumatic post-9/11 metaphor over our current reality, making it feel real and one step removed at the same time. The season also manages to answer the challenge of bringing its dark, alternate-world-like dystopia into the Trump era. How can any show’s fictional worldbuilding be any more bonkers than our current political reality? Mr. Robot dials it up just enough to make it work, with the help of new regular cast member Bobby Cannavale, whose Dark Army fixer Irving struts onto the scene with appropriate New York mafioso swagger. By season’s end, Mr. Robot is back on track, setting the stage excitingly for its imminent final season.