Forgive me, I’ve been away a while what with work and stuff and, in the words of Barliman Butterbur, landlord of the Prancing Pony in Bree, I let one thing drive out another. I’ve not written about Mr Robot, one of my favourite shows ever, until now because; well, I hoped I was… wrong.
Yet, throughout the first two episodes, I had an unnerving sense that something was off, and not just the show’s ubiquitous lower quad framing… something was missing. Though I half knew what it was deep down in my soul, it’s only now, halfway through episode three that I can put it into words with the confidence to know that I’m… not being a wrong person. The thing is, season three just doesn’t feel likeMr Robot and the reasons, I believe, are twofold:
COMPOSITION AND EDITING
Gone is the indie, guerrilla filmmaking feel that made the series so unique and relatable. The claustrophobia, the max headroom created by Esmail’s beloved quadrant framing (together with crazily stylised editing choices, music supervision to die for, hell; even Mr Robot’s focus pulls were beautiful to behold) that creates a world so isolated, lonely, unbalanced, uniquely anarchistic and out of kilter – or, as we’d say in Bristol, “on the piss.”
In seasons one and two, cinematographer Tod Campbell shot all of Elliot’s scenes with 32mm and 21mm lenses (respectively) and it was this unspoken language – breaking every known rule of composition – that made Elliot’s dissociative identity disorder so goddamned believable.
By season three, Elliot’s essence has been wiped off the face of the show and replaced by a more filmic quality. I’m sure Esmail and Campbell are still shooting in their trusted 5K (Redcode) raw with Red Weapons but the colour grade seemed much less dark throughout (though, admittedly this could be due to S03E03’s unusually high number of rural, daytime settings.)
This episode is so bright, it looks like an episode of fucking Springwatch. I half expected bi-polar Bill Oddie to appear, start kicking in Portakabin doors and calling everyone a cunt. True story.
I mean, have you ever seen the sun shine this bright in Mr Robot? It looks like a sitcom.
MR ROBOT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE A MOVIE
Secondly, knowing the show inside out from my time writing for Mr Robot Hacks, I know that series creator, head writer, director, exec producer and showrunner, Sam Esmail (who I’ve hailed a genius) conceived Mr Robot as a film.
Therefore, it makes total sense that Esmail knew where his show was heading with Stage 2 of the firesale being the film’s grand finalé. He managed to turn the vision of his two-hour movie into 2 x 12 part series. Now he’s been granted a third season he’s treading water. The whole kit and kaboodle feels flatter than a New Zealand coffee.
2 is on, then off again. Elliot wants Stage 2 to succeed, then he wants it to fail. It’s on, it’s off. Truth is, with Elliot bedridden for a week, why the hell didn’t stage 2 take care of itself? Isn’t that why Tyrell shot Elliot – so that Stage 2 would be complete?
Think of this as Esmail’s “tricky third album” – it’s often stated that bands have enough material for two albums when they are signed but struggle to come up with enough for a third. Look to the unbridled genius that is Oasis’ Definitely Maybe followed by the stadium-filling What’s the Story, Morning Glory before an embarrassingly bad and dull as fuck Be Here Now as examples.
Mr Robot was never perfect; it relied on red herrings like Mr Robot being Elliot’s dad and the fake prison reality that the audience worked out far too early. It stole from every great director from Lynch to Kubrick and Fincher to Scorsese but the sheer bravery of the filmmaking was frightening. Showrunner Esmail’s vision, together the innovation in every department made this show something incredibly special.
I posit that the reason for this is that after a wildly successful and critically-adored freshman and sophomore seasons, this show now believes its own hype. Season 3 of Mr Robot thinks it’s cool, and as we know, we don’t like things that know they’re cool.
Bobby Cannavale’s fixer character would feel more at home as an informant on Starsky and Hutch via Goodfellas.
Seeing Mr Robot as Elliot (i.e. not Christian Slater) feels like a gimmick after two seasons getting used to Elliot interacting with him.
Episode three, eps3.2_legacy.so is a fifty-minute flashback to explain events that occurred at the end of season one. While it’s nice to see Cisco and Leon, these events we’re flashing back to occurred eighteen months ago (in earth time) and I haven’t got the foggiest what’s going on or, more importantly, why we’re seeing this unmitigated mess.
I’m a huge advocate of non-linear storytelling but it must be planned out in advance and there must always be a reason for going with non-linear; new information must be revealed, or at least new light shone on a different vantage point or point of view. Here, there are no new revelations because it is all an afterthought. If only there was a film Esmail could have stolen from… Oh, there is? The huge irony is that Sam Esmail should have taken notes from Elliot’s fave movie Back to the Future 2 on how to show events from a new perspective.
The latter stages of season two were an absolute masterclass in how to crank up tension towards a finalé, but now in addition to losing any modicum of tension, Mr Robot is dazed, confused and smells of shit like Biff Tannen after being hit by that manure truck.
Mr Robot airs on USA Network on Wednesday nights, but if episode three doesn’t deliver, I’m afraid to say I won’t be tuning in again.