‘Mr. Robot’ Season 3 Premiere Channels Contemporary Fears

Aglow with neon light and cyber-anarcho energy, “Mr. Robot” kicked off its third season with a politically charged opener channeling current world anxieties. The show remains the best series to capture the current hacker era we are living in, but like all art it can’t help but be shaped by the times. This new season opens beautifully by continuing the show’s key plot lines while expanding as slick cultural commentary.

As the season opens with “Power Saver Mode,” the world of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) has been plunged literally into darkness. The 5/9 hack designed to finally deliver a death blow to Evil Corp. has instead wrecked worldwide havoc, having triggered a financial crisis, a collapse of the U.S. dollar and rolling blackouts which have left most of New York without power. Season Two ended with Elliot shot in the stomach by Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom) after a tense misunderstanding during an attempted hack. Season Three opens with Elliot saved by a mysterious new enforcer affiliated with Dark Army known only as “Irving,” played by Bobby Canavale debuting in the series. Once he regains consciousness, Elliot is confronted by his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin), who believes he initiated Stage 2 and plunged the world into chaos. What follows is deep self-reflection in which Elliot confesses to losing hope in the revolution he thought he and the rebels of fsociety would help bring about. Instead he fears they have opened the door for reactionary forces to take over. Now he commits himself to calling off Stage 2 and salvaging what he can.

“Mr. Robot” is now awash in the tempests of the last year. Written and directed by Sam Esmail, “Power Saver Mode” felt like an hour of television meant to crystalize the confusion and political void now in vogue. The episode feels like a slight pause in the visceral pace fans of the show are used to. Instead here the show becomes very reflective, with Elliot now questioning his mission and feeling guilt over its consequences.

The brilliance of “Mr. Robot” has always been in its sharp combination of contemporary technology and human dimensions in the storytelling. The tech details and even exciting hacking sequences have never overtaken the characters. Elliot is a television icon of the times precisely because he frames them so well: The social anxiety-prone loner pulled in by an underworld where anarchism becomes the new revolutionary creed. He is a militant designed for a post-Edward Snowden landscape. But as Season Three opens, he faces the consequences of radical decisions. He now wonders if bringing down the leviathan that is Evil Corp. is worth it if it means actual anarchy.

In what will no doubt be the premiere’s most talked about scene, Elliot wanders the darkened city streets where people scrounge around for supplies, and begins narrating an aria to the audience, wondering if his actions have done nothing more than provoke a bigger surveillance society, more social violence and the transformation of rebellion into a mere fad. In a direct commentary, footage of Donald Trump’s inauguration is intercut with Elliot saying, “we have chosen weakness over strength.” Over footage of a border wall being placed on the Mexican border Elliot laments, “They’ll even have us build or own prison.” The entire scene is one of the most eloquent political commentaries this season on television, and as hard-hitting as Eminem’s own free-style takedown of the president on BET.

Aside from the political tone, “Power Saver Mode” still carried the story forward with the show’s signature, baroque visuals and some memorable, at times intimate moments. There are moments where the show delivers the hacker goods, as during a scene where Elliot and Darlene crash an underground hackerthon. But in an episode of reflection, the performances take the lead. Canavale, fresh from the HBO flop,“Vinyl,” scales down to a soft-toned enforcer with glasses. The character is wonderfully shadowy and ironic, serene but dangerous. He’s interesting enough to grab our interest, but mysterious enough to keep us wanting to know more. Chaikin and Christian Slater as Mr. Robot return with great energy. But the best scene in the episode belongs to a scene between Elliot and Angela (Portia Doubleday), where feelings are shared and the outcome is bitter and elegantly sad. It is one of those moments where Elliot’s low-intensity shines.

Now “Mr. Robot” enters new territory, with a hero unsure of himself or his purpose, and new twists to the narrative that thicken the web of intrigue. But it was also refreshing to see the show boldly make a political statement in the style of classic dystopian fiction. Elliot Alderson has become us and is now walking down the same path plagued by uncertainty, in a world of glowing screens and terrible portents.

Mr. Robot” season 3 premiered Oct. 11 and airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA.