Excuse me, I have a quick question: Have you got the time?
That’s how we left things on the precipice of the second season of USA’s breakout drama Mr. Robot, with new character Leon asking hackers Trenton and Mobley the paradoxical question. I’m here to ask if you’ve got the time to dive into yet another recap of the program, one that begs the question again: Is Mr. Robot still a better Gotham than Gotham? If you’re curious why we’re doing this here at the Interjections website, take a quick glance way back to last July, when I boastfully claimed that Mr. Robot might have a better origin story for a Batman-like figure than its actual Batman-based show.
Before we can check in on hacker genius Elliot and his fSociety friends, I want to briefly go over what’s been going on in that Bruce Wayne-wasting Gotham. Obviously, before you continue – I’ll be mentioning heavy SPOILERS for both shows. If you don’t want to be ruined for either, I would turn back now.
Without going into too much detail, Gotham has decided to blaze their own trail in the DC universe, ignoring many original points brought up in the comics in favor of reminding viewers of potentially iconic moments from movies or shows. One storyline has Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) running for mayor of Gotham; this is clearly reminiscent of Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns. They’ve utilized characters in ways they’ve never been seen before – as Leslie Thompkins, Sarah Essen and Barbara Kean all relate to their counterparts in wildly different ways than other iterations. This is something I actually had hoped for when viewing Gotham initially, and the fact that they’ve taken steps to alter histories by including alternate takes is refreshing.
My initial take on why Mr. Robot is better than Gotham may be eroded by this revelation, as the biggest quibble over the latter show was that they never take any risks, it still goes to show that the productions are wildly different in tone and execution. Gotham loves to be campy, flashing villains of the week just to build ratings on a channel that thinks in terms of Nielsen reviews. With the advent of the “golden age of television” allowing shows like Mr. Robot to thrive on networks originally used as back-ups for major networks to dump re-runs and catalogue movies, it’s refreshing to see showrunners like Sam Esmail to run rampant over their characters, building their own universe and masterfully manipulating the pieces to thrill audiences.
I maintain that Gotham is stuck in its prequel phase, as you’ll see by the fourth season (which premiered back on September 21st) showcasing a young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) finally donning the iconic black cowl as he evolves into the vigilante we know and love. The showrunners don’t quite want to admit they wish Batman were running around, but James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) has consistently had his hands tied in being able to permanently, or at least efficiently, place these villains behind bars. It was a natural progression for the show to reach Batman’s reveal, and I’m glad they didn’t wait until the final shot (*cough* Smallville *cough*) to do so. All this is to say, Gotham turned out better than I thought, while Mr. Robot continues to carve its own version in my head.
If you’ll bear with me, I think it’s at least worth the exercise to relate which characters from Mr. Robot can connect with their Batman counterparts, because we all love to see where our creators come up with their ideas. While I don’t think Sam Esmail is writing up episode after episode with Bruce Wayne in mind for Elliot alongside his ubiquitous father standing in for the ubiquitous Alfred, this becomes a relatable paradigm – that I’ve at least noticed the colorful cast of characters could just as easily be named Selina Kyle or Barbara Gordon instead of Darlene and Angela. I’m obviously not expecting you to agree with me, but follow me down the rabbit hole for fun, if you will.
As we embark into season two, Elliot (Rami Malek) and his hacker group fSociety have enabled the greatest downfall in corporate history, designed to de-stabilize the financial markets, destroy financial records, and re-distribute wealth in America. The group did so by breaking into Evil Corp’s databases – and the initial reason they did so were because the two main members, Elliot and his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) were children of the long-deceased Edward Alderson (Christian Slater), who developed cancer after freelancing at a nearby nuclear facility in Washington Township, New Jersey. This event will become the impetus for everyone’s motivations going forward, and while Sam Esmail separated the individual players, it’s more likely the pieces were meant to be working together simultaneously whether they knew it or not.
Behind the scenes, beleaguered CEO of ECorp Philip Price (Michael Cristofer) attempts to contain the hack by propositioning the US government for loans, and when that seems to fail, he turns to his Chinese ally Minister Zheng (BD Wong) for help. In secret, Zheng is also the mysterious Whiterose, mastermind behind hacker group The Dark Army, which had enabled fSociety to build up their credibility and initiate the 5/9 hack in the first place. Over the course of the season, we witness some elaboration on The Dark Army’s plans, while seeing where the members of fSociety stand in this new world.
Expanding from last season to more than recurring guest stars, we must first talk about Trenton (Sunita Mani) and Mobley (Azhar Khan), as well as Darlene’s sometime boyfriend Cisco (Michael Drayer). With the buzz of the successful hack in their rearview, fSociety rapidly realizes they’ll be in for some serious detriment if so much as one piece falls by the wayside, picked up by the FBI, or worse their increasingly dangerous allies The Dark Army. My first thought as we watched Darlene hesitantly attempt to command fSociety in Elliot’s absence (more on that later) is that fSociety is Mr. Robot‘s version of Batman, Incorporated – a short lived series (2010-2013) within the Batman universe that found most of his sidekicks joining together to fight crime worldwide. It was most notable for introducing the world to Batwing, an Africa-based superhero who would occasionally team up with the numerous Robins that existed at the time. Over the four years it existed, those sidekicks would travel the world finding crime, and it sort of resulted in a showdown between Batman Inc and the Court of Owls, a group that was showcased within Gotham to some derision. Perhaps Batwing was deceased fSociety member Romero (Ron Cephas Jones)?
This season truly highlighted those smaller characters that had existed on the fringe of Elliot’s world before the revelation that he was, in fact, his own puppet master. In the vein of Batman’s many iterations of Robin, he had recruited several would-be vigilante hackers, and for our purposes – versions of Robin. His Tim Drake would be Mobley, always questioning whether they’re doing the right thing by hiding behind the masked façade, yet eager to help when the result was beneficial for the little guy. His Stephanie Brown would be Trenton, as eager as Mobley to prove herself to Elliot, but distrustful of the outcome because she’s grown up ostracized most of her life. Last season I had assumed Darlene’s boyfriend Cisco might be a Riddler counterpart (mostly because his first introduction is tricking Angela and her boyfriend Ollie into infiltrating their company AllSafe with a virus-infested mixtape CD). Instead, he’s much nobler than one might suspect, holding the Dark Army at bay all season, protecting Darlene especially at any cost. This leads me to believe he may be more Dick Grayson than anything else.
Wait, if I remember correctly, you had Darlene matched up with Selina Kyle/Catwoman, right? Sure, but you trust me, don’t you? I wouldn’t steer you wrong. Darlene had a bit of a sea change this sophomore season, where she begins to realize she might not be quite cut out for vigilantism as she once believed. Without knowing much more of her past beyond being affected by the death of Edward Alderson, just like brother Elliot, we can’t say what her expectations beyond the 5/9 hack really are. Elliot seems driven to take down all corporations like ECorp just so they won’t hurt people like they did his father, but he often fights within himself over whether collateral damage is truly worth descending into chaos sans capitalism. Darlene seemed, at first, like more of the true punk type, a Catwoman-type who would love to watch the world burn. More concerned with herself before, she softens as the season goes on and decides she isn’t cut out for the leadership role and hopes to run away with noble Cisco. They’ve both similarly fought for the little guy over the past year, and it’s often the case in entities like this that morally grey characters end up on the right side after years of being bad. Perhaps Darlene is Batgirl after all, if Cisco is Nightwing. It makes sense too, seeing as she’s “Batman’s sister”.
This leads me to Angela. Bearing with me, you’ll recall I had her paired with Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. Well, girl, things can change quickly when lives are on the line. While Darlene was discovering her true feelings, Angela was deeply entrenched behind enemy lines, working for Evil Corp. Her scenes were typically tense confrontations with Philip Price, their CEO. He had taken a liking to her, and to what ends he meant to keep her around would arise late in the season. Between these meetings, Angela would be stuck doing her best to cover the tracks ex-beau Ollie Parker had sloppily left behind. Having been interrogated by the FBI, they were already breathing down her back. Angela eventually was forced to ally with Darlene and pop into the FBI’s floor in Evil Corp (they’d taken over the sixth floor for their investigation) to place a femtocell station that will allow fSociety to eavesdrop on all their transmissions.
Sneaking around seems to have taken Angela over, as she lurks around every corner of her new office, as well as creepily confusing numerous admirers in the bar she frequents. She’s lost, looking for her purpose in all this, after the shock that her good friends Elliot and Darlene were responsible for the biggest crash in the history of the world. It could be her morals kicking in, and she actually almost brings them to justice in the penultimate episode before Whiterose dispatches someone to bring her around to him. We leave Angela potentially in the service of the enigmatic Chinese architect, as he convinces her that the Washington plant incident was somehow for the greater good, a chance for humankind to advance to a higher level. Sounds like a supervillain plot if I’ve ever heard one. What it all means will eventually come to light, but for now it’s merely the protagonists’ “death of the Wayne parents”.
Of the characters introduced in the series, none left as large an impact on me as Dominique DiPierro. Played with aplomb by Grace Gummer (The Homesman), DiPierro is a no-nonsense FBI agent that serves as a perfect foil to the awkward Elliot, the caustic Darlene, and the shrouded Angela. If I were to place a Batman character on her, it would have to be Helena Bertinelli – a no-nonsense vigilante who, after watching her family slaughtered by the Mafia, sought revenge behind the mantle of the Huntress. Okay, so die-hard fans will note that Bertinelli was in a rival mob herself, and die-hard Mr. Robot fans may have pause that such a saint of a character could be related to a grey-line character like Huntress, but hear me out. My initial image of the Huntress came from the No Man’s Land series, wherein Bertinelli used the Batgirl image to foil crime as the city reeled from the aftershocks of a massive earthquake that had leveled the city. As I watched Dom work her magic attempting to clean up the mess left in the wake of the 5/9 hack, it immediately conjured images of Huntress stopping baddies. Besides, she’s always had a difficult time relating to the Bat-family, with Bruce himself believing her to be too hot-headed to truly make a difference, for fear of going off the handle and killing someone. While we haven’t seen that yet, I can see Dom relating to fSociety as she has a parallel decision to make with Darlene. The two met in the middle by the end of the season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Dom someday joins the team.
Huntress was often one step behind the action in No Man’s Land, much to the chagrin of her superiors. Because of this, I thought upon second viewing that a more applicable character might be Renee Montoya, the no-nonsense GCPD officer, who’s often paired with either Harvey Bullock or Crispus Allen. This might make more sense as the third season rolls around, with her friend and direct boss Santiago (Omar Metwally) expected to join her more frequently in the crusade against the Dark Army. We’ll get back to you later if this feels more applicable, but I feel like I can switch things up now that we’ve watched Angela and Darlene slip back and forth between Batgirl and Catwoman. For now, I’m sticking with Huntress. Interestingly, Gotham totally botched the Montoya and Allen characters in their first season, so it’s actually a decent thing we have a better cop presence in this show than the one…about cops.
With all these side characters being discussed, you must be wondering where our dear friend Elliot Alderson stands in all this. The biggest component of the show, Rami Malek’s distant hacker genius was stuck away from much of the action for three-quarters of the season because of a shifty premise that felt a bit like pulling the wool over viewer’s eyes. Let me tell it to you straight – Elliot went to jail after season one because he messed with the wrong person early in the show (psychiatrist Krista’s ex-boyfriend). An anonymous tip lands him in jail, and Elliot imagines he’s taking a sabbatical instead, laying low in his mother’s apartment until the heat from the 5/9 hack dies down. As we struggle to figure out what’s going on, we meet another crop of colorful characters, ones that inhabit the jail, but Elliot’s imagined reality.
There’s Hot Carla, a pyromaniac who messes around in the prison yard. There’s Leon, the friendly Seinfeld-loving lunchtime mate of Elliot’s. There’s the sadistic guards like Lone Star (Michael Maize) who beat inmates for disobeying the warden, Ray Heyworth. Played with a fiendish charm, Craig Robinson stirs up a cold chill when you realize Elliot can’t refuse his offer – one more hack, fixing a mysterious underground selling forum on the dark web. Since you’re understandably wondering which character from Batman’s extensive lineup Ray figures to be, it’s easily Mr. Freeze. Ray thinks he’s doing something for the better of the community without knowing it’s actually a terrible crime. It was his wife’s idea, to boot! Oh, and that wife? She’s been dead for years, there was nothing he could do to save her, but he still talks to her every morning. Typical Victor Fries behavior.
All this isn’t out in the open to start, of course. It’s all concealed in Elliot’s wacked imagination. After discovering the truth about his father and Mr. Robot, his mind went into shock and decided to cover up the reality of his situation so he could attempt to wrestle control back from the impulsive father-icon part of his brain. Convinced that he can do no good while in control, Elliot attempts to snuff out his father by overdosing on Adderall, playing chess to “win” his brain, and simply ignoring him during one episode. None of this works, and eventually he figures out, through a genius sequence where Mr. Robot proves he can protect Elliot by hiding him inside a delusion – this one represented by an imaginary sitcom where Alf guest stars and credits with Full House font plays over character intros. By the time Elliot has concluded he needs Mr. Robot, that the impetuous part of his brain is just reflected by his dead father, he’s almost beaten to death by Ray’s goons, namely Lone Star. Luckily, he does what he does best and hacks out an SOS calling out Ray’s dark web site and getting everyone arrested. If this truly were a comic book, Ray was a formidable super-villain.
Much like Elliot, there was a severe lack of standout Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) all season. A red herring hung over Elliot’s head all season that the reason he had been in jail was that he blacked out as he began the 5/9 hack, and eventually shot and murdered Tyrell when the Patrick Bateman wannabe got too foolhardy. Instead, it turns out Tyrell was just laying low, waiting for Elliot to return from jail. In fact, one of the biggest flaws this season was waiting around and finding out that Elliot’s mind can’t be trusted – therefore our storylines might all be red herrings. The one benefit of this overarching storyline is that Esmail plays with the duality in Elliot’s heart and mind. It’s a huge theme all over Batman, where Bruce Wayne constantly struggles with the Dark Knight he’s become, always striving to do the right thing. He makes sure he’ll never cross the line and shoot someone (another annoying red herring is that Romero was shot by a stray bullet, not Elliot like a late season one episode might lead us to believe). Two-Face, the epitome of the duality represented in Batman’s world, struggles to control his reckless side and his old honorable side.
Tyrell/Joker is one of the most steadfastly decisive characters on Mr. Robot, and for a while, the worst red herring was that Elliot might actually believe Tyrell was another figment of his imagination. All the clues were there – no one else in the show ever interacts with Tyrell, save wife Joanna, but every scene that Tyrell had in season one could have been Elliot dressed smartly, hair slicked back. It might have been beautiful to watch Rami Malek strut around acting like Wallström, but it would have been a tad predictable. Instead, a stunning showdown between Elliot and Tyrell has the hacker convinced Tyrell isn’t there, leading to a back-up plan where the psychopathic executive shoots Elliot in the gut. Here is where we leave our hero, bleeding out in a warehouse.
Is all of this a bit of a stretch, especially for some of the lesser in Batman’s rogue gallery? I say no – if we’re going to delve into some deep cuts, we really haven’t found any small-timer besides those already committed to screen. We haven’t seen some yet, such as the aforementioned Two-Face, or Scarecrow, or the Riddler. Which one will Bobby Cannavale be playing? He’s popping up in tonight’s first episode as an enigmatic car salesman named Irving. Obviously that’s just smoke and mirrors, but what isn’t in Mr. Robot? Besides, there’s all the Fight Club references in the show. It’s not just Batman that the show directly references. Darlene is practically Marla Singer, as weird as that may be in relation to Elliot. The duality between Tyrell and Elliot, and their eleventh hour plot to topple a building full of paperwork is direct from the Fincher film. “Where Is My Mind” played instrumentally over the end of the first season, and there were musical cues meant to evoke Back to the Future. It’s clear that Sam Esmail, like me and many other fans, is a sponge of popular culture, and loves taking it and honoring it cinematically.
To a point, I can’t put in the time identifying these characters with Batman counterparts without genuinely gushing over how this is still the greatest show on television. Critics balked at the jail revelation at the time, and upon a second viewing, it’s derivative and glacially paced. However, despite the lesser Elliot storyline, you have some of the best acted performances coming from his supporting cast: Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday and Grace Gummer. Chaikin’s indifference in the first season has melted away to show a . Gummer, so sure of herself in every scene, using the phenomenal dialogue delivered to her by Sam Esmail and his writing team to elicit discomfort in her victims, “like a python waiting to strike its victims” as she describes herself and her plan. Doubleday is the MVP of the season, developing facial expressions so slight that to call her performance ‘enlightened indifference’ would be too limited a description. The subtlety with which she attempts to unravel everyone around her while keeping her composure amidst some of the worst people to walk around her world is a beautiful thing, and she should have been awarded every Emmy and Golden Globe available to her.
All I want from the third season is more sublime acting from its cast of characters, more on-the-nose music from the inimitable Mac Quayle, and the ability to imagine this whole thing still being a Batman origin story. Is that too much to ask?
I’m glad our time is over, for now. I’ll see you tonight, Mr. Robot.