After leaking the episode briefly last weekend on the various online platforms where their fans are likely to spend a Sunday night, Mr. Robot season two premiere finally aired Wednesday night and what a premiere it was.
⚠️⚠️⚠️👾💻 SPOILERS AHEAD 💻👾⚠️⚠️⚠️
When we last left our favorite group of masked hacktivists, FSociety had just collapsed the entire financial system, and protagonist Elliot Alderson (played by Rami Malek) had gone full Fight Club on us, revealing he himself was 90s heartthrob Christian Slater a.k.a. Mr. Robot. As season two begins, we realize that the economy still seems to be chugging along and that Elliot's awareness of his delusions doesn't mean they are going away. In an effort to keep himself offline and his dad delusions at bay, Elliot has scheduled every minute of his day, from church meetings to Seinfeld-recap lunches with his new friend, Leon (played by rapper Joey Badass). Even when Elliot is separated from his computer, he is programming his day, analog style in his journal, leaving little room for his mind to wander. Yet Mr. Robot is there reminding us all that control is an illusion.
Speaking of illusions, every time we meet a new character, we now wonder whether they are real or a figment of Elliot's imagination. Please let Kramer-hating Leon be real. One of the great merits of the show is its ability to flip the switch from mirage to reality and back again seamlessly, leaving us unable to trust the story unfolding before us. Even when we get off the couch, the suspicions that the show arouses linger, just like Mr. Robot himself. We're certain there are a great many of you that woke up this morning completely creeped out by your Nest thermostat, and for good reason.
The first hack of note this season is a smart home. When E Corp's general counsel comes home from a jog, she plugs in the code to disable the alarm on her smart mansion, but it doesn't immediately work. Things get worse from there when her Internet-controlled music system, TV, shower and air conditioning all go haywire. It's a mini-horror movie that ends with her in a parka trying to make a call to her smart home vendor over the blare of music, television and her alarm system, while her lights blink on and off like a Christmas tree.
This is actually pretty damn realistic, thanks in part to cybersecurity researcher Marc Rogers who is a hacker consultant for the show. As more and more of our devices are automated for our convenience, wifi-enabled and internet-connected devices can leave homes vulnerable to just these kinds of hacks.
Here are some real world precedents: In 2013, Fusion's own Kashmir Hill was able to hack the smart homes of strangers thanks to a flaw in the set-up of an automation product from Insteon. It connected the power switches for their lighting systems and televisions to the internet, but when set up incorrectly enabled a "hacker" to get in through a simple Google search. We don't know of a music system being taken over (yet) but hackers have gotten into baby monitors to yell obscenities at children and frighten their parents. When it comes to screwing with the temperature in a building, that's happened IRL too, though hackers didn't drop the temperature to 53 degrees, they raised it. In 2012, hackers virtually broke into the energy management system of a “state government facility” to make it “unusually warm,” according to an alert from the Department of Homeland Security.
The only part of the episode that left us scratching our heads was the scorching shower. We haven't seen a product that connects shower heating controls to the internet yet, and we're not sure how a hacker would shut off the flow of cold water into the house. We think, for now, you're safe from hackers while bathing. But you're not safe on the pot: Hackers have pwned smart toilets.
Driven to madness by her haunted smart mansion, the owner flees, leaving the door wide open for Elliot's sister Darlene and her now-huge F-Society crew to occupy the space.
When the chief legal counsel at Evil Corp next appears, she's dealing with Darlene's second hack: the encryption and threatened deletion of all of the company's files. One of the F-Society hackers managed to get a gig as an IT nerd for E Corp and put a virus on their computers with a malicious thumb drive.
This too has a real world precedent. Called ransomware, this has been a huge problem for individuals around the world, police departments, law firms, universities and hospitals. It's malware that, once downloaded to your computer, encrypts your files so they become inaccessible and displays a message letting you know that you have to pay up within a given amount of time or lose everything. Most people get the ransomware on their system by accidentally downloading an attachment on an email that they shouldn't have. If they pay up, they get a decryption key that gives them access back to their files.
In the show, the ransomware hackers want $5.9 million in cash to be delivered to Manhattan's Battery Park. In the real world, these hackers usually ask for less, from $500 to $20,000, and they ask for it in Bitcoin, the digital currency that is far harder to track than a credit card payment, making it easier for the hackers to strike again and again without being caught.
In the show, a bike messenger shows up in Battery Park with a message instructing E Corp's chief tech officer to empty the cash on the ground and burn it. This also differs from the real world, where we assume hackers actually want to spend the money they get from ransomware. Most hackers actually do deliver decryption keys once paid, because they want to encourage other people in the future to pay the ransom.
Because Elliot is not near a computer, he doesn't get up to interesting hacking activity as far as we know. He does seem to keep getting crazier and tries to get Mr. Robot to tell him what happened to our favorite sadomasochist and Bladerunner namesake, Tyrell Welleck, formerly of E Corp's security team. He is MIA throughout the episode, last seen in a flashback at the old arcade headquarters with Elliot, who gets up from his computer and ominously reaches into a popcorn machine. It's almost as if parts of Elliot's own memory are encrypted, and Mr. Robot is the only one with the key to unlock the files.
Meanwhile, Elliot's former boss Gideon Goddard teaches us why you shouldn't talk to creepy guys who hit on you at a bar. Good night, sweet Gideon. You were way too good-hearted to make it on this show.
Bonus Easter egg of the episode: QR code that leads to a weird website, spotted by Fusion's Dodai Stewart.
Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.
Kashmir Hill is the editor of Fusion's Real Future. She has hacked a stranger's smart home, lived on Bitcoin & paid a surprise visit to the NSA's Utah datacenter, all while trying to prove privacy isn't dead yet. Contact her at email@example.com. PGP: D934E5E9.