Instead of organizing a panel around the two male co-stars of Mr. Robot, Rami Malek and Christian Slater, USA hosted a women-only cast panel for the thriller series at the Television Critic's Association summer press tour in Los Angeles. “I don’t think we’re all driven by some female motor or some female agenda," said Grace Gummer, who plays an FBI agent this season. "I think we all have our own purpose and our own drive, and we are not secondary characters. We drive the story just as much as Rami and Christian and now, also, the new characters on the show, too.”
And on season two of USA's hit television show, that statement couldn't be any more accurate. While Elliott Alderson (Rami Malek) is busy trying to "control" his life and the voices in his head, the women of Mr. Robot—and how they influence our renegade hacker—are the most intriguing parts of the show. These aren't Hollywood caricatures. Mr. Robot allows its female characters to be complicated, ruthless, selfish, sexual, and make mistakes.
Darlene Alderson (Carly Chaikin), Elliot's badass sister, wrote the code in the first E Corp hack. Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday), Elliot's childhood best friend, struggles with doing the right thing while surviving in corporate America. And Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) is an brilliant FBI agent who can roll a good joint. Then there's the most mysterious woman on the show, Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliussen). She's ruthless and obsessed with power and BDSM and has an innate talent to make people obey her without lifting a finger. She's the perfect villain—and she's oddly aspirational. She dresses to the nines, her apartment is impeccable, she has a strange-but-genuine love with her husband Tyrell (Martin Wallström), she gets laid on a regular basis, and she somehow finds the time to be a great mom while she schemes.
Joanna seems like the updated version of a 1950s housewife or trophy wife. Her posh pale-colored wardrobe full of trench coats and cashmere cardigans is straight out of a J.Crew catalog. Her nails are perfectly manicured. She pushes baby Wellick in a Balmoral pram. Her husband is out at all hours of the night, cheating on her. From the outside, it appears that her successful and wealthy spouse is calling all the shots, while she holds down the fort at their impeccably designed Chelsea condo.
But when we get to know Joanna, we learn she’s in on it all. Joanna uses her status as a pregnant housewife as a means to manipulate men and mask her real intentions. During dinner at E Corp’s CTO candidate Scott Knowles' home, Joanna plays dumb and listens to Knowles cheerfully talk about his love of wine, telling him she can't drink because she's pregnant, while Tyrell makes a move on Knowles' wife, Sharon. When Knowles looks away, she quickly takes a gulp of wine and gives Tyrell the “I got this” nod. When the cops show up at the Wellicks' condo to question Tyrell about the murder of Susan Knowles, Joanna makes the officers feel comfortable by offering them a seat and a drink, then induces her labor with an oyster fork. The questioning ends immediately.
This season, as the whole world questions the whereabouts of Tyrell, all eyes are on Joanna. She acts accordingly—landing on the cover of InTouch with a look at her “glamorous” wardrobe, pushing her baby around in a $4,000 stroller while hunting for clues from her husband, and convincing the FBI she's at a yoga class when she’s really paying off Tyrell’s former driver.
Every move Joanna makes is calculated to get her closer to the power and wealth she wants for her family. The Wellicks' relationship is more Claire and Frank Underwood than Don and Betty Draper. Joanna wields all the power in their relationship. Tyrell might have the powerful position at E Corp, but it’s Joanna who he aims to please, while she’s the one who actually wants the power and knows how to get it.
She doesn’t need to work because she’s Tyrell’s full-time guru in how to manipulate people and gain influence. She gives him pep talks before dinners with important people they plan to take down and threatens his place in their family when he doesn’t perform at a level she deems acceptable. Her opinion on “making progress”? “It’s not success,” she says in the third episode of Mr. Robot after Tyrell tells her that he hasn’t quite made his move to take over as CTO yet.
Even in the bedroom, Joanna is the dominant one. It might appear that she’s submissive because she’s the one in bondage, but the sex is always when she wants it and on her terms. In a recent interview with Vulture, Stephanie Corneliussen said:
Joanna is such a both/and character. There is no either/or with her. She has this complete obsession with control and power, and I don't think it's an actual obsession in her head—that's literally just how she is wired. And to be in that much control and power, those moments in the bedroom where she can relinquish control and be completely submissive, I think that's her escape. But at the same time, she is still calling the shots. It's odd, right?
So far, Joanna hasn’t let anyone see her sweat. She keeps herself together in times of distress in a way that’s almost psychopathic. Tyrell Wellick might look like American Psycho's Patrick Bateman but it’s Joanna who takes the title (in this case Danish Psycho).
With just a look, she immediately makes those in her presence either want to please her or second-guess themselves. In the most iconic scene from the first season of Mr. Robot, Tyrell has a massive fit and throws things in the kitchen while Joanna peacefully eats an egg roll. “Do you know why you’re mad?” she asks him.
In the same breath that she tells Tyrell about her teenage pregnancy and the child she had to give up for adoption, she tells him that she no longer wants him as her husband—all with a straight face, not a tear in sight. In her run-in (and pending death threat) with Elliott, she makes him feel so uneasy that he lies about his name all while she coos to her newborn baby.
But this season Joanna becomes a murderer. While Tyrell carelessly killed Sharon Knowles because he couldn’t control his ego, Joanna murders the parking-lot attendant who knew information about Tyrell and the hack she was formerly paying off. It was her way of saving money and tying up loose ends. Instead of fretting with guilt, she calmly justifies the murder: "Killing a man instantly robs him of explanation. He has no time to process his final moments. You let him die with answers. Otherwise we're nothing but ruthless murderers."
It's not the calculated and cold version of Joanna Wellick that makes her a great villain. Instead, it's creator Sam Esmail's (and Stephanie Corneliussen's) ability to humanize her through the twisted love she has for her family. Joanna really, really loves her baby. And although she always seems to be disappointed with Tyrell, she would never let anyone harm him (look at her death threat to Elliot) and she loves him dearly. One of the only times we have seen her lose her composure is when she's trying unsuccessfully to reach Tyrell on the burner phone that was attached to the music box.
But unlike Breaking Bad's Walter White, who decided to become a meth dealer to support his family while living two lives and denying that he was a bad guy, there is no shame in Joanna Wellick's game. She doesn't feel bad about murder, she's not rationalizing her obsession with power and money, she's not living a double life. She's well aware that she scams and manipulates people. She wants what she wants because she wants it. She's a savage. A woman in power who really does have her own twisted version of having it all—family and success, lust and love, wealth and power. Even if it all does seem to be slipping away from her this season.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.