Black Mirror – Season 4

Black Mirror – Season 4

Black Mirror Remains Intriguing, If Inconsistent

 

Black Mirror’s fourth season recycles ideas and tech from earlier segments to arrive at – for the most part – some fresh and interesting concepts. It hasn’t quite started to feel like the show has passed its expiration date yet, but it’s not the safe bet that it used to be.

Rating: 7/11

 

Just before New Years Eve, Black Mirror made its welcome return to our comfort boxes for its fourth season. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Black Mirror is basically The Twilight Zone for millenials. It’s a British anthology series that has – in the years since Netflix acquired it – divided its characters and settings between England and America. There are no recurring characters, but one constant theme: humanity’s inexorable downfall at the hands of technology. Or, depending on how you look at it, humanity’s downfall by its own hand, simply with the aid of technology.

In any case, because a season of Black Mirror is so inherently fractured, instead of a standard review we’re divvying the episodes up individually and ranking them from worst to best. In context of the show’s previous three seasons, these six episodes maintain the trend that began with 2016’s extended seasons. Which is to say that there’s one or two great segments here, a handful of decent ones and one total clunker. Enjoy!

 

Arkangel

I hope “Arkangel” is the weakest ever episode of Black Mirror. Surrounded by such an otherwise solid collection, it stands out at as the sort of very, very late season excursion that might come about when the show has totally run out of steam. Astoundingly, most of the drawbacks are the result of shallow characterisation, a negligence in the writing that creator Charlie Brooker very rarely commits. Because, instead of an allegory that operates with real people and divines irony from their technological blunders, “Arkangel” is basically a thinkpiece with stage directions. It’s the result of a thought exercise no more profound than “What if helicopter parenting, but with computers?!“, spun into a severely heavy-handed morality tale that has about as much depth as an after-school special about the dangers of teenage delinquency.

By the way, I get that that’s a misread of the segment. Obviously the mother, Marie, has committed the deepest error in relying on an implant to guide her parenting, but it’s hard to work with such mixed signals. I know 15-year-olds lie, but having one that fucks and does cocaine out of nowhere is a cheap catalyst for conflict. And – while Rosemarie Dewitt does the best she can with the thinly-drawn role of the mother – none of this makes a lot of sense as legitimate storytelling. The point seems to be that screens separate us and render honest conversation impossible, which is trite as fuck for this show, for starters, and doesn’t actually track with the violent and clumsy ending one bit. Honestly, I wish I had a filter for this one. Points for Dewitt’s performance, some solid directing by Jodie Foster and because I liked the grandad.

Rating: 4/11

 

Crocodile

“Crocodile” is that rare episode of Black Mirror that is defined by human flaws first and foremost, with technology simply being the comeuppance. There’s no part of Mia’s life that has been so infiltrated by tech that it leads her to murder. It’s her own weakness that pushes forward this narrative, while gadgetry just reaps the consequences. That’s an interesting way to play with morality in a show like this, even if it doesn’t cohere quite as nicely as I would’ve liked. In similar approach to many episodes of Black Mirror, there’s an initially disjointed nature to “Crocodile” that smooths itself out in an ostensibly satisfactory way towards the end.

Essentially, Mia has done something terrible, and she needs to do more terrible things to cover it up. Shazia, an insurance claims investigator, will factor into all of this later, but early on her role seems arbitrary. It all comes across as a lot more clever in theory than execution, and it soon becomes clear that the dual structure at play is there to hide a lack of substance. Still, few shows are better than Black Mirror at documenting a precipitous downward spiral, and “Crocodile” is perversely watchable in that regard, even if by the halfway mark nothing that follows on the level of plotting will be much of a surprise, and it’s up to the individual whether or not Mia’s darkest actions are justified by the story. Of course, Andrea Riseborough’s performance is so unwaveringly desperate that you’ll be carried along, regardless. Ultimately, it ends feeling like a decent use of some of Brooker’s most ingenious inventions – especially the Recaller – that doesn’t say a lot beyond its flurry of mad violence.

Rating: 6.5/11

 

Metalhead

Black Mirror hasn’t done many flat-out stylistic excursions to date but hopefully – after the pretty decent dry run of “Metalhead” – we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the future. I mean, obviously every episode falls within the vague realm of sci-fi, but not many adhere to a conventional genre like this one. Yes, Season 3’s “Playtest” was basically a horror episode, and there’s an argument to be made for “San Junipero” as something of a romcom. But “Metalhead” is the first time Black Mirror has picked a style and not deviated from it in the slightest. In short, it’s an action story, though more specifically it’s a chase scene set over the course of 40 minutes. And, while it lacks depth, it’s as tightly wound and beautifully filmed as any episode of the show that’s come before.

Shot in stark black and white and set in the show’s first full-blown post-apocalyptia, “Metalhead” follows Bella as she tries to outrun and outmanoeuvre a murderous robotic dog. That’s it. She starts off in a car, before winding up on foot, climbing trees, scaling walls, even breaking and entering to avoid the thing. The dog itself is scarily equipped to deal damage, possessive of a short-range gun and explosive shrapnel pellets. What’s even more menacing is the lack of backstory for the thing: it just is, and it wants to kill. Once again, this means there’s not a huge amount of substance to latch onto, but “Metalhead” is less concerned with lore and character than the crackling intensity at its core. The “twist” ending is perfunctory, at best, but Maxine Peake’s performance and the majestic cinematography keep things from falling flat.

Rating: 7/11

 

Black Museum

You can only turn so many mirrors in on themselves before one of them cracks. Actually, that’s not true at all, and is a borderline fucking ridiculous thing to say, but stay with me here. With such an impressive array of vignettes under its belt, it seemed it would only be a matter of time before Black Mirror would go meta, referring back to some of its most iconic segments and innovations. Such is the premise of “Black Museum”, which doesn’t backtrack so much as expand on the show’s legacy, with mixed – but firmly intriguing – results. It takes place in a mysterious store that doubles as a metaphor for the show itself, the titular museum that contains artifacts of a woeful pedigree. And, while it’s tempting to think of the museum’s curator as a stand-in for creator Charlie Brooker, it’s clear by the end that this episode has other plans.

Individually, the three stories that make up this episode are a mixed bag. The doctor with the sensory projection implant – which, weirdly enough, is adapted from a short story by magician Penn Jillette – is deliciously gruesome. Meanwhile, the stuffed monkey tale takes a silly idea and barely manages to avoid letting it slip into Saturday Night Live sketch territory (“Imagine if your wife was inside your head!“). And the final segment about the death row inmate is a little thin, even if it does find a satisfying way to link up with the present day happenings at the museum. All in all, regardless of the calibre of the plots, it’s admirable that Black Mirror would use an episode to tell the story of itself, a series of mesmerising, devilish misfortunes that you can’t turn away from.

Rating: 7/11

 

Hang the DJ

Things have to go exceedingly well beforehand if you’re gonna let Morrissey have the final word. But after the splendour of “Hang the DJ”, I doubt there’d be a single person who could object to his plaintive cry as The Smiths’ “Panic” rings out over the credits. Following in the footsteps of more optimistic fare like “San Junipero”, “Hang the DJ” is Black Mirror at its most sentimental and funny, while still maintaining its signature streak of digital paranoia. The episode follows Amy and Frank as they attempt to find true love through a dangerously controlling dating app. It not only pairs you up autonomously, it also comes with a built-in expiry date which you are forbidden from exceeding. So far, so totalitarian. But even amongst the oppressiveness, humour and affection triumph as Amy and Frank are repeatedly brought together and torn apart against their will.

In this way, without being too pat or clunky about it, “Hang the DJ” offers an examination of modern relationships and the ways in which technology exacerbates our worst tendencies. Online algorithms determine our potential for enjoyment and fulfillment to the degree that we don’t trust ourselves to discern our own happiness, and are confused when our feelings run counter to what we’ve been conditioned to expect. It’s why Frank can’t help but look at his and Amy’s expiry date, even when they make a joint decision not to. It’s the same impulse that leads people to read the last page in a book: we want to know where this is going, and modern advancements enable that desire. Still, by the end “Hang the DJ” finds a rousing way to both endorse the alternative of living a mathematically proportioned existence while slyly acknowledging how truly hard it is to get off the damn grid.

Rating: 8.5/11

 

USS Callister

As long as there’s always at least one episode of Black Mirror like “USS Callister” per season, I will continue to be an avid fan of the show. It’s the kind of supremely clever, wickedly funny and existentially horrifying segment that the show built its name on back in 2011, when the Prime Minister was fucking pigs, talent shows had become a living nightmare and infidelity was impossible to cover up. Written by Brooker with the aid of William Bridges, “USS Callister” tells a story of social hierarchy, of cyclical cruelty that switches your allegiances and perspective so many times it’s almost breathtaking. It also parodies space opera’s like Star Trek and Stargate SG-1 with a precision and intellect that can’t help but seem affectionate. In fact, by the end of the episode, many of the characters have accidentally set off on and completed their own space-faring voyage, which is equally exciting and ridiculous.

So, Robert Daly (a deviously layered Jesse Plemons) is the CTO of a video game company. No one respects him, except the new programmer Nanette (the charmingly hilarious Cristin Milioti), who thinks his coding is ingenious. She’s warned by others to keep her distance from Daly, because he’s kinda creepy. At this point, we feel bad for Daly, but only until he steals Nanette’s DNA and inserts a clone of her into his own offline beta of the space age video game he’s created. In that world, he’s Captain Daly, essentially a god who has littered his creation with clones of colleagues who have slighted him in some way. They do his bidding, or he punishes them in truly sadistic ways. They exist only to please him. He is their master. It’s at this point we realise: this dude’s so not the fuckin’ good guy.

Nanette emerges as the protagonist, leading a revolt against Daly with the other captives aboard his virtual ship. It’s a thrill to watch her implement an ad hoc version of an insane space mission, essentially refusing to play Daly’s game by playing it better. But more than that, “USS Callister” is a commentary on systemic abuse. Daly is disrespected in his day-to-day life, but his own innovations allow an outlet for him to subject his abusers to a disproportionate level of comeuppance. His is the story of the quiet, weird guy, inverted to display his despicable impulses. Even his projected self is just the rugged leading man shown for what he truly is: a taskmaster, whose underlings are subject to his every whim and insane plan. It’s not just a great episode of Black Mirror, it’s a compelling thesis on the darkness of the human condition that is allowed to shine through our modems.

Rating: 9.5/11

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