Season four of Black Mirror was released on December 29th, just in time to start the new year feeling depressed.
As some of you know, I am a huge fan of Black Mirror. High production values – which have only gotten higher since it became a Netflix Original – and prescient, biting social commentary make it a masochistic escape from the light entertainment that I usually gravitate towards.
Here are my thoughts on the new episodes. Spoilers ahead.
Having watched all the trailers during the 13 Days of Black Mirror, I went into this episode expecting it to follow some happy-go-lucky gamers in an immersive VR world who somehow get stuck in there (or something similarly terrifying) and have to find some way to get out of the game. I was so off-track I resolved never to expect anything from a Black Mirror episode ever again.1
What I got instead was a full-blown modernisation of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream with a dash of Galaxy Quest.
A lot of Black Mirror episodes feature a protagonist who initially start off with the full sympathy of the viewer but later lose it spectacularly when they turn out to be an asshole. In this episode, Bob Daly (Fat Damon/Jesse Plemons) is it – the pushover CTO of a VR game company turns out to be a sadistic, tyrannical prick who lords over digital clones of everyone who’s ever wronged him in real life. It didn’t really sink in until the episode actually invoked I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and the heroine had her fucking face removed - after that I was rearing to watch Daly being undone.
Unfortunately, a bit of technobabble and handwaving does make it into the episode, but it’s not obnoxiously inaccurate so I let it slide.
The supporting characters could have done with more development, but overall this was a very enjoyable episode. A solid 8.5/10.
This was an exciting one because it’s directed by Jodie Foster of Silence of the Lambs and Contact fame.
Arkangel is an all-in-one helicopter parenting device that allows said parent to monitor their child and see whatever the child sees, with the incredulous option to filter things that are deemed stressful by the system. It’s like a great big box of NOPE all contained into a brain implant linked to a remarkably durable tablet device.
Overbearing mother Marie gets her poor daughter Sara put onto the Arkangel system. After Sara fails to develop empathy as a child, the penny finally drops for Marie and she packs the monitoring tablet away, leaving Sara all alone to grow up into a functioning, normal teenager. Who would have thought?
A knee-jerk reaction to teenaged Sara failing to come home earlier than promised sees Marie kick back into full helicopter mode, retrieving the Arkangel, scaring off Sara’s drug dealing boyfriend, and spiking Sara’s morning smoothie with a contraceptive pill when she finds out via the tablet that Sara is pregnant. I’m just amazed that Marie made the same damn smoothie seemingly every day for at least 10 years.
It comes to a head when an enraged Sara beats her mother nearly to death – ironically thanks to the content filter – and destroys the tablet in the process. With that out of the way, Sara is finally free to hitchhike far away from her mother, who is left bloodied and screaming in the street.
This was an unsettling episode. It’s technology I could easily see becoming available in the near future, and I have no doubt that people will adopt it in a misguided attempt to protect their children from the world. I also expect that those same people will vigorously defend their choice and refuse to see what’s wrong with the system (which is to say everything). I’m not even addressing the possibility of malevolent parties gaining access to the system because it just hurts to think about. It’s like a golden ticket to child porn.
For fun, I showed my mum this episode and asked her whether she thought Marie was justified in using Arkangel. Unsurprisingly, she said yes, because “her daughter was taking drugs, and she was a pregnant at the age of 15!” I’m not sure what I expected.
This felt like one of the more grounded episodes, but as a consequence I felt it progressed rather predictably. It also felt like one of the rarer instances of an episode of Black Mirror beating you around the head (methaphorically) with the moral of the story. A 7/10 from me.
I didn’t really know what to expect from this one (or Metalhead for that matter).
If I had to sum up this episode in a single sentence, it would go something like this:
Ellen Degenerate gets undone by a cavy after going on a panicked killing spree across Iceland.
It sounds funny, but when you see it unfolding on screen it’s actually pathetic. This is one of the more straightforward episodes of Black Mirror wherein the protagonist is a horrible human being with no redeeming features from the outset, so you’re not left furiously backpedaling and rewatching the episode searching for hints as to their true nature after the fact.
Arguably the only Black Mirror-esque feature of this story is the electronic doodad that Shazia uses to glean recollections from witnesses in insurance cases, and is later used by police on a guinea pig. The same story could have easily featured in any other TV show without the doodad, leaving the impression of technology taking a back seat in this episode. It’s not necessarily bad, just different.
There is the question of how the guinea pig was interrogated using the recollection doodad, but then I remind myself that I’d rather just see the protagonist getting her just desserts rather than puzzling over it all day.
The sweeping panoramic shots of Iceland were the highlight of this episode; the performances by Andrea Riseborough (as Mia) and Kiran Sonia Sawar (as Shazia) were also fantastic, with the former really carrying her weight throughout. Otherwise, I felt the story was rather generic and the pacing of the episode meandered a bit. This one gets 7/10 from me.
Hang the DJ
This episode is undoubtedly the San Junipero of this season, with the happiest ending of any Black Mirror episode to date.
Frank and Amy are participants in a dating system (aptly named the System) wherein they are paired with other singles, with the end goal of finding their ultimate match. Each pairing is given a time limit, which can range from twelve hours to multiple years, and failure to comply with the time limit will see participants booted out of the gated community they reside in with other couples. After a night with each other, Frank and Amy find that they’ve fallen in love, and together they rebel against the limitations of the System.
This episode is littered with light-hearted comedy as only a story about people looking for love can provide – I’ll happily admit to laughing out loud more than a few times. It’s a welcome change after Crocodile, but also a valuable look at how the cookie technology that’s often explored in the Black Mirror universe can be harnessed for something that doesn’t amount to cruel and inhumane treatment. I never knew I needed something like this, but now that I’ve got it I will make no complaints.
The chemistry between the two leads is palpable and really helps sell its conclusion, where it’s revealed that our protagonists were actually one of a thousand simulations, and an inclination to rebel against the System is taken as compatibility. I feel that it would speak to people who have been through the wringer of dating apps – I’ve so far avoided that timesink – so I’m probably not the target audience of this episode, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. A well-deserved 8/10.
Like Crocodile, a bit of an unknown coming into this season.
The episode takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, where the common folk are left to scavenge whatever they can from the dregs of civilisation, akin to The Walking Dead. By the end of the episode, the comparison to TWD becomes particularly apt when we’re shown what our scavengers were trying to retrieve. It’s bad decision making all round.
The episode takes a rather unorthodox approach to its setting, in that no world-building is done so the viewer is left to fill in the blanks. I’m not a huge fan of this approach to storytelling as it doesn’t contextualise the struggle of the protagonists. However, one could guess that military technology went completely awry and resulted in what appears to be a genocide of humanity. In the place of humans, highly capable robotic dogs (think Boston Dynamics) roam the barren landscape, killing with impunity and leaving a trail of gore in their wake.
Bella (Maxine Peake) is basically a one-woman show in this episode, as the other two(!) characters are killed off in the first five minutes. After alerting a robotic dog in a warehouse, Bella spends the rest of the episode fleeing from it, first by throwing it off her proverbial scent by digging out a tracking device from under her skin with a knife, and then hiding in a tree while waiting for her pursuer’s battery to run down.
Eventually Bella is able to break into a fancy house, and promptly finds the mummified remains of its previous occupants, who had the foresight to blow their brains out before they found themselves in Bella’s sorry situation. Nonetheless, she fights on, and almost gets away with it – she cripples the dog’s sensing capabilities by throwing a bucket of paint over it, but in her hubris (or poor decision making?) she sticks around for far too long after finally putting it down.
I often find post-apocalyptic stories frustrating because of the tendency of their characters to make ridiculous decisions and ultimately going back to square one.2 Metalhead isn’t immune from this trope, and at the conclusion of the episode I was wondering what the point of it all was. All we got to learn about the grim future Charlie Brooker has imagined for us is that there are savage robot dogs roaming around killing indiscriminately. We learned nothing of what led up to this, nor gain any insight into how to prevent it (save from defunding everyone making military robots). Maxine Peake’s performance was fantastic, but not good enough to carry the otherwise weak episode. This one gets a 6/10 from me.
Of the six new episodes in the new season, Black Museum was my most anticipated.
This episode truly is fanservice galore, but not in the cringey, time-wasting way that shows like Sherlock do fanservice – key technologies from past Black Mirror episodes feature, but they’re merely throwaway lines, a quick wink to followers of the series.
A British girl named Nish stops on a desert roadtrip to charge up her car’s batteries. With three hours to kill, she heads to the Black Museum, a small attraction conveniently situated next to her service station. It’s obvious the museum has seen better days (she’s the only one there), and the proprietor, a cheerful carny named Rolo Haynes, is all too eager to give her a personal tour.
In many ways, this episode is a lot like the Christmas special White Christmas, with three smaller stories chained together to form a rather wobbly whole. I felt the former did this better, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The three stories are introduced as artifacts in the museum. Our first artifact is a thingymajig that allows the recipient of a brain implant to feel the pain of another person. Said device is clearly a forerunner of the sleeker cookies that appear in other episodes, giving us a vague timeline of how the technology developed. Rolo Haynes is revealed to be a former snake oil salesman for TCKR Systems (remember San Junipero?) working at the Saint Juniper’s Hospital (remember San Junipero?), and he manages to rope a hapless emergency room doctor into being a guinea pig for the pain device.
The doctor uses the device to give accurate diagnoses of his patients’ ailments, as well as making good use of it in the bedroom after he figures out he can experience pleasure through the device as well (so he gets two orgasms!). Unfortunately, after an out-of-body experience with the device on a patient who died of poisoning, the good doctor now finds himself addicted to pain, and he goes to increasingly risky (and gory) methods of feeling it. His addiction comes to a head when he murders a homeless man with a drill, putting himself into a vegetative state after a moment of ecstasy. Legend says he still has a boner.3
Haynes barely misses a beat when he moves on to the next exhibit, an innocent-looking teddy bear. What follows is probably the bleakest story in the entire series.
Jack and Cassie are new parents to curiously-named Parker. When an accident puts Cassie into a coma, Haynes approaches Jack with an offer: your wife can feel the embrace of her baby boy again, if you let us implant her consciousness in your brain. For anyone who’s had a backseat driver, this is probably the absolute worst idea in the history of the world, but for some reason both parties actually agree. Unsurprisingly it turns out badly, and Jack, now pursued by his attractive neighbour, decides to take Haynes up on TCKR’s latest offer of transferring Carrie’s consciousness into a stuffed toy monkey, ostensibly so Parker can be closer to his mother.
If you thought being stuck inside someone else’s body with no control over their actions was bad, think again! Carrie is reduced to two expressions as a toy monkey: ‘Monkey loves you :)’ and ‘Monkey needs a hug :(‘. Parker grows tired of the monkey (as kids are wont to do), and eventually the monkey ends up in the purgatory of the museum, Carrie’s consciousness still trapped within it.
And for his final trick, Haynes gleefully leads Nish over to the crowning jewel of his museum: the downtrodden digital consciousness of convicted murderer Clayton Leigh. Haynes had convinced Leigh to sign over the rights to his consciousness while on death row, but neglected to tell Leigh that his hologram self would be used for visitors to flip the switch on the electric chair. Worse still, a hologram souvenir of Leigh in agony is dispensed after each pull; why anyone would want something like that lying around is beyond me.
As business dried up for Haynes, his clientele became ever shadier. When a rich scumbag shows up with an envelope full of cash, Haynes allows him to electrocute Leigh’s holographic self to the edge of insanity (assuming there was any sanity left). The result is a Leigh-shaped husk which greets Nish with a drool and a blank expression.
In one of the sillier twists in the entire Black Mirror series, Nish reveals herself to be Leigh’s daughter, here to get revenge on Haynes for what he did to her father. It turns out she’s sabotaged the museum’s air conditioning system, and poisoned the drink she gave to a thirsty Haynes. Justice pornography ensues where Haynes’ consciousness is implanted as a passenger of Leigh’s and subjected to the electric chair. This time, Nish keeps the switch engaged until her father’s consciousness is no more – but she keeps a souvenir of Haynes screaming in agony, just because.
To top off the silliness, it transpires that Nish has had her mother’s consciousness as a passenger, presumably to witness their family’s revenge. Nish picks up the monkey and drives away to a bleak future, the museum in flames behind her.
This episode felt like a variation on the White Christmas structure, where you have three closely connected stories in one. Sadly it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, but it’s still a lot of fun to watch and pretty fanservice-y. The first two stories could’ve been given more emphasis, as the last one felt quite weak, but all three are quintessential Black Mirror stories and I can appreciate that. Douglas Hodge is excellent. This one gets a 7.5/10.
This season of Black Mirror definitely felt like one of the weakest. It relied on the concept of cookies a little too much, and the episodes that did not use them as a plot device (Crocodile and Metalhead) were rather generic by comparison. Nonetheless, it’s worth your time to watch for the fun factor and low time commitment.
The episodes, ranked
- USS Callister
- Hang the DJ
- Black Museum