Charlie Brooker’s disturbing techno-satire comes to American shores for Season 3. Has it kept its edge? David reviews every episode. (Spoilers ahoy!)
Black Mirror, hailed as The Twilight Zone of the 21st century, is the perhaps the ultimate “your milage may vary” show. Ask anyone who’s watched all seven original hours (two seasons originally airing in 2011 & 2013, and a 2014 Christmas Special) to rank them, and you’ll get a different answer every time. Some people — ahem, Chase — won’t care for it at all. But to me, what makes the series ultimately successful isn’t its high concepts or dark twists (though it does both extremely well), but how recognizably human its characters behave within them.
Most episodes spawn directly from the twisted mind of British satirist Charlie Brooker, and follow a distinctive pattern: a plausible technological evolution (implants that record your every waking moment for later playback, the ability to bring back your loved one as an eerily accurate robot) is extrapolated to its logical conclusion, with psychologically devastating results. Every episode is a big swing. The result is a slate of stories that include undeniable brilliance (“Be Right Back,” “The Entire History of You”), memorable thought experiments (“The National Anthem”, “15 Million Merits”), and ambitious near-misses (“White Christmas,” “White Bear”). I’d only argue one hour, Season 2’s “The Waldo Moment,” whiffs entirely, and that’s at least partially because its central conceit — a cartoon character somehow becomes a populist, profane political candidate — now feels uncomfortably redundant in 2016.
I wrote last week about Netflix’s current programming strategy, which involves writing virtually blank checks so creatives can do what they do best, and that now includes Brooker. He’s agreed to produce 12 brand-new installments under the Netflix banner, close to doubling his entire output on the UK’s Channel 4 in two six-episode batches. The concerns were valid: would an accelerated production schedule prevent Brooker from really drilling down on his ideas? Would the series become too “Americanized,” speaking to a culture that Brooker may not know as well as his own? Fortunately — and this is good news, considering the high-wire act Black Mirror walks — the ratio of decent-to-brilliant remains the same. A couple of these new episodes rank with the best. Others don’t. And that’s okay.
Again, spoilers ahead –– you want to go in as cold as possible, so turn back now if you haven’t watched yet!
Episode 1: “Nosedive”
At first, Parks and Recreation alums Mike Schur and Rashida Jones seem like odd fits to write an episode of Black Mirror (though the story outline is Brooker’s); both are stretching themselves here in eschewing Schur’s trademark warmth for bitter irony. “Nosedive” takes a very simple, not-entirely-original idea (the MeowMeowBeenz episode of Community covered it in typically absurd fashion) and wrings out all the discomfort it can: imagine a world where everything from rental car rates to where you can live to what restaurants you can eat at is determined by your personal social media “score,” a number from one to five that is constantly in flux based on how ingratiating you are to every single person you come across.
At the center of the story is Lacie (a game Bryce Dallas Howard), a desperate social climber with a plastered smile, and who sees the chance to give a maid of honor speech at her childhood friend’s wedding — with a hundred “influencers” (high fours) in attendance — as her ticket to contentment. Schur, Jones, and director Joe Wright (yep, that Joe Wright) have fun illustrating the details of this world that’s not too far from our own, where everyone is constantly looking down at their phones, trawling for banal posts to rate in hopes of getting a rate back, but the biggest flaw here is in the pacing. Most of Season 3’s episodes, free from network time constraints, could have used more judicious editing; “Nosedive” takes a full 20 minutes to hammer the contours of this world, and even longer to track the worst day of Lacie’s life as a single bump of a stranger begins a Rube Goldberg-ian cascade of downvotes and self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a good episode, and you’d hate to lose any of Cherry Jones (as a 1-rated trucker who stopped caring long ago what people thought of her), but it could have been great if it was more to the point — or if the point itself wasn’t so familiar.
Episode 2: “Playtest”
The second episode, Black Mirror’s first dip into outright, visceral horror, doesn’t work at all with an actor even 10% less charismatic than Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some!!). As it is, it’s 95% awesome until one final twist too many sours the experience. Russell is Cooper, who has been journeying around the world “finding himself” — really, getting as far away as possible from his mother, whose grief after his father’s passing from Alzheimer’s is too much for him to handle. The final leg of his trip is London, where he meet-cutes Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen), and their easy, naturalistic flirting takes up a good third of the episode. But unlike “Nosedive,” I didn’t mind because the two performers are so engaging, and because we know as fans of Black Mirror that the more we like Cooper, the worse the ending is going to hurt.
Suddenly strapped for cash, Cooper takes a job testing a mysterious, groundbreaking augmented reality game; he gets a small interface injected into the back of his head, and (after an impressively realistic round of whack-a-mole) is led to a spooky house for the real test: how long can he stay sane as hideous monsters and apparitions (all in his mind, he’s told) begin to materialize? Director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) is an expert at building this kind of atmosphere, and Russell has a ball chattering his way through the night, becoming increasingly unhinged as his virtual experience evolves from anticipated jump scares to full-on psychological warfare. The episode’s entertaining, for sure. Too bad Brooker’s script gives us two false conclusions before a final reveal that’s too clever by half, rendering most of the episode’s events pointless and pulling focus from its video game conceit to something much more arbitrary about…cell phone interference? Ugh. So close.
Episode 3: “Shut Up and Dance”
Continuing to find terror in everyday objects, Brooker and co-writer William Bridges next take a cue from real-life events in “Shut Up and Dance,” putting Kenny (Alex Lawther, terrific) through a nightmare of cyber blackmail because an anonymous entity — lets call them “Anonymous” — tapped into his laptop’s camera during an, ahem, private moment. But once again, a pretty good (if particularly nasty by Mirror standards) episode is undercut by Brooker’s need to lay on one more twist. When Kenny is caught on video pleasuring himself to “dirty pictures,” the feint is that what his teenage mind thinks will ruin his life if released can’t possibly be as bad as what “they” have planned for Hector (Jerome Flynn, Bronn!) and everyone else they’ve ensnared. So as Kenny follows every direction he’s given — bike to a location, deliver a cake, rob a bank — there’s an undercurrent of the blackest humor as we believe his troubles pale in comparison to his adulterous partner-in-crime’s.
Except that was all misplaced, as we learn in the final moments. It never was just “dirty pictures,” but of children. And what begins as a modern fable about internet safety takes an unnecessary detour into internet justice, and the infamous troll face that can never truly be trusted to let you off the hook. A better ending eschews the “gotcha” to have Kenny win his fight to the death against the other deviant, “they” release the video anyway, and most of the people in his life collectively shrug. Brooker’s natural urge to broaden his focus doesn’t quite work here, especially with such an impersonalized threat. But for real, everyone: cover up your webcams.
Episode 4: “San Junipero”
Finally the whole package, and with an unexpected added ingredient: hope! Black Mirror is known for chewing up its characters (along with its audience) and spitting them back out, so it’s almost an equal shock for “San Junipero” to be, at its heart, a sweet romance. That it also features one of Brooker’s more clever inventions, a digital world populated by the uploaded consciousnesses of the deceased, is what puts it over the top into Classic status. The episode doles out its answers slowly, avoiding the big info dump of earlier hours for a teasing mystery with a bittersweet punch. My first thought when the episode began, as we see wallflower Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis, Halt and Catch Fire) hit it off with free-spirited Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in an 80s-tastic dance hall, is that this was simply a Westworld-esque experience through different time periods, but that wasn’t the whole picture…not at all.
Both Davis and Mbatha-Raw are fantastic, but it’s when the action finally leaves the neon-bathed California city for the real world that Brooker’s vision is fully unveiled. San Junipero is “immersive nostalgia,” as the much older Kelly puts it; most of its residents are there permanently, having “passed on,” but others are merely sampling for a few hours a week. First one shoe drops, and then the other: neither woman has long left to live, and Yorkie has been a quadriplegic since 21. Kelly had long ago decided not to have herself uploaded to San Junipero’s “cloud” for eternity, but instead of giving her a quick change of heart, the show makes her earn it in a way that is both realistic and poignant — proving once and for all that, like high-water marks “Be Right Back” and “Entire History of You,” Black Mirror is at its best when an episode’s characters are more compelling than its gimmick. Even better, that notions like kindness and sacrifice aren’t altogether foreign to Brooker’s worldview.
Episode 5: “Men Against Fire”
It’s unusual for a show as typically nuanced as Black Mirror to have a bad-guy character spend the final scene monologuing, and it’s a sign of “Men Against Fire’s” overall weakness. But there’s some cool stuff here, including the future military tech that allows soldiers to see building diagrams, targeting scopes, and drone feeds as augmented reality. That all feels like something we’re not far from. The razor-toothed killer zombies, aka “roaches?” Less so. The first turn comes early on, as Stripe’s (Malachi Kirby) encounter with one during a raid teases at a familiar transformation narrative, a la District 9. Thankfully it doesn’t go in that direction, but the real story is no less didactic: the monsters aren’t monsters at all, but people who have been artificially monster-ized so the brainwashed soldiers don’t have to think twice about killing them.
It was also at this point that I realized that for most of this season, I was really missing the innate Britishness that helped Black Mirror stand out in the television landscape. Devoid of that authenticity, an hour like “Men Against Fire” is just heavy-handed moralizing, tipping its hand around the 30-minute mark and then spending the second half hitting its solitary point (a good one, but still) over and over again. Add in the confusing dream sequences and a tacked-on, meaningless final scene, and you’ve got a bit of a mess on your hands. Kirby does fine work, though, alongside House of Cards‘ Michael Kelly as the military scientist who designed the mind-altering neural implants. The message is less anti-soldier than “anti-dehumanizing,” though, so I’ll at least give it credit for that.
Episode 6: “Hated In the Nation”
Hey, did you know Charlie Brooker really hates social media? The 90-minute final episode is pretty much just that, wrapped in a Euro-detective series package. But oh, what a polished package it is (that anamorphic aspect ratio, yo)! Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay are aces as Parke & Blue, police investigators, in perhaps Black Mirror’s most straightforward and conventional episode to date. There are sidebars on trashy clickbait articles, government surveillance, and a swarm of killer robot bees (more Fringe or X-Files than Black Mirror, though it works here), but that’s just window dressing for the episode’s main target: “Hated In the Nation” brings the full force of Brooker’s ire on mean-spirited Twitter hashtags. A string of high-profile murders get linked to a “#DeathTo” game, where each tweet equals a vote for the bees’ next target. The internet is a hive mind, you see?
Eventually, it will be the death of everyone that plays it, a cautionary ending that may also test the limits of your own empathy, or at least put you off joining in the next online lynch mob. Yet even with the familiar structure and extended run time, it’s effective, sometimes even scary, and well-paced. I would totally watch an ongoing series with Macdonald and Marsay, dogged detective and her computer-whiz sidekick, solving crimes and showing off near-future technology. But there are still a couple of facepalm moments, and some lingering questions — mainly, why couldn’t the police have brought that girl to a sealed room, not a drafty house with a million entrances for a swarm of determined robot bees? Come on, now.
Season Grade: B+
New Black Mirror Episode Rankings:
- Be Right Back (A)
- The Entire History of You (A)
- San Junipero (A)
- The National Anthem (A-)
- Playtest (A-)
- Nosedive (B+)
- 15 Million Merits (B+)
- White Christmas (B+)
- White Bear (B)
- Hated in the Nation (B)
- Shut Up and Dance (B-)
- Men Against Fire (C+)
- The Waldo Moment (C)