Charlie Brooker returns with a new round of cautionary tales, including two legit classics and no outright clunkers.
As I’ve written before, Black Mirror is the ultimate “your mileage may vary” show. Not only does its ecosystem of contained short stories lead to wide divergences in opinion (with a few exceptions), an increasingly vocal group of viewers have led a backlash against the show itself. To be fair to them, Charlie Brooker’s techno-Twilight Zone is ripe for parody: “What if phones…were bad?” “What if social media…was making us anti-social?” Look, I get it. And not every hour can hold up the weight of its conceit. In the truly successful episodes (including a couple in this year’s batch, as you’ll see in my new rankings at the bottom), the technology is tangential to the all-too-human behavior that stems from it.
This season — possibly the last, though Brooker says he and Netflix are “in discussions” — is on the whole more successful than its first on the service, and that’s partially to do with the series’ self-awareness of its own tropes. Some of the gimmicks feel increasingly familiar, but there are also bursts of the unconventional, and more than one legitimately uplifting ending, which might be the biggest surprise of all. What follows are my spoiler-filled mini-recaps of all six episodes.
Episode 1: “U.S.S. Callister”
The first episode is also the best episode. “U.S.S. Callister” opens as a humorously detailed spoof of Star Trek (expertly directed by Toby Haynes), as Jesse Plemons’s swaggering, Kirk-like Captain Daly saves the day, kisses both girls on the bridge, and basks in the affections of his crew. But it’s slowly revealed to be the first of three experiments this season with digital consciousness: Daly’s Space Fleet is an immersive sim he created, with tech that extracts the DNA on any items it’s fed (a coffee cup lid, a child’s lollipop) to trap a digital copy of that person inside the game. The specifics — how do the copies retain the memories of their lives pre-game, for example — are a little squiffy, but once Daly uploads the defiant Nanette (a superb Cristin Miloti), he unwittingly starts the countdown on his own destruction, ultimately leaving him trapped inside his own game while the rest of the world won’t even notice he’s missing for two entire weeks.
Brooker and William Bridges’s script functions on multiple levels: first as parody, then as a searing indictment of fanboy entitlement and toxic masculinity, then finally as a cracking sci-fi adventure in the vein of the stories that first inspired it. The socially awkward Daly feels maligned at the gaming company he helped found, but takes out his frustrations by physically and emotionally abusing his subordinates (and his CEO, excellently played by a squirrely Jimmi Simpson) in an environment where he makes all the rules and no one can defy him. His apartment is lined to the ceiling with Space Fleet memorabilia, but he has no true understanding of the values the series touts, instead behaving with sociopathic cruelty when no one in the “real world” is watching. It takes Nanette’s courage and coding skills to see the ship through the update wormhole and onto the open internet where she becomes the new captain, a subversively triumphant moment if not for the realization that the six Callister employees are still, you know, stuck in Digital Space. As a package, it’s Black Mirror’s sleekest and best-designed episode ever. (Bonus: Aaron Paul’s vocal cameo!)
Episode 2: “Arkangel”
I complained last season about Black Mirror becoming a little too Americanized on its journey to Netflix (a complaint I don’t have this time around), but there’s no doubt that “Arkangel” works best as a dark parable about the uniquely American phenomenon of “helicopter parenting.” Sensitively directed by Jodie Foster, the episode’s biggest fault is that the technology at its center — a neural implant that allows a parent to track their child, monitor their vitals, see what they see, and (gulp) block what they shouldn’t — is such an astonishingly Bad Idea that falls apart with three minutes of thought, Brooker has no choice but to do a handwave-y “oh, this has since been banned” after the decade-long time jump.
Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt’s) conflict — to look, or not to look — is material previously explored in “The Entire History of You,” but where that first-season episode kept the fates of its characters in doubt until the end, “Arkangel” is predictable from the moment we learn about the program. Once Marie finally puts it away, afraid of how little she’s preparing Sara for the real world, the girl is immediately drawn to everything that was once forbidden, an avalanche of violent and pornographic material that she simply can’t process. And though she seems to age into a relatively (all things considered) adjusted teenager (Brenna Harding), you know Marie will dig the tablet out of storage at the first sign of trouble, eventually going so far as to sneak a morning-after pill into Sara’s breakfast. At that point their shockingly violent reckoning is a foregone conclusion: Marie literally gets bludgeoned by technology. It’s not the season’s worst hour, just a half-baked one.
Episode 3: “Crocodile”
Speaking of ill-conceived future tech, there’s no way the powerful memory reader of “Crocodile” is ever used for something as benign as insurance claims adjusting…is there? Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) just wants to find out whether a random guy really did get hit by a van, but when images of a years-ago hit-and-run that she didn’t even cause come unbidden to Mia’s mind (Andrea Riseborough, very good in a problematic episode), it starts a chain of cover-up murders (including a baby?!) that’s pretty disturbing even for the reliably bleak Black Mirror. Director John Hillcoat (The Road), however, seems right at home, utilizing the stark, wintry vistas of Iceland to great effect.
Ultimately, however, “Crocodile” suffers from the same problem that all lower-tier Black Mirror stories do, which is that the characters aren’t engaging enough to make up for a weak gimmick. Considering that most people have something to hide (even if it’s not a murder), the idea that a device can casually bring those memories into public view without your control is simply preposterous, even (or especially?) if it’s government-mandated, where the power of suggestion opens up several new avenues of exploitation. The episode also takes an eternity to really get going, setting up Mia’s perfect life post-accident and establishing the power of Shazia’s device. Still, I have to give credit to Hillcoat’s screw-turning direction and Riseborough’s panicky performance, which are enough to keep the episode above the worst Season 3 had to offer.
Episode 4: “Hang the DJ”
The most objectively happy hour this season, “Hang the DJ” finds Black Mirror returning to the digital consciousness well (and not for the last time) as part of a complex dating service that “matches” singles for seemingly arbitrary lengths of time to build their profiles. For the first 45 minutes, though — and like last season’s triumph, “San Junipero” — it’s played entirely straight, teasing out the truth of this community of swinging singles with small, odd reveals: the dark-suited men with tasers, the giant wall, the fact that no one here has anything to do but spin the roulette wheel of dinner dates and hookups. It’s like The Lobster, where your circular digital assistant assures you of eventual romantic success instead of threatening to turn you into an animal and have you hunted for sport.
In any case, Georgiana Campbell and Joe Cole make a winning pair as Amy and Frank, who feel an instant connection despite only having 12 hours to spend together, and keep hoping they’ll be paired up again as they endure one forced cohabitation after another. There are some sharp comedic moments, like the inscrutable weirdness of the wedding they attend separately. And just when my skepticism about the story’s holes reached fever pitch, Amy calls the episode’s shot about it all really being a simulation, and Black Mirror follows through with an exhilarating reunion and “escape” sequence that leads to the hour’s final twist: the system works because they exercise free will in breaking it. Director Tim Van Patten, a longtime HBO hand, shows his skill with the lighter side of the palette; “Hang the DJ” doesn’t pack a a huge emotional wallop, but for what it is, it’s practically perfect, and will make a rewarding re-watch.
Episode 5: “Metalhead”
Here’s the season’s most divisive episode, a 41-minute chase scene tightly filmed by David Slade in high-contrast black and white (the better to mask any dodgy CGI on the killer robot dogs, perhaps). It’s also not really Black Mirror, at least as we know it, because we’re not given any explanation for this world. We don’t know where the “dogs” came from; we don’t know the cause of this particular apocalypse; there’s no moral lesson here except, I guess, “don’t risk your life for a teddy bear,” the cruel punchline of the episode’s final frames. So I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, either. It’s a nail-biter, and graphically violent, but it doesn’t add up to much.
That all said, Maxine Peake is great as our beset protagonist, and we root for her survival. The design of the “dogs” is creepy and effective, a clever mix of computer and practical work. They’re also uncomfortably close to a very real robot dog that Boston Labs should probably stop working on. Maybe that’s the secret to “Metalhead’s” effectiveness — it’s not that the story and situations are too far-fetched (ha!), but the awareness that if the wrong people get their hands on current tech, it could happen to us before we know it. It could also be a harbinger of what Black Mirror can allow itself to be in the future, where it doesn’t need to have an agenda to deliver brisk, spooky entertainment.
The season finale is something of a Black Mirror’s Greatest Hits, and is pretty open about that. You could even make the argument that the detestable Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) is a Charlie Brooker stand-in, because the museum is populated with his own products, and he tells the stories of their misuse with a gleeful sadism. But “Black Museum” is also notable for being the first where the maker of these terrifying pieces of technology suffers consequences, and not just their users, so there’s a little bit of payback of our own through Nish (Letitia Wright) trapping Rolo’s digital consciousness — there it is again — inside the hologram of her doomed father to fry. Before we get to that point, it’s a trio of short stories in the style of Season 2’s “White Christmas,” also peppered with references to “15 Million Merits,” “Black Bear,” and a few other episodes; in the mythology of Black Mirror, Rolo may be the Walter Flagg-type character behind it all.
There’s the doctor who becomes a great diagnostician when he can tap into patients’ feelings, until something in his synapses snaps and he becomes addicted to pain, resulting a barely-watchable rampage of self-mutilation and serial murders. There’s the wife who gets implanted into her husband’s mind as a “passenger,” until they get sick of each other, and the husband conspires to relocate her to a stuffed monkey forever. (“Monkey needs a hug” might be the most distressingly loaded phrase in the Black Mirror canon.) And then there’s Nish’s father, the death row inmate with a chance for a second life, except that he doesn’t know it will be as a carnival prop for racists and sadists. At this point in Black Mirror the “uploaded consciousness” concept is entirely overused (and I don’t really get having Nish’s mom be a passenger as well, considering how Very Problematic we see the tech becoming), but as a potential last hurrah for the series, Brooker brings these multiple strands together in a cathartic parable about an amoral product developer who spends a career lurking on the margins like a monkey’s paw, telling people what they need without telling them the cost, until he finally gets what’s coming to him. Dark, sure. But for people who both love and fear the stories within Black Mirror, satisfying.
New Black Mirror Episode Rankings:
- Be Right Back (S2)
- The Entire History of You (S1)
- San Junipero (S3)
- U.S.S. Callister (S4)
- Hang the DJ (S4)
- The National Anthem (S1)
- Playtest (S3)
- Nosedive (S3)
- Black Museum (S4)
- 15 Million Merits (S1)
- White Christmas (S2)
- Metalhead (S4)
- Arkangel (S4)
- White Bear (S2)
- Hated in the Nation (S3)
- Crocodile (S4)
- Shut Up and Dance (S3)
- Men Against Fire (S3)
- The Waldo Moment (S2)