Showrunner: Charlie Brooker
Available on: Netflix
Release Date: Out Now
-SPOILERS FOR BLACK MIRROR AHEAD-
Since Black Mirror started in 2011 with the distinctly disturbing The National Anthem, there has been pretty much nothing else like it. The anthology format of technology-focused stories has consistently presented dark situations – only made more affecting by their closeness to the trajectory of our society. Now, thanks to Netflix, we are up to Season 4 and, with it, 6 more episodes.
Charlie Brooker’s series has rarely given us happy endings, instead being unrelenting in the conclusions it makes about our increased reliance on smartphones, the internet, gaming, and more (I’m still reeling from Season 3 episode Shut Up and Dance…). This new season certainly tries to present us with more of these stories, but an effort to tie them all together unwittingly dampens the lasting impact of (most of) the episodes themselves.
Don’t Beam Me Up
We start with USS Callister, the longest episode at around 1hr 20mins. This may seem intimidating, but it is actually a great episode with which to introduce someone to the series. The episode centres around a virtual reality game that takes the form of a bright, colourful Star Trek-like bridge crew. The introduction of the episode shows us how Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the equal boss of the business creating these experiences, uses this world to let out his frustration at being pushed around in real life.
As is the Black Mirror way, things aren’t what they seem. Initially you empathise with Daly, but in fact he turns out to be the antagonist. We discover he is creating digital replicants of people he knows and trapping them to be his crew in the game. The episode has many moments of tension and is wonderfully produced, but it feels like there are missed opportunities; we don’t delve much into how our antagonist developed such hate for these people, instead settling for him being a pretty one-note villainous character. Given the initial set-up and twist that he isn’t the good guy, this is a bit disappointing. Also, the plan to escape the prison of this digital reality stretches believability at times.
Missed opportunities and forced moments continue for episodes 2 & 3. Arkangel, for instance, has a classic Black Mirror set-up – a new tablet means that a mother, Marie Sambrell (Rosemarie DeWitt, who delivers a really authentic performance) can now track their child wherever they go, censor their vision, and even see what they see. This censorship only leads to the daughter, Sara, seeking out the things she cannot see, with results perhaps worse than they would have been without the technology. The main message of the episode is a good one, showing that it is often better to confront things head-on, rather than keep them hidden.
Unfortunately, rather than showing this subtly – as in the segment of the episode where Sara is young – we fast-forward to the age of 15, where Arkangel seems to try really hard to get the point across in a way that will shock us. After a mutual decision to stop using the Arkangel device, Sara comes across sex and drugs, and quite predictably, her mother is drawn back to the tablet just as Sara is partaking in these acts. Sometimes implying things is more striking than explicitly seeing them, but the episode doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. It ends with Sara beating her mother almost to death, after finding out she has been manipulating her life behind her back. She may be upset, sure, but this? It’s Black Mirror making sure we get the point, when the series usually respects us enough to let us work it out for ourselves.
Episode 3, Crocodile, is similar. A two-pronged story, it follows a woman named Mia (Andrea Riseborough) who ends up in a cycle of killing to cover up her tracks. When an investigator putting together witness cases asks her for an account of an accident, events escalate. A memory recollection device is used to recreate the view of a witness, but when used on Mia, much darker memories come up. The build-up through the episode is like a trail of breadcrumbs we piece together with the investigator, and the cinematography in Iceland is stunning. It feels like a futuristic version of Luther, or another crime drama. When the climax hits, though, Black Mirror just can’t help having that signature shock moment. It is as if the show thinks we expect it, and that is exactly the issue – we do, we see it coming. Mia’s horrific discovery near the end is a heart-wrenching moment, but it didn’t stay with me the way previous episodes have.
Play the Good One
The first half of Black Mirror is by no means awful, but it just feels like a show trying too hard to keep up a reputation. Fittingly, then, it’s the episode that is the least worried about visceral impact that is the standout. Hang the DJ could even be called basic in terms of story structure, compared to the winding puzzles of episodes like Crocodile. This is a world where a dating app is more of a dating coach, matching you with other people until it has the data to work out your perfect partner. This even extends to telling you how long you have left as a couple, from a 12-hour fling to a 1-year slog with someone you detest. It’s a clear conversation about what our concept of love is, and can mean something different to everyone. Maybe you know a couple where the fire of affection has gone, or you have a strong opinion on the idea of a one night stand.
Hang the DJ hits all these topics at a brisk pace, through the central relationship of Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole). Both actors deliver fantastic nuanced performances. The two lead characters are likeable yet flawed, clearly having chemistry and affection for each other. Driven apart by their quick expiration date, they’re pushed back out to many other partners – but it isn’t quite the same. When they eventually get paired back together, though, it isn’t all plain sailing. Frank checking the expiration date in secret leads to it dropping like a stone, cleverly showing the importance of communication and honesty in a relationship. Now, this episode isn’t lacking the Black Mirror twist. When Amy and Frank decide to screw the system and escape together, we see that this is one of countless simulations of how their relationship could go, which is pairing them through a dating app in the real world.
The difference between this and the way Arkangel and Crocodile present themselves is that this isn’t a shock for the sake of shocking us. The whole episode is subtly commenting on modern relationships and the way we meet nowadays, without shouting it at us by, say, a character killing another they aren’t happy at being paired with. Just seeing the distance develop between two people over their time together is enough. Black Mirror made a name for itself by giving us profound messages about society, with no holding back. Episodes like Hang the DJ and even Hated by the Nation in Season 3, which show devastation but still have glimmers of hope, are the way forward for Black Mirror as a series. More on that in a bit.
Black Mirror episodes tend to have a lot to talk about, but Episode 5 (Metalhead) is pretty straightforward. Set further in the future than any other episode in the series, it’s a post-apocalyptic setting where people are on the run from metal dog robots. Yeah, you heard me. Built to kill, a meeting with one quickly ends the stories of those around main character Bella (Maxine Peake). The episode – the shortest of Season 4 – turns into a one-on-one confrontation as Bella tries to outwit and escape the robot.
There isn’t much context, other than some radio calls Bella makes to a settlement of people we never see. Sure, we catch sight of the remains of the world, but nothing really sets this apart from your stock end-of-the-world story… Apart, that is, from the whole episode being in black-and-white. It doesn’t add much other than a noir, western style, and feels a bit like a way to make the episode seem unique. The effects on the robot are impressive, and the episode delivers thrills for sure; Maxine Peake does a terrific job at being both wearied and determined in her efforts to simply stay alive. Once the episode is over, though, it lacks a new message. Other than, y’know, don’t let robot dogs that can instantly kill us take over the world.
Following on from this is the finale, Black Museum, which is much more ambitious in what it tries to do. It is very similar in structure to the episode White Christmas, with multiple smaller stories that lead into an overarching main plot. The Black Museum is a home for many of the sick technological inventions seen in the series over the years, and Douglas Hodge does a brilliant job as the endearingly unsettling curator Rolo Haynes. We enter with Nish (Letitia Wright), and hear a couple of stories about a device that lets you feel the emotions of another person, as well as another that allows consciousness to be moved to another person or inanimate object.
These are both serviceable Black Mirror stories, but the final reveal is that this museum houses a copy of convicted murderer Clayton Leigh (Babs Olusanmokun), in an attraction where you can make him relive his electric chair execution. It turns out our seemingly innocent Nish is his daughter, here to free him and instead put Rolo Haynes in the situation he profited from. The two stories Haynes narrates are only vaguely connected to this, though, which make them feel slightly out of place. The first having a separate credit at the end makes it feel like it was, indeed, another idea that was jammed into the episode.
As a whole, Black Museum is oddly unsatisfying. Nish may be just in her efforts to release her father, but trapping someone else in that horrible scenario makes it hard to like her, either. There is no one left to root for, and the best Black Mirror episodes have had characters with sparks of potential redemption. San Junipero, Hang the DJ… Black Museum, on the other hand, has an ending where the Black Museum is literally burned down. Maybe the series is doing the same.
Season 4 is a serviceable season of Black Mirror, with shining moments like Hang the DJ. It falls down when it is too preoccupied with keeping up the image of Black Mirror; there is a definite effort to connect all the episodes of this series, as most evidenced by Black Museum. Fans have been wondering about whether it was all in the same universe for a long time, and we have the answer. A problem arises from this, as the anthology format was one of the greatest strengths of the show. We saw these situations, we saw the horrors that could come from technology if used in the wrong way. Then the episodes ended, often without giving us a happy ending of any sort.
There haven’t been direct sequels, where the good guys saved the day. Very rarely was there even good characters, and this brutal honesty was what set Black Mirror apart. The idea of it all being in the same world breaks that, and gives us resolutions to these situations. News reports show technology from previous episodes being stopped. We see that the world goes on. Black Mirror is giving us more time to accept that the world will keep going, and that lessons the devastating impact the episodes can have.
If the show is to return for a fifth season, then the way it presents episodes needs to develop. Stories like Hang the DJ, with subtlety to their discussion of contemporary life, are what the series should target. We’re used to the shock moments now, so much so that the quieter episodes are having bigger impacts. Look at how much San Junipero stood out in Season 3.
So let’s be done with the climaxes of people having to kill a child, or slit their own throat. We get it now, society is awful in many different ways. Now we have seen the parts we don’t like, Black Mirror has a brilliant opportunity to show us how to make it better.