REVIEW: ‘BLACK MIRROR: SEASON 4’ DECLARES THE NETFLIX SHOW’S VIRTUOSITY WITH STAGGERING CONFIDENCE
2017 may have felt like we had been watching a constant stream of Black Mirror playing across news networks, but that only added to the catharsis of media polymath Charlie Brooker serving up his latest helping of his misanthropic parables on Netflix right at the very death of the annus horribilis. For a show that can claim credit for predicting that an internet troll would become the Leader of the Free World in Season 2’s The Waldo Moment and that a British Prime Minister would engage in bestiality to curry favor (allegedly) in the show’s infamous 2011 debut in the UK, we can only watch on in awe and horror at this fresh batch of tech-laden, controversy-baiting prophecies. But can Black Mirror stay one step ahead of the game as its world darkly seeps into our own with increasing frequency?
As a distinctly, single-serving anthology show, we will be reviewing each episode individually to give you the full lowdown on the latest season of Netflix’s sleeper hit.
1. ‘USS CALLISTER’
Black Mirror goes intergalactic in a surprisingly reverent take on Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek where our heroes bring peace and justice to the galaxy in a noble fashion. Only kidding! It’s actually about a schlubby CTO vindictively wreaking revenge on his unknowing work colleagues by recreating them inside a modded virtual reality via their DNA. USS Callister is a wildly inventive update on the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” where the participants are coerced into Trek cliches by a capricious tyrant with absolute power over their physiques and environment.
It’s also a further exploration of the Black Mirror-patented idea of “Cookies” – human consciousnesses recreated wholesale inside simulations – that first appeared in the White Christmas episode, which we learn the origins of in a later episode. The spiteful CTO/Captain is played superbly by Matt Damon-alike, Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Fargo), who channels the late, great Philip Seymour-Hoffman with consummate sleaze to produce one of BM‘s most memorable and subversive villains. At first, we believe we are to root for his put-upon Wozniak-styled tech nerd but it soon becomes clear that a life sentence inside his bespoke sci-fi hell is handed out for the merest slight on his dubious character.
If one was so disposed, you could draw parallels with a certain sitting POTUS given the thin-skinned and petty nature of Plemons’ character and his distinctly anti #MeToo attitude towards his female crew members. However, USS Callister seems to be a more general allegory for the malevolent hackers and trolls who plague online communities and social media. It’s also the funniest chapter yet in Black Mirror that has an uncharacteristically happy ending for the (in)famously doom-laden show. That this triumphant conclusion is reached by a virtual character blackmailing her real life counterpart over her illicit photographs is par for the course as Black Mirror plays its greatest hits to create a veritable blockbuster of an overture for Season 4.
In a far more subdued take on the Black Mirror universe (eagle-eyed fans will have spotted the many easter eggs throughout previous episodes that confirm Black Mirror as a shared universe), Arkangel centers around a coming-of-age tale with a distinctive twist. After a difficult birth of her daughter and her brief disappearance as a toddler, helicopter parent, Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt), implants her daughter, Sara (Brenna Harding), with the new Arkangel system. This dream app for all overbearing parents not only tracks the whereabouts of her daughter and monitors her through her POV but it also auto-censors any stressful or disturbing sites from Sara’s view.
This is perfect for keeping Sara calm when she has to walk past a fearsome guard dog every day, not so great when her grandfather has a heart attack while babysitting her. Of course, the real drama emerges when Sara grows into a typically errant and sensation-seeking teenager and Marie cannot resist the temptation to see what her daughter is up to. A session of illegal drug taking and underage sex later, Sara discovers to her horror that her mother is still using the app to keep tabs on her after Marie slips a morning after pill into her smoothie and a final showdown commences.
In an episode that posits one of Black Mirror‘s more intriguing and subtle concepts (as per usual for BM, the tech here doesn’t actually cause the drama, it just enables it) which is directed with astute maturity by none other than Jodie Foster, it’s a real shame that it can’t stick the landing. Instead, it literally throws a violent tantrum and runs off leaving us none the wiser as to what the lesson was. It’s a jarring and disappointing denouement that proves the last two minutes of a Black Mirror episode are often more important than the preceding running time. If the conclusion had been more congruent and a crucial sub-plot concerning Sara’s impinged free will and socialization was not left relatively untouched, then Arkangel would have cemented itself on the highest echelon of the show’s esteemed legacy rather than the technically-assured curio it ultimately finishes as.
It’s of little surprise that this Hitchcock-inspired take on Scandi-drama directed by misery-merchant, John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road), is perhaps the most maliciously bleak hour of television you will witness this – or any other – year. That isn’t to say this isn’t scintillatingly tense stuff that will keep you aghast while on the edge of your seat throughout, but those who have found themselves queasy at Black Mirror‘s amoral sadism before should probably skip ahead to the more optimistic fourth episode.
Crocodile (don’t you just love BM‘s deliciously threatening ambivalence in its episode titles) concerns ambitious architect, Mia Nolan (Andrea Riseborough), going to extraordinary and lethal lengths to protect a dark secret from her past. The trademark Black Mirror hook here is that her actions are threatened to be revealed by insurance investigator, Shazia Akhand (Kiran Sonia Sawar), and her nifty memory recorder as she pieces together the events of an unrelated accident on the night of Mia’s brutal silencing of an old friend.
The machine in question is a nice riff on both of Blade Runner‘s distinctive gadgets, the Voight-Kampff Machine and the Esper Photo Analyzer, that can record the memories of an individual’s recollection of the events in question. It certainly causes quite the predicament for Mia who persistently views Joseph Stalin’s mantra of “Death solves all problems – no man, no problem” as the solution to her problems as her psychopathic crusade begins to unravel with tragic consequences. Again, though, the technology here is merely an enabler for (in)human-driven drama as Black Mirror seemingly seeks to revert the common misunderstanding that the show is inherently technophobic (good luck interpreting any other sentiment from the final two episodes, however).
The end result is one of this season’s better offerings that will forever change your opinion of Bugsy Malone‘s cheery anthem “We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted Be” as a life-affirming ode to optimism. Crocodile is an ultra-dark and unsettling entry into the Black Mirror canon that employs masterful attention to detail and plotting to keep its more hysterical elements in check aided magnificently by Hillcoat’s atmospheric direction, which could almost be considered serene if it wasn’t for all the cold-blooded self-preservation and infanticide.
4. HANG THE DJ
Showrunner Charlie Brooker has based his career, both as a media analyst and screenwriter, on being an archly-cynical curmudgeon with a wit so dry he is often enlisted by the British government as a flood defense (I may be over-elaborating on his patriotic duties a little there). So, the elating oasis of hope that was Season 3’s San Junipero came as both a pleasant, Emmy-winning surprise and a rare ray of sunshine in a universe so perpetually encased in darkness, its inhabitants solely rely on sound and smell to catch their prey.
There is strong case to be made that Hang the DJ (a title inspired by Manchester’s finest musical export, The Smiths) is Season 4’s answer to Season 3’s aforementioned palette-cleansing delicacy, though it does take a while to reveal its true optimistic nature. The year is… oh, whatever it is any given episode of Black Mirror, and our two protagonists, Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole), find themselves on an algorithmically-mandated first date in a Logan’s Run-style society where even your one-night stands, romantic failures, and eventual soulmates are dictated by The System (cutely called “Coach”, but we know they mean “Alexa” really).
Of course, given Black Mirror‘s fondness for skewering trend-setting modern tech, it was only a matter of time until it took aim at Tinder and Brooker swipes right on pillorying the dating app in this episode. Or, at least initially that appears to be his desire anyway. For the vast majority of Hang the DJ‘s running time, it seems that Black Mirror has lost its mojo somewhat with a trite Orwellian depiction of an Ikea-furnished world where Google Home has gotten too big for its boots. But, as previously stated about the significance of the final minutes of a Black Mirror episode, the worn, dystopian rug is swept firmly from under our, and the maverick couple’s, feet to reveal the whole shebang was actually Cupid drawing back his bow for 45 minutes.
It is a delightfully sweet and ingenious conclusion to an episode that for long periods seemed to be treading water in the same pool as the modern cult classic, The Lobster. Does it match the cathartic joy of “Heaven is a Place on Earth” blaring out on a car stereo in San Junipero? Not quite (then again, what does?), but it does show that Black Mirror‘s newly found advocacy for the life-enhancing nature of near-future technology wasn’t just a one-off. It does remain a fleeting one, however.
Did you enjoy Season 4’s little soiree through the passage of tech-assisted true love? Good, because it’s back to the grind of an automation-induced apocalypse in the monochrome Metalhead. In what is an essentially solo vehicle for Shakespearean actress, Maxine Peake (a bonafide national treasure over in the UK), we see a desolate, overcast land of abandoned warehouses and farmhouses where humanity has all but given up hope. But that’s enough about the north of England (ho ho ho).
This is Black Mirror at its most stark as it tells a pared-down tale of one woman’s running battle with a militarized Robopet. Yes, that’s right, the downfall of modern civilization as depicted in this episode has seemingly been caused by a pack of predatory stocking-fillers. I say “seemingly” because there is very little in the way of world-building present throughout the lean running time so we are to assume that these quadripedal toasters (simply called “dogs” by the survivors) are the cause of our near extinction. These indefatigable machinated menaces look like the kind of thing a Cylon would keep as a pet and possess a Swiss-Army knife-like array of lethal functionality that quickly turns Peak’s life into a deadly game of cat & mouse when her soon-to-be-depleted band of survivors discovers one inside a warehouse.
It is in some ways refreshing to see one Black Mirror‘s highfaluting ideas reduced down to such a raw state, but it’s also slightly unsatisfying to be starved of background details in this manner. However, Peak’s typically outstanding performance and David Slade’s (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) tension-laden direction which recalls Spielberg’s breakthrough thriller Duel, lifts what could have been a mere excursion into something that constitutes far more than the sum of its meager parts. Hopefully, given Black Mirror‘s newfound propensity for re-visiting previous episode’s concepts, we could return to this particular world in a more expanded, fleshed-out form.
6. BLACK MUSEUM
Speaking of re-visiting concepts, Season 4’s final dalliance with malignant machines is a veritable black celebration of the show’s ethos and past. An anthology within an anthology, Black Museum recounts three tales regarding the origin of Black Mirror‘s “Cookies”. While Black Mirror often gets compared to The Twilight Zone and is arguably the only show since worthy of such comparisons to Rod Serling’s seminal collection of sci-fi & horror parables, here it takes on the format of Tales From the Crypt as museum curator, Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), regales his lone visitor, Nish (Letitia Wright), with the history of some of his macabre exhibits.
The museum itself is a collection of gizmos and artifacts that represent some of the greatest misdeeds in the Mirror-verse (it is something of an Easter Egg Extravaganza, to say the least). The first piece concerns a consciousness interface that once upon a time allowed a doctor to feel a patient’s pain to diagnose their condition. Of course, there are “complications” which lead to the good doctor becoming addicted to pain, first his own and then of others, that forces the tech to be banned but not before the seed is planted for the evolution of the Cookies. It is a gleefully gruesome mini-chapter that somehow compresses the entirety of a feature-length horror flick into just 20 minutes as Season 4’s climax begins to swagger with confidence and self-awareness.
Next up, is a seemingly benign monkey plushy that prompts a tale of a loving couple who suffer the tragedy of a hit and run and the wife’s comatose consciousness is implanted into her husband (yeah, that predictably gets old quick) before it is implanted into said cuddly toy so she can continue to see her son. Her means of expression are limited to a simple binary of a smiley and frowning emoticon that the monkey communicates in simple, child-friendly sentences. This little experiment leads to the UN mandating that Cookies must have at least five emotional responses and are people in their own right, ergo, deletion is considered murder (so guess who’s still in the monkey?).
Haynes finishes his tour with his star exhibit: a holographic recreation of a death row inmate who must relive his execution at the flick of a switch from visitors, who then get to keep his screaming consciousness in a souvenir keyfob. And it is this gross violation of Cookie-rights that Nish has been after all along as Black Museum finishes with a wicked sting in its tail. Black Museum may be Black Mirror writ large as it relishes Brooker’s favorite and familiar themes, but it is also a glorious indulgence for a show that very nearly reaches the top of its game as the Black Museum is consigned to history itself.
Despite its near universal acclaim, Black Mirror has often struggled for consistency – a common peril of anthology shows. The brilliantly sickening sucker punch of Season 3’s Shut Up and Dance quickly followed by the “kiss it all better” San Junipero overshadowed the remaining and considerably lesser four episodes of Black Mirror‘s proper Netflix debut (the previous shorter seasons and Christmas Special had been produced by Channel 4 in the UK). Although there’s nothing here that can quite reach the heights of Season 3’s two formidable tent poles, Season 4 makes great strides in addressing this by significantly reducing the gap in quality between its best episodes (a dead-heat between USS Callister and Hang the DJ) and its “least” best (Metalhead) giving Black Mirror a genuine sense of both versatility and virtuosity that almost all other media can only stand back and admire.
Black Mirror: Season 4 cements the show’s peerless reputation as the most pertinent, incisive, and essential show on television. Given its rigorous dissemination of a world we are constantly on the brink of arriving in, it’s probably for the best that we only get it rationed out in such small portions, though.