Four seasons in, Black Mirror has created a bit of a problem for itself. Because so many of its premises are fairly similar to older episodes. Because the show tries to hem so close to reality and where our technology is actually heading, it leads to some retreads that don’t hold up as well the second time around.
It’s hard not to watch most of the episodes in Season 4 and not draw direct correlations with past ones. Sometimes that works to its benefit and sometimes to its detriment.
Altogether, the latest go-round of Netflix’s anthology show has some high-highs and low-lows (perhaps the lowest low amongst the show’s 19 episodes to-date). Let’s take a look at each of them in terms of where they rank head-to-head and why.
6. Black Museum
As an anthology episode, Black Museum is invariably going to be compared to “White Christmas” the Jon Hamm-led Christmas special. Following the same formula (narrator tells personal stories of tech gone wrong and eventually we find out not all is what it seems), it’s not surprising that this second go-round feels stagnant by comparison.
The first vignette plays out like a Saw short. The second vignette was basically a retread of one done in “White Christmas.” And by the time you get to the third one, you know where all of this is going and it feels a bit tired.
What is most surprising about the episode is how is how mean it all feels. That was the downfall of “White Christmas” and they ended up doubling down on that here, instead of taking a different tact. Douglas Hodge is a good actor, but his turn as Rolo Haynes here is a bit over-the-top and distracting, rather than engaging.
The episode also seems to know all of this and peppers the displays throughout the museum with easter egg references to previous Black Mirror episodes, as if it’s trying to distract you. (It seems to have worked given today’s pop culture penchant that everything is linked and referenced).
Good episodes of the show make you feel uncomfortable, but this one either feels gross or ugly and sometimes both. Each vignette also feels like a Black Mirror story that wasn’t good enough to be its own episode and perhaps that’s why they were cobbled together here. Even with a payoff that’s supposed to be positive, it’s hard to come away from the season-ender feeling entertained.
It’s been said that part of what makes Black Mirror so good is that most of the episodes introduce a future technology, but ultimately make the story about the human beings involved. It’s a tricky line to walk, however, because if you make the technology incidental to the story, then it leaves you wondering why it needed to be included in the first place.
“Arkangel” concerns itself with Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt), a single mother who lives in constant worry about her daughter Sara. She signs up for a trial program that implants a chip inside Sara’s head that allows Marie to monitor everything her daughter is seeing, feeling, and doing. The helicopter parenting plot is laid on pretty thick, to the point where you can basically see where the story is going as Sara grows up, and the ending feels pretty much as you figured it would go.
Looking back on the episode, you could almost remove the entire chip plot point and still tell the same story without it. There seemed to be some interesting avenues that the story could have taken, such as the lonely Marie deciding to live vicariously through her daughter, or Marie attempting to maneuver her daughter’s life in the direction she wanted. Instead, we get a fairly boilerplate morality tale that felt a little out of place from the show. It also doesn’t help that the basic plot elements bring to mind the vastly superior “The Entire History of You” episode.
In recent seasons, Black Mirror has gotten praise for some episodes that offer a ray of hope or positive outcome. But that doesn’t mean the show still can’t get dark as fuck. Case in point, “Crocodile” is dark as fuck.
One of the more intriguing future technologies presented in Season 4, “Crocodile” features a device that allows an insurance claims investigator (Kiran Sonia Sawar) to see into people’s memories in order to corroborate what they say happened. Her story intersects with that of Mia (Andrea Riseborough), a successful businesswoman and mother with a dark secret in her past that keeps threatening to bubble up to the surface.
As we spend most of the episode watching them draw closer to one another without realizing it, we know what’s inevitably coming and the dread builds with it. Where things go after that, well, every time you think it’s gotten dark enough, it finds a way to drill down deeper.
Riseborough gives a standout performance as a woman who keeps finding out just how far she’s willing to go to keep her perfect-seeming life, but is losing her humanity every time she has to act on it. The Icelandic scenery is bleak and beautiful at the same time, making it the perfect metaphor for an episode about what lurks underneath our notions of people who “seem like good people.”
“Metalhead” comes in at 41 minutes, making it the shortest Black Mirror episode to date. But it packs so much into that time that you’re glad on behalf of your nerves that it didn’t last any longer.
The story is sparse and simple. Shot entirely in black and white, a trio of people investigate a warehouse in a post-apocalyptic world. They accidentally come across a robotic “dog” that immediately activates and brutally kills two of them. Bella (Maxine Peake) escapes, but finds herself in a race for her life as the dog can track her by sensor, sight, and sound. Every time she thinks she’s outsmarted it or gotten away, the dog is relentless in its pursuit and constructed to kill her in any number of ways.
“Edge of your seat” is an overused term, but it’s extremely apt in this context. Even the calm moments fill you with anxiety as you wonder how the dog will figure out how to get to Bella. Adding to the overwhelming dread is the fact that the story gives you no details. You don’t know what happened to the world. You don’t know why an apocalypse of some kind has happened. You don’t know who built these dogs and why. You can fill in your own ideas, but any answer you come up with only adds to the absolute terror that Peake puts on display.
Personally, the reveal that the humans basically sacrificed themselves to get a teddy bear for a child underscored the theory that these dogs were created as “pets” or toys to comfort us, which certainly puts an even darker spin on an already dark story.
2. USS Callister
We enjoyed “USS Callister” so much that we dedicated a standalone review of it. The first episode of the season was the most anticipated, given that all we knew was that it looked like an homage to Star Trek, starring Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Fargo, Friday Night Lights). Sure enough, it had some fun with the tropes and faux-forward-thinking mentality of the 60s TV program, but it also went far beyond that with its metaphor.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about USS Callister is the way it hooks audiences with the Star Trek homage, but quickly reveals itself to be about something bigger and more prescient than that. Ultimately, the episode feels more like a reaction to the Gamergate controversy and the ongoing battle against chauvinism and inhumane treatment that plagues the world of gaming and social media. That it can use the lens of old Star Trektropes to get there reminds us how, in many ways, things have not changed all that much.
“USS Callister” digs into so many different ideas that are relevant to the world today, it’s impressive they were able to do that while coupling it with the nostalgic aesthetic of Star Trek and the futuristic technology that allows the characters to be a part of it. It also leaves us with a hard-fought victory of an ending that might not be as much of a victory as you first think. Classic Black Mirror.
1. Hang the DJ
“Hang the DJ” is earning comparisons to last season’s “San Junipero,” and rightfully so as both episodes gave us the notion of a Black Mirror love story with a happy ending. It’s interesting to note that when looking at the two most recent seasons, you could make a case that the uplifting episodes are the best ones on a show known for bleakness and despair. Whether that’s the audience’s desire for catharsis or just coincidental remains to be seen.
Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are meeting for a first date, both of whom have the help of “Coach,” an AI system on a hand-held tablet they bring with them. Not only is it their first time meeting, but it’s also their first date in this system they’ve apparently signed up for. Checking with Coach, they find out they only have 12 hours left in their relationship before they must move on. Thus begins their lives in a system that pre-determines not only who you date, but how long you date them (one day, 36 hours, one year). In theory, every decision you make helps the system determine who your perfect match will be.
Also reminiscent of the social-media-centric “Nosebleed” from season three, “Hang the DJ” takes online dating to its dystopian limit, removing your ability to make decisions out of the equation and crunching the numbers, leaving you to mindlessly jump from fling to fling without worrying about connection or emotions. At least in theory. Along the way, Frank and Amy realize there’s got to be a better way, especially when the heart wants what it wants.
Cole and Campbell dazzle with their performances and use the whip-smart humor in the script to their advantage. You’re rooting for them from the get-go. And when the reality of their situation becomes clear, it makes for a satisfying spin on both the story and the notions of modern love.