Like dipping your hand into a bag of liquorice allsorts, every episode of Black Mirror is a different shape, a different texture, a different flavor, but each installment reflects a central anxiety: how might technology trap us rather than set us free? To answer this, Black Mirror cleverly favors subtlety over bombast, almost always preferring to explore this question via small-scale drama as opposed to overblown sci-fi space opera. Even with Netflix money flowing through the kitty, writer and producer Charlie Brooker arrows in on individual people and their particular anxieties rather than getting carried away with techno-melodrama.
By virtue of being an anthology, half the fun is debating your favorite episode. For instance, the Emmy-award-winning “San Junipero” is the critical darling of season 3 but I much prefer “Shut up and Dance” from that series, a savage game of cat and mouse between a wide-eyed teen and a hacking cartel. “Be Right Back” is my standout from season 2, but I’m less keen on “White Bear”; I love “The National Anthem” and “The Entire History of You” but dislike “Fifteen Million Merits” – and so on. Everyone is going to have their own preferences, but the good news is that season 4 offers something to chew on no matter where you’re sitting.
First up is “Crocodile,” a grim, Patricia Highsmith-esque murder story set in an unnamed city covered under several sheets of snow. Mia Nolan is a local resident, happily married several years on from a past trauma. Then her former flame comes calling, bringing old memories to the surface. A parallel story follows an insurance broker (Kiran Sawar) who is trying to piece together an insurance claim using a new piece of tech dubbed the Recaller. The Recaller is a beige box shaped like something preserved from the Nostromo that lets Sawar form a rough cut video of subjects’ memories. The two stories entwine in devastating fashion as blood spills, juxtaposed against the luxurious landscapes of this snow-capped wonderland. “Crocodile” cuts like ice with a brilliant ending to boot.
“Arkangel” is next and is directed by Jodie Foster. The move to Netflix has made this an international show and the darling of Hollywood heavyweights to boot. Set in a slice of suburban America, it explores the relationship between a neurotic mother (played wonderfully by Rosemarie DeWitt) and her daughter over several formative years.
The titular Arkangel chip gives DeWitt the power to track her daughter’s movements day or night, but as her child begins to grow older, she tries to keep her neurotic tendencies in check. “Arkangel” is a small-scale story told in intimate brush strokes that makes plausible claims about the pitfalls of technology’s increasing ability to invade our lives. It’s understated and all the more powerful because of it.
“Hang the DJ” is another change of pace and a play on the date night movie. It’s twee, it’s romantic and it’s almost certainly not what you’re going to expect. I particularly like the casting here, as Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole enjoy obvious chemistry without ever appearing to be an obvious match. Without giving too much away, this is a story cut from the same cloth as “San Junipero” and one that trades on the affections people still hold for the Emmy-winning episode.
My favorite of the season is also, ironically, the biggest in spectacle. After five minutes of “USS Callister” I was scratching my head. “A parody of Star Trek and Doctor Who?” I asked myself. “Where’s the Black Mirror in that?” But then the story began to unfurl and its Machiavellian brilliance hit home.
Brooker used to be a games writer for PC Zone magazine in the UK and those formative years are influential here: the Callister is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game with a catch. The characters are real people, not pixel-based avatars, and they’re led by a Kirk wannabe named Daley (Jesse Plemons).
By day Daley is a tight-lipped programmer who struggles to look people in the eye; by night he inhabits the Callister, back straight, head aloft, eyes ablaze. The way Brooker and director Toby Haynes demonstrate these two personalities is remarkable, and Plemons delivers a performance to match. I think “Callister” is one of the strongest efforts in the entire Black Mirror canon, and it uses bombast in exactly the right way.
Episode five, “Metalhead,” is reminiscent of Spielberg’s 1978 classic Duel – a hyper focused chase story that features a disarmingly cute drone with tick-tocking robotic heels that spell a deadly portent. It’s a conscious change of pace with a minimal story and a black and white color palette to match.
The one letdown here is episode six, “Black Museum,” which follows a dastardly museum curator who spends the duration of the outing telling a teenage girl about his worst (best) exhibits. Cue flashbacks of technology delivering untold horrors and you’ve got the most half-baked story of the lot; one that feels like it’s stuffed with ideas but lacking in real substance. Technology is evil for the sake of being evil and all people are simple pawns. Even the twist ending sprung at the eleventh hour doesn’t save “Black Museum” from ignominy.
That being said, season 4 is a strong showing that looks absolutely wonderful on screen. The money afforded by the Netlix acquisition has meant first-rate directors paired with bigger budgets – and it shows. But it’s the small details I love the most; the driverless car here, the inconspicuous chip there. It all blends in so seamlessly with the world that’s built that you never look twice
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Also, if there’s one complaint I’ve had about the show in the past, it’s that the denouement of individual episodes hasn’t always matched the quality of the initial set up. That’s been rectified here, though. “Crocodile,” “Arkangel,” “Hang the DJ,” “USS Callister,” “Metalhead” and “Black Museum” all blast off into the credits sequence in satisfying fashion. It’s just a pity that that last one meanders its way through a flabby 60 minutes to get there. In the end, you’ll have to wait until December 29th to see whether you agree.
Conceivably, Brooker can’t go on forever. How many stories of technological unease can you dream up, even if you are, as Brooker admits, in a constant state of paranoia about the future? But for while it lasts, Black Mirror is a treat for TV and a show that Netflix should pin to its front page with pride. It’s one of those dramas that you finish watching and head to your desk, determined to pen something half as good, or sit back and think: “Good lord, that’s clever.” And no, you don’t need to be an iPhone fundi or an Xbox nerd to let Black Mirror‘s alchemy wash over you.
You don't need to be an iPhone fundi or an Xbox nerd to let Black Mirror's alchemy wash over you. Season 4 is a strong showing all around, sporting one of the best episodes of the entire series (USS Callister).