What does hope look like in the bleakest of futures? Staring down the barrel of the unknown, where all is threatening to go wrong—or is going wrong—there’s a tendency to imagine only the worst. Black Mirror 's creator, Charlie Brooker, has often been accused of presenting only the worst-case scenarios in his anthology sci-fi series, and there's been a certain fatigue at the idea of more bleakness when entering into the show’s fourth season, which premieres today on Netflix—especially given the current state of the world. But there’s a sense of hope intruding into Black Mirror, finally.
The first glimmer of positivity came last year with the celebrated “San Junipero”, about two women finding each other through time and then spending the rest of eternity together in a virtual heaven. Not without its own moments of darkness and despair, “San Junipero” nonetheless offered a vision of what technology might offer humanity that wasn’t just a nasty poke in the eye.
Buoyed no doubt by the positive reaction to “San Junipero”—but perhaps also as a reaction to The Times We’re Living In—Brooker appears to have internalized the lessons of pushing back against total despair. If nearly the entirety of Black Mirror’s run has been defined by asking what the worst possible aspects of humanity would be because of technology, the show’s fourth season adds one more element: resistance.
Of these six new episodes, four have endings one could describe as optimistic—which isn’t to say they’re all definitively happy endings. This is still Black Mirror, after all. But the darkest of them, “Arkangel,” tells the story of a mother who implants her young daughter with an internal tracker and the ability to see through her eyes and pixelate out anything offensive in her life. She eventually witnesses her daughter’s most private teenage moments, and starts meddling in her life. In the final scene, the daughter discovered what her mother has done and runs away, with the tablet—her only means of finding her daughter—destroyed.
Taken from another angle, the episode imagines a clear breaking point for the misuse of such technology—and for overbearing parenting in general. You can only go so far before human push back and demand better from each other.
The episodes “USS Callister” and “Black Museum” examine how men use AI technology to act out their darkest fantasies, treating the lives of the people around them as playthings. Both also end with the female protagonists pushing back and defeating their male oppressors; “USS Callister” specifically ends with a group of AI copies of human beings, living inside a simulated Star Trek-like game universe, free to explore an infinite universe. Meanwhile, “Black Museum” ends in an act of vengeance; it’s undeniably satisfying to watch a woman turn the tables on a malevolent scientist who tortured her father for decades.
Black Mirror suggests there is meaning in the will to not be bound by other humans's grossest impulses. Sometimes, the show even admits that technology can be positive, too, as is the case in the season’s most fun episode, “Hang the DJ." The episode focuses on a man and woman signed up for an unique dating app that gives couples the ability to see exactly how long the relationship will last. Once their time is up, they must part. The idea is that the system learns enough about each participant to pair them with their soulmate, but we're actually witnessing an AI simulation (a favorite plot device of Brooker's as of recent) run over and over again, designed to block given matches in the interest of seeing how likely come together despite the odds.
And there's real euphoria attached to the ending of “Hang the DJ,” even if the episode contains societal grey areas of its own. But throughout the majority of its new season, Black Mirror finds hope in the proposition that, despite the odds and our own self-destructive impulses, there’s some fight in us still.
Follow Corey Atad on Twitter.