About 10,950 times this year we’ve read the news and thought: "oh shit, this is like a Black Mirror episode." And now, at the end of 2017, when gifted a new season of our favorite dystopian Netflix show, we’re left wondering: can anything be darker than reality right now?
As it turns out, the answer is yes.
EPISODE 1: USS CALISTER
The first episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season stars Jesse Plemons as a schlubby, sexless white guy with an inferiority complex named Robert Daley who feels constantly slighted at his job; he’s the Chief Technology Officer at a company that creates highly immersive video games. He’s also a gamer himself, and a Star Trek—erm, sorry, “Space Fleet”—fan. Surprise! He’s also a gigantic asshole with an authoritarian bent.
What follows is a plot (almost) literally ripped from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Daley surreptitiously imports his coworkers’ DNA into a virtual world where they take on the form of Space Fleet crew members that exist purely for him to dominate and abuse. Daley’s computer program differs from Star Trek’s holodeck only in that the virtual crew are aware of their existence as abused virtual beings, and they’re pissed off about it.
The game-world/real-world dynamic is classic Black Mirror. It’s creepy (Plemons is a reliable villain at this point), it’s fun (although it inexplicably does away with the anachronistic film look that kicks off the episode midway through), and it’s slickly produced. Overall, very okay—it kind of hurt my feelings as a Star Trek fan, but I get it. It’s a fine commentary on the kinds of dorks who play nice at the office but harbor domineering male fantasies.
Given that Star Trek: Discovery and the Seth MacFarlane parody The Orville both aired this year, “USS Calister” is also more evidence that Black Mirror episodes are conceived entirely by an algorithm trained on Google search trends.
EPISODE 2: ARKANGEL
From the time she gives birth, Marie (played by Rosemarie Dewitt) is an anxious mom. But when Sarah, probably somewhere around age four, gets lost from the playground, Marie takes extreme measures. She takes her to a clinical trial office called Arkangel, where a woman injects a chip into Sarah’s head, enabling Marie to literally see everything her daughter sees on an iPad-like device. She also has the ability to censor what her daughter sees IRL through parental controls.
We don’t have Arkangel yet (that I know of) but parents can already track their kids on GPS systems made for families. And Sarah’s inability to connect with basic emotions reminds me of the multiple studies that suggest kids are no longer able to detect emotions properly because of technological intervention—parental controls block out her mother’s sadness and her grandfather’s funeral.
Marie, with the guidance of a therapist, decides to stop monitoring her daughter’s every move, and removes parental controls. A kid named Trick exposes Sarah to all the things she’s been missing, like porn and chainsaw-wielding serial killer movies. Sarah grows up, it seems, relatively normally after that, with the surveillance tempered. But when one day she decides to be the teen that she is—sneaking out with a friend—Marie succumbs to the Arkangel program, and taps into what Sarah is doing at the moment: losing her virginity to Trick, saying, "Fuck me harder." Think, for a second, if you mom could see and hear you having sex.
This starts the final unraveling: Marie finds out Trick is a drug dealer who lets Sarah try a line of coke, and then forbids him to see her. She crushes Emergency Contraception—like a souped-up Plan B—into one of Sarah’s smoothies. Sarah catches on and bludgeons her mom with the very same iPad-like device, the blood on her mom's face blurred out by parental controls.
Arkangel is like that essay you read about how European parents are so much chiller than American parents, coupled with a dose of the surveillance state. And it’s one that makes those leashes that parents put on their kids look totally reasonable. Easy Black Mirror fodder, executed with expert level creepiness.
EPISODE 3: CROCODILE
This one starts with what’s best described as a Fargo-esque crime unfolding during the serene mountainous opening of 1979 Estonian sci-fi Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel. A young couple driving home after an all-night rave hits and kills a person with their car, and instead of turning themselves in or calling an ambulance, they dispose of the body.
The grim tone snowballs, growing more oppressive, when the man (unnamed) and woman (Mia) get together again years after the accident. He, now a recovering alcoholic, wants to send a letter to the wife of their victim. Mia, a successful architect, thinks the risk of being caught is too great. So Mia kills her ex and, repeating the past, disposes of the body.
Meanwhile, an insurance investigator who can see people’s memories with a special machine (a bit silly, but a passable conceit) slowly narrows in on the killing while piecing together an unrelated accident involving a self-driving pizza cart.
I really liked this episode. It feels “small” in all the right ways, a micro drama playing out inside a tangibly larger world that gives us just the right number of peeks into society outside the confines of the taught cat-and-mouse game. I think it’s the best Black Mirror episode since season one’s “Be Right Back.”
EPISODE 4: HANG THE DJ
Last year’s “San Junipero” was a love story that had something to say. Season four’s love story, “Hang the DJ” is the rare episode of Black Mirror that fails to speak to much of anything, a problem with the premise itself more than the directing or acting, both of which are stellar.
“Hang the DJ” follows Amy and Frank through a dystopian Giver-esque world in which romantic partners are ultimately chosen by a series of failed relationships and an opaque algorithm (“everything happens for a reason,” the algorithm’s voice assistant regularly says). The premise is that everyone we date leads us ultimately to the person we’re meant to be with, but that in most cases we hang onto those failed relationships for far too long; you’ve got something to learn from your Tinder hookup, but you probably don’t need to go home for Thanksgiving with him.
So, the System puts an expiration date on relationships that are necessary but ultimately not great fits. After their 12-hour date together, Frank spends a year with a joyless bore who hates jokes and chicken tikka masala, while Amy gets stuck with a bro who insists on fucking the first night (“it’s better that way”), then slowly drifts from him after they realize their time is running short. This continues for a little while until the System puts Amy and Frank back together—this time, they agree to not look at their relationship’s expiration date, and the two continue to live in bliss until curiosity gets the better of Frank and he betrays Amy’s trust, throwing the whole system out of balance.
Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole are excellent as Amy and Frank, and overall it’s an entertaining hour of television, but one of the weakest episodes of Black Mirror. The show is at its best when it has something to say about society, our relationship with technology, and where we might be going in the future.
“San Junipero” succeeded because it grappled with the far-future but easy-to-imagine problem of what we leave behind when we become immortal. “Hang the DJ” lacks that sort of exploration, an introspection in what it means to be human and what we lose when we let technology run amok. The episode is nominally about online dating, or more broadly, the series’s first real attempt to take a deep look at the algorithmification of everything.
Last season’s “Nosedive” touched on a similar theme, but the algorithm in “Hang the DJ” is the type of black box algorithm we see with Facebook, Instagram, OkCupid, or, perhaps ironically, Netflix; it requires trust in a system that we don’t know the inner workings of and that we don’t have the power to change. That’s a powerful thing to explore, but “Hang the DJ” never really comes to a conclusion more powerful than “algorithms are bad,” and takes a late-episode detour into Black Mirror’s obsession with exploring digital consciousnesses and the nature of reality. These are powerful building blocks to play with, but ultimately this episode leaves nuance behind, making the whole episode feel a bit pointless as a commentary.
EPISODE 5: METALHEAD
It’s Christine meets Cujo meets Mad Max, shot in beautiful black and white. It doesn’t say much—and, crucially, doesn’t try to—but it is relatively entertaining.
The episode follows an unnamed woman on the run from a homicidal robot dog in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The evil robot is disarmingly cute from the moment we meet it, sitting curled up and tucked away in a warehouse. But the warm and fuzzies end as soon as the robot blows one of the woman’s companion’s head clean off with a gun attached to its arm, and the unrelenting chase begins.
There are some tense moments, like when the protagonist tries to wait out the robot dog as it sits at the base of a tree, unable to climb due to a damaged limb. And then, there’s the inevitable final standoff that has the protagonist holed up inside a veritable mansion, Home Alone-style, while the robot stalks her.
However, the plot contains surprisingly few of the white-knuckle scenarios that you’d expect in this kind of genre experiment. It also lacks the pulp to make up for it. The decision to make the robot’s main weapon a gun instead of vicious jaws or claws also significantly limits the gross-out kitsch factor that would have put “Metalhead” more in league with the cyber-horrors it emulates (visually, at least) like Tetsuo the Iron Man.
EPISODE 6: BLACK MUSEUM
I thought this episode was about the healthcare system, and then I thought it was about neurotechnology and consciousness and immortality, and then I thought it was about race, and now I think it’s about all of those things and probably others I haven’t figured out on first viewing.
“Black Museum” starts with our main character, Nish (Letitia Wright) visiting a museum that claims to be about crime. The museum’s owner Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) starts to show her around, an uneasy smile on his face. He reveals that he worked in neurotechnology at a hospital called St. Junipers (flashback to season 3!), where he created various devices and systems to transfer consciousness, or sometimes sensations and feelings, between people.
He talks Nish through three different experiments from his past. In the first, a doctor has a piece of hardware installed in his head that allows him to sense what his patients are experiencing when they wear a mesh cap. But what starts out as an exercise in better diagnoses and empathy ends up making him a sadomasochist, inflicting pain on people in order to get his fix.
Rolo’s second experiment involves a young family, but the mother, Carrie, is hit by a car when the son is still a toddler. After she spends years in a coma, Rolo convinces her husband Jack to try a device that lets Carrie essentially take a backseat in his brain and experience what he is experiencing—from hugs from their kid to cupcakes. My first thought was, “What happens when he meets another woman?” And inevitably, this happens, spurring Jack to eject Carrie out of his head and transfer her consciousness into a teddy bear to give to their son, Parker. This bear, where Carrie is effectively trapped, is at the Black Museum.
Both of these experiments start out with good intentions—trying to understand people who can’t speak for themselves. But in his third experiment, Rolo is no longer faking altruism. He convinces a prisoner, Clayton, who is convicted of murder, to sign over his consciousness, to live on after he is executed. Rolo promises that his family will be compensated. Instead, he installs this hologram of Clayton in the museum and allows visitors to execute it over and over again, wearing Clayton’s consciousness down to a soulless puddle of a human.
In a twist that reminds me of Get Out, it turns out that Nish is Clayton’s daughter and she’s here for revenge. She accuses Rolo of letting white supremacists and other scum take advantage of her father’s hologram, and slowly kills him and turns his experiment back on him—installing his consciousness in the hologram of Clayton. Then she takes the Carrie teddy bear and burns the Black Museum down. We find out that her own mother, who committed suicide after seeing Clayton, is now seated in Nish’s own consciousness.
This episode has it all. The Peter Thiel-esq quest for immortality, the subtle commentary on race and mass incarceration, the creepy potential of widespread brain hacking, and an actual museum dedicated to human exploitation. But for whatever reason, Rolo’s multiple flashbacks seem a bit tedious, the emotional rollercoaster gets a bit muted over time, and no one neurotechnology hits hard enough for me to worry—in the way I do about 15 Million Merits or Nosedive—that we’re on the cusp of self-destruction.