Ending the year with a bang, Netflix will release the fourth season of Charlie Brooker’s twisted sci-fi series Black Mirror at the stroke of midnight on Friday, Dec. 29. The show is a clever if frightening comment on technology and its impact, for better or worse, on society. This isn’t the kind of series that you binge. Instead, each unsettling episode forces you to think about the world from a new perspective, challenging everything you believe about technology, the benefits of which are often outweighed by consequences.
Black Mirror found mainstream success last year with its San Junipero episode, and there’s another light-hearted (for this show, anyway) look at young romance this season, but for the most part, that’s not the stuff that excites me. I like the wicked lessons, and sometimes warnings, that this series offers as it holds a dark mirror up to our society, which is increasingly obsessed with and reliant on technology.
I quite liked the fourth season overall, which seems to be more consistent than past seasons, with fewer ups-and-downs. The highs may not be as high as past seasons, but neither are the lows. These six episodes also feature enough thematic variety that they offer something for everyone. For me, there’s a bleakness to Black Mirror that keeps me coming back, having grown tired of the steady stream of hope that the rest of television aims to provide. After all, we’re in the midst of some dark days, so this may be the vision of the future that we collectively deserve.
I’m listing the episodes not based on how they’re presented on Netflix, or from best to worst, but rather, in the order I personally chose to watch them. Minor spoilers lurk ahead, just in case you’d rather go in completely pure. Honestly though, I wouldn’t worry much.
I decided to start with this Toby Haynes-directed episode since it’s the one that has really stuck out in Netflix’s Season 4 ad campaign, and now I know why the streaming service has been highlighting it. USS Callister is absolutely fantastic. It’s one of the longest Black Mirror episodes ever, at times feeling like an actual feature film… even though it draws from television, and Star Trek to be more specific. I’ll be careful not to spoil this one, as it’s very careful about the way it doles out information.
Plemons basically plays the dickish captain of the USS Callister, an Enterprise-like starship featuring a crew comprised of submissive stereotypes who help their fearless and fearsome leader defeat a campy villain (Billy Magnussen) over and over. Is this an actual show? Someone’s fantasy? A hand-crafted virtual reality? And if it’s the latter, how did all these people come to populate it, and whose perspective is this story being told from, anyway?
All of the actors (Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel and Osy Ikhile among them) have very tricky roles to play, and they pull it off with aplomb — especially Plemons, whose character may be the most terrifying techie we’ve seen since The Social Network. Playing God within the world of Black Mirror never ends well for anyone… if there is an end at all.
Next to Hang the DJ, this may be the most simple and straight-forward episode of the bunch, in that it’s a fairly typical monster movie, except the monster in question is an unstoppable killing machine that looks like a robot dog. Clearly, these impeccably designed creatures are patrolling the post-apocalyptic countryside, willing to annihilate anything that moves. There’s an interesting little twist at the end of the episode when you learn what all the characters (led by Maxine Peake) were willing to lay their lives on the line for, but it’s also an incredibly human reveal.
This should get director David Slade a lot of work, as the direction of this black-and-white episode is absolutely flawless. However, at the end of the day, this is still a standard chase movie, and the story doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the kind of deep discussion to which many Black Mirror fans have grown accustomed.
This is Jodie Foster’s entry, and it’s one of the better episodes of the season, if only because I think there are a lot of parents out there who might succumb to the dark side presented within.
Rosemarie DeWitt plays an over-protective mom who after losing track of her young daughter on the playground, decides to install/implant an app called Arkangel within the child. The app allows Dewitt to track her daughter’s whereabouts and her health, and it also allows her to view what her daughter is seeing, as well as filter those images. It’s not such a big deal when the app turns the aggressive dog next door into a blurry blob of pixels because it might scare the young girl, but it becomes increasingly disturbing as that girl grows up and begins to experiment with sex and drugs as a teenager (Brenna Harding).
The key to this episode, and the reason why it works as well as it does, is DeWitt’s nuanced performance, which allows the viewer to empathize with her as a single mother, and understand her character’s motivations. She’s not just a caricature of an over-protective mother, she makes you understand why she’d want to filter out certain experiences. Of course, in true Black Mirror fashion, she gets her just desserts for meddling in her daughter’s personal life. As with USS Callister, Brooker makes it’s clear there are consequences when you abuse your power in the near-future.
This was probably the most twisted episode of the season thanks to Andrea Riseborough’s chilling performance. She plays a woman who helps her husband cover up a traffic accident, and gets away with it. That is, until an insurance claims investigator (Kiran Sonia Sawar) begins to snoop around a separate accident, using a device that can access memories, including those of potential witnesses. When she knocks on Riseborough’s door hoping to examine her memories and see if she witnessed anything regarding the unrelated accident, she gets more than she bargained for.
Riseborough’s cool, calm and collected demeanor here is downright disturbing, as her character will stop at nothing to cover up her crimes. And we do mean nothing. Leave it to The Road director John Hillcoat to deliver the bleakest episode of the season.
This is another “long” episode for Black Mirror, though it introduces one of the series’ best ideas (originally conceived by famed magician Penn Jillette, no less) — that of a “pain addict.” Imagine being in pain, but you’re not sure what’s wrong with you, so you go to the hospital to try to communicate that feeling to a doctor. Sometimes the doctor can recognize the symptoms and offer a diagnosis, but other times they can’t, and precious time can be wasted. But what if that doctor had an implant that allowed him to feel everything his patients feel, so long as they’re wearing a certain device on their heads? Can you imagine what might happen if that doctor became addicted to pain? That’s the gist behind one of three several strands that tie together via Rolo Haynes’ Black Museum, a bizarre sideshow on the outskirts of Las Vegas that is brimming with callbacks to past Black Mirror episodes.
Douglas Hodge plays the oddball proprietor of this sinister establishment, and it’s clear he’s willing to do anything to drive up business, even offering one woman (Letitia Wright) a personal tour of the horrors on display. Which brings us to the final strand, that of a woman whose conscience is placed inside of her boyfriend’s mind after an accident leaves her comatose. The woman can see, hear and experience everything that the man (Babs Olusanmokun) does, so she can watch her son grow up and feel his hugs, but she also has to watch as women move in on her man, who slowly begins to go crazy with a backseat driver shouting inside his head all day long.
Directed by Colm McCarthy, this is a pretty solid episode about the dangers of advancements in medicine, as it concerns life, death and eternity. It serves as yet another warning that progress always comes with a downside.
HANG THE DJ
If you liked San Junipero, you’ll probably like this episode as well, since director Tim Van Patten is clearly trying to capture the same magic as that Emmy-winning installment. The problem is that it just isn’t all that interesting, and for once, neither are the leads. Joe Cole and Georgina Campbell star as two young people who thanks to a new dating app, are forever going on a series of dates — both with each other, and with other people. At the beginning of a date, the app tells you how long you’re supposed to be together. For some, it’s 12 hours, which means you might as well spend the night having sex. For others, it could be a year, which is a long time if you don’t actually like the person you’re paired with. Cole and Campbell have a fleeting encounter that they’re eager to relive, but when they get the chance, a minor betrayal threatens their future as a couple.
I’m a big fan of Cole, but I still don’t see why Campbell would want to be with him, as his character is a bit of a blank slate, so it was hard to root for them to wind up together, without giving away whether they do or not. While I liked the end of this episode, I still found this episode kind of mopey overall, even if it raises good questions about online dating — a nightmare in its own right, even without the context of Black Mirror.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief