An anthology series comprised of episodes disparate in tone, style and genre, Black Mirror seems to demand some sort of ranking collecting them together more than most shows.
Here we arrange, in reverse order, the episodes of season 4, which is now streaming on Netflix.
Black Mirror has come so far now, with diverse genres, delayed plot device reveals and super-sized budgets. Some may find this to its detriment, preferring the simplicity of a Channel 4-era 'White Bear' or 'The Entire History of You', but if the show is still interested in making lower-budget, more character-heavy episodes and proving their worth, it needs to do better this.
The Jodie Foster-directed 'ArkAngel' has a straightforward plot, a child being given an implant that allows her mother to monitor her life through a tablet - tracking her location, seeing through her eyes and putting age restrictions on scenes that some may find upsetting IRL. You can glean this from the trailer and probably guess where it goes too, the mother being unable to resist continuing to use the device into her daughter's teens and meddling in those areas that tend to make parents go to Defcon 1, chiefly sex and drugs.
And that's really it. The daughter, played by the definitely older than teenage-looking Brenna Harding, goes ape upon the discovery of a Big Brother (Big Mother?) and beats her to near-death with the tablet, the mother later staggering out into the street covered in blood in an essentially shot-for-shot remake of that Skylar White scene in Breaking Bad.
Visually flat and miscast, 'ArkAngel' is fine, but is unlikely to be anyone's favourite episode of season 4.
For a more engaging riff on a very similar topic (parents wreaking havoc by intervening with their children's tech communications), check out Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children.
‘Crocodile’ has all the hallmarks of a Black Mirror classic: a devastating opening, breathtaking backdrop (Iceland) and a strong female lead in Andrea Riseborough, most recently seen in Billie Jean King biopic Battle of the Sexes.
The episode follows a successful businesswoman named Mia Nolan who, in her hotel room, murders a man whose hit-and-run she covered up three years previous after he resurfaces plagued with guilt and ready to come clean. In the following moments, Mia looks out the window contemplating her actions and in doing so becoming an unwitting witness to a non-fatal hit-and-run on the street below, an incident which sees the episode sprout a new narrative: a woman played by Kiran Sonia Sawa who works for Realm Insurance, a company which logs witness’ recollections using a device capable of dredging their personal memories.
Her deployment on this particular case sets her on a crash course towards a murderous confrontation with Riseborough's Mia, a woman whose survival instinct is to instantly rid the world of anyone who poses a threat to her freedom.
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At least we think that - because ‘Crocodile’ unravels in a predictable yet almost unbelievably reckless manner, refusing to spend anytime deliberating on what makes Mia tick as a character. She is perhaps the most unlikeable creation to have featured in Black Mirror (which says a vast amount) - it remains unclear whether this is the point (my guess is no).
The result - directed impressively by Lawless filmmaker John Hillcoat - is an often stylistically pleasing but disappointingly shallow equivalent to being hit over the head by a toaster for no real purpose. It’s closing shock and ensuing twist - Mia futilely murdering a blind baby in cold blood through fear the kid will have his memory dredged by police - is cut from the same ilk as the climax of season 3 standout ‘Shut Up and Dance.’
However, that payoff worked largely due to the disgusting realisation you'd been unknowingly rooting for a paedophile the entire time. You never once root for Mia, a shame considering the strength of the writing on display elsewhere.
‘USS Callister' begins a rip-roaring Star Trek homage spearheaded by Jesse Plemons’ Captain Kirk-style hero before its sudden segue into a critique of fan culture in all its extremity. As Robert Daley gets smothered in adoration from his crew, it seems for a brief moment that this particular world - for these characters at least - could be as perfect as the one depicted in season three’s Golden Globe-winner ‘San Junipero.’
Cue the episode's rug pull: this world is, in fact, a simulation of Daley’s favourite television show Space Fleet - in actuality, he’s plugged in at home experiencing it all in a coma-like state. An unsung co-founder of an IT company, Daley is miserable and the butt of his workmate's jokes - a far cry from his charismatic Space Fleet counterpart. Sparked by the arrival of Cristin Milotti’s new employee, viewers soon discover his crew are simulated versions of his colleagues imprisoned and punished for their real-life actions.
‘USS Callister' may parade as big-scale - it’s certainly the most cinematic episode to date - but, fortunately for fans, it remains a not-too-unfamiliar cautionary tale focused on a technology chillingly in unhinged hands. The switch-up of genres provides heaps of fun - the scenes which see the simulated versions of Daley's colleagues switch into character with their captain's arrival are a demented delight. The snsemble throw themselves into the material, with notable highlights Jimmi Simpson (Westworld) and Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum) standing out as just two of the crew trying to convince Milotti’s new addition to play ball.
Plemons’ Daley- an adult version of Toy Story neighbour Sid - is yet another memorable addition to the actor's credits, his arrival inciting genuine tension.
The 76 minute-long time is justified unlike, say, the ambitious if ultimately unfulfilling season three episode ‘Hated in the Nation,’ with Brooker’s succinct world-building inadvertently earmarking a story worthy of future exploration. ‘USS Callister’ has genuine spinoff legs if future ideas dry up.
‘Metalhead’ is the shortest Black Mirror episode to date but feels like the longest - which is the highest compliment you can pay it: a relentless heart-racing 38-minute stalk and slash in which the killer is a robotic guard dog turned deadly.
Led by a towering performance from Maxine Peake whose character, Bella, is forced to outwit the machine - think No Country for Old Men assassin Anton Chigurh with a steely makeover - ‘Metalhead’ is an episode comprised of shots designed to put your nerves through the shredder before reassembling them only to shred them all over again.
Set in a desolate seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape captured in a nightmarish black-and-white (director David Slade's savvy decision), this is as close the world will get to a David Lynch version of Steven Spielberg TV film Duel (a key inspiration, according to the writer). While the story flourishes in its simplicity, it’s Peake’s performance which elevates ‘Metalhead,’ her skills never failing to make you fear something that is - rather incomprehensibly - not there (the dog is complete CGI).
Details hint at a wider story which, upon re-watch, highlights the bravery of her character while simultaneously enhancing the notion that, away from this ultimately fatal hunt, hundreds more are being rendered prey by the deadly dogs ravaging this world - and going by ‘Metalhead’s success, there are no doubts viewers would watch every single one through their fingers as intently as they will this one. 'Metalhead' - perhaps the scariest Black Mirror episodes to date - slots comfortably into the upper echelons of episodes alongside standouts 'The Entire History of You' and 'White Bear.'
NB: “Golden Brown’ can stop being used in popular culture - its usage has officially peaked.
2. Black Museum
I assumed 'White Christmas' to contain Black Mirror's most hideous circumstance - being stuck in an empty digital simulation for years and years and years - but the new season's 'Black Museum' may have just topped it.
The show is good at making a futuristic world tangible and realistic. The episode's environment has an almost retro look, Letitia Wright's protagonist Nish pulling over her disheveled old car in the desert, and yet the solar charger she retrieves from the trunk lets you know we're in the near future. Apparently having a few hours to kill, she enters a nearby hard-up crime museum, where we're treated to not one but three exceedingly fucked up technologies.
The instantly creepy and unsettling owner and former experimental scientist, Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) details the history of a neural net exhibit - a story that was actually adapted from one written by magician Penn Jilette. Gripping and hard to watch in places, the tale - which we're encouraged to question thanks to skepticism from Nish - centres on a doctor he once gave the opportunity to feel patients' pain but without the physical consequences in order to better diagnose their malady. Dr. Dawson soon developed essentially algolagnia, a sexual attraction to the pain, and, after alienating his girlfriend with his desire to feel her pain via the neural net in the bedroom, took to "whittling away" his own body just for a fix of agony. The images of his self-mutilated face and body are horrifying, and when these actions were no longer enough - containing no element of fear - he kidnapped a homeless man, fitted him with the net, and tortured him, a hit Haynes likens to a "speedball" for the doctor. Only Black Mirror could temper this heinous scene with a boner joke.
Next up on the tour is a toy monkey that contains an exact digital copy of a woman who was previously in a coma. Transferred there by Haynes after her boyfriend couldn't stand having her implanted in his own brain, she is motionless, abandoned and only able to communicate with the binary response options of a toy. And yet even this isn't the bleakest-yet existence I was talking about at the start.
Reaching the "main attraction", we find a twisted combination of the previous two artifacts - a digitally uploaded former death row inmate who can be electrocuted again and again by paying customers. As visitors dwindled due to human rights protests, we learn the inmate - a black man - was shocked increasingly brutally by deep-pocketed white supremacists. We are in deepest, darkest Black Mirror territory here, reminiscent of 2017's breakthrough indie film Get Out.
In a twist, Nish reveals herself to not be a British traveller but the American daughter of the imprisoned and tortured man, transferring Haynes to the chamber in an act of revenge. Given the chair, Haynes is then computed to a "souvenir" function he previously had installed, where an exact copy of himself in a keychain can be viewed in a constant state of electrocution, screaming maniacally from the pendant forevermor; forever in absolute agony. This is not an episode to watch right before bed.
Along the way we saw Black Mirror episodes collide, 'White Bear's protagonist being seen on a screen and Haynes having worked at St. Juniper's hospital, which we're to assume lent its name to San Junipero, the "uploading old people to the cloud" technology seen in the beloved episode of the same name. I'm not always a huge fan of the universes colliding trend, but here it all fits together quite nicely, creating a chronology of the technological brutality we've seen over the seasons.
Weaving together three engrossing narratives, 'Black Museum' is a very strong episode and will stick around in the psyche for some time. In spite of all the horror, it does end on a sort-of happy note, however, Nish riding off into the sunset. As we learn that her mother was able to witness the revenge through her being installed in Nish's brain, however, this presented a prime opportunity for one last hint of cynicism, and I only wish the mother's praise for her daughter's actions had been followed up with a criticism of some slight detail - the song on the stereo or her choice of hairstyle - a reminder that there is truly no happy ending for this type of human hybridisation.
1. Hang the DJ
Talking to Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker on our podcast recently, we noted how the world of Nathan Barley, one of his old shows, was becoming alarmingly real. This was echoed in new Black Mirror episode 'Hang the DJ', the technology that chooses your order for you at restaurants bearing a strong resemblance to Nathan Barley's hip eatery “Regime” and its fingerprint scanners, only the concept wasn't played for laughs this time and felt very plausible.
In fact, a lot of the episode felt very near-future, the technological thrust being a combination of Tinder and Siri that micro-manages your love life to the point of insisting on matches. Utilising a mysterious but apparently experience-based algorithm to locate your perfect partner, it arranges dates/relationships for specified periods of time and then monitors and computes them until the perfect, most compatible person on the app is determined.
This proves tiring for Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole's characters, Amy ending up on a never-ending hamster wheel of sometimes good but ultimately meaningless, interchangeable sexual encounters, and Frank finding neither sexual nor romantic sustenance.
The app seems hell-bent on keeping them apart, and the pair are forced to keep dating others, sometimes for two hours, sometimes for a year, though their minds are elsewhere. A nice parallel with 2010s dating arrives here, specifically with people who put themselves on a conveyor belt of Tinder dates though they are still not truly over their exes.
As Amy and Frank become more certain of each other, they decide the whole experience must be a test, and manage to break out of it, Matrix-style, suspending animation and scaling the dating ground's wall.
This would have been a satisfying enough way to end the episode, but the whole construct is turned on its head and given new meaning as we discover that the entire episode played out within a less dystopian dating app. We've heard of a play within a play, well, this is an app within an app. With all the events we've just witnessed merely being an AI simulation to inform a real-world app, 'Hang the DJ' ends on a more positive note than expected, the sheer number of simulations in which Amy and Frank escape together in the face of danger serving to prove they are a match.
Instead of being an app-gone-too-far story, it's one about how absolutely ingenious they could be in the future without us even really knowing exactly how they come to their conclusions viz. dating algorithms etc. I say positive - that is to assume that the simulated characters are not in some way sentient, in which case this episode involves Black Mirror: White Christmas levels of digital immortality dread.
A few issues: the in-app world doesn't feel very rich and fully realised, though perhaps that's the whole point given it is just a simulation, a test environment. The dialogue, meanwhile, occasionally dials up the awkwardness way too much to the point where Frank and Amy - particularly Frank - feel more like parodies of millennials than actual ones.
On the whole, this is a very rewarding episode, though, backed up by an incredible score from Alex Somers and Sigur Ros.
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