For paranoid technophobes like myself, Black Mirror is the perfect television show. I regularly read futurist predictions, the latest technology, and anything else that will spell doom for the human race. In other words, I read Wired a lot. It’s a bad habit. The beauty of Black Mirror is the simultaneous catharsis and dread I feel after watching an episode. I dread the realities of each episode, the very real near future possibilities. The catharsis comes when I realize the show exists purely to act as one giant red flag.
This is not a show basking in the glory of the future. It’s dreading it. In a way, it’s the anti-Star Trek. It has no illusions about technology and how it could mean serious trouble for humanity. But it’s not just the dangers of technology. Technology alone is harmless. Humanity makes it sinister and disturbing.
In the end, Black Mirror understands human nature and reveals the dark sides of how too much technological power could make life more complicated than it already is.
Starting from the worst to best, here’s how I ranked Black Mirror Season 4:
Most Black Mirror episodes highlight the dangers of technology. This was not that episode. Of the episodes in this season (and the entire show), it felt almost wholly removed from the formula. There are two plot lines happening at the same time in this story. After a woman and her friend accidentally kill someone in a hit and run, years later her friend says he wants to come forward with a letter to the deceased’s wife. Realizing this will ruin her life, she pleads with him to not do it. In the second plotline, an insurance investigator is interviewing witnesses to an accident. She has the ability to see people’s memories, helping her to determine liability. You can tell pretty early on that both these stories will collide and the insurance investigator will have to witness the woman killing people. When this does take place, the woman attacks the investigator and kills her. She then goes to her home and kills her husband and blind baby (she didn’t know the baby was blind). The string of murders all felt a little too overboard, even for Black Mirror. I kept asking myself why the woman would make such stupid decisions even. The ending is tragic which fits Black Mirror’s modus operandi but didn’t feel like it had anything to say.
5. Hang the DJ
Stories critiquing modern-day dating trends are always welcome in my book. The first scene from Hang the DJ hooked me. Frank and Amy sit down for their date and look at their tiny circle computer. They ask each other if they should check their “expiration date.” It says 12 hours. They signed up for a dating experiment where people agree to be paired up with partners and each relationship is given an expiration date. Frank and Amy experience fireworks during their date but they agree to end it anyway. With people today using apps like Tinder and OkCupid and (insert dating app here), it’s easy to see the parallels. There’s a level of scientific precision in how we pick a date that was unheard of 10 years ago. The whole episode had me all the way up until the end and then it lost me entirely. If anything it felt unsatisfying. The message is pretty clear but it felt a little confusing at the same time. It seems like what they were getting at is to rebel against the system. It’s cute and idealistic but equally unrealistic.
Black and white is en vogue right now. That could not be more clear than with the episode Metalhead. It’s hard to know why someone would use black and white rather than color unless it’s an artistic choice or they just couldn’t afford good lighting. Either way, I still liked the black and white choice even if I didn’t fully understand why it was used. Its greatest strength is its minimalism. The story is about survival against a killer robot, a basic if not cliched concept. But the simplicity is still enjoyable. You’re not having to worry about solving a mystery puzzle or figuring out the overarching message. It’s just a simple story about how easily robots could kill us all.
3. Black Museum
I had a hard time grading this one. At first, I hated Black Museum and wanted to put it at the bottom. It felt like a lazy attempt to shove in three half-baked and regurgitated ideas into one. The more I thought about it, though, I found a pretty genius meta-commentary on the tropes of Black Mirror. It’s clearly a tongue-in-cheek episode poking fun at itself. Putting this episode at the end also felt like a good cap-off. Some of the things I liked was its over-the-top hokiness and how each of the three stories interconnected up to the end. The characters connection also helped make the story feel purposeful. But, I didn’t fully feel invested for the main character because very little was explained about her. You have to infer in order to empathize and that sucked the wind out.
The general idea I got from this episode: Helicopter parenting is bad but our world is so messed up that children are going to be exposed to some horrifying stuff at way too young an age. So, what is a parent to do? For the mother in Arkangel, it means putting a device in her daughter’s head. She can fuzz out bad things her daughter witnesses in life and keep tabs on where she is and what she’s seeing. As the story progresses, however, the mother finds out the Arkangel program has side-effects. It makes her daughter become violent. In an attempt to remove the “leash,” the mother turns off all the parental controls and lets her daughter free. However, her daughter is exposed to all sorts of stuff on the computer, like grisly violence and pornography. In her teen years, her daughter starts to get into drugs and unprotected sex. Becoming suspicious of this, the mother decides to turn on the program again and witnesses her daughter doing these things. The story takes a very dramatic turn when the daughter finds out about the mother’s snooping and instead of having an argument, the daughter bashes the mother in the head several times and runs away. Again, the message is clear, helicopter parenting is bad. It’ll only backfire. I liked some of the direction in this episode. Jodie Foster really helped make you feel for the characters. I loved some of the camera techniques she used to make you feel claustrophobic and anxious.
1. USS Callister
As I said before, there’s a certain level of dread you feel when watching a Black Mirror episode. Sometimes it can even make you feel sick and never want to watch the episode again. So, it was refreshing to see USS Callister, an episode I could easily re-watch and not get bored. I’m not sure if its because it riffs on Star Trek or because it teases our obsession with being gods in all our video games but something about this episode is super fun and entertaining. It checks off all the boxes. It’s whimsical, silly, funny, preposterous, terrifying, existential and full of action and survival. It reminded me of the episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit on The Twilight Zone, another favorite of mine. At first, I was skeptical about the Star Trek theme, figuring Black Mirror might have finally jumped the shark. But, it’s one of their best episodes in the entire series.
Black Mirror: Season 4 isn’t my favorite season. Most of the episodes are either forgettable or don’t push the envelope like prior seasons. USS Callister is definitely the best episode. If they make episodes of that quality in Season 5, then I’ll happily look forward to it.