It’s no secret I’m not a huge fan of sci-fi – or anthology series, for that matter. But seeing as I was never a fan of the comic-book superhero genre either before bingeing on every Marvel show on Netflix, I figured I should give the ever-popular Black Mirror a shot, if only to see what all the fuss is about.
I’m sure the blogosphere is already full of in-depth analyses of the show’s latest season, but if you’re interested in a non-fan’s progression through the show’s four seasons, here goes:
Because Netflix tends to queue up the most recently released batch of episodes of its shows, rather than take it from the top, I accidentally started watching the first episode of Season 4 and didn’t realize my mistake until I was almost done with it. I figured that I should probably go back and start watching in the correct order, because nothing about the (spoiler alert) tech company CTO imprisoning clones of the co-workers he was disgruntled with in his own version of a Star Trek copycat VR game so he could be mean to them made much sense to me. Turns out it didn’t really matter.
So back to the beginning I went, and if episode 401 gave me a bit of a WTF feeling, imagine my surprise when 101, “The National Anthem“, was an even bigger WTF moment: the British Prime Minister is coerced into having sex with a PIG on national television to save the life of a member of the royal family. Okay then. And then this whole thing turns out to be an ‘art piece’? THIS is the pilot episode of the show everyone’s talking about?
I didn’t quite get it, but I soldiered on. Next episode, “Fifteen Million Merits“, was about a dystopian future where people are used as a power source (a la Matrix, except in this version they have to pedal for hours on end on a stationary bike, and earn credit, or “merits” to use as their ticket to a talent show). The PM who boinked the poor pig was nowhere to be found, but Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out fame was compelling as the lead. I can definitely see why Jordan Peele cast him as Chris: he’s got the acting chops and a very expressive face. Still, I was underwhelmed by the story, and even more by the fact that not only is each episode self contained, but a different kettle of fish altogether.
Before delving into Black Mirror, my idea of anthology series was that of a single plotline running through a self-contained season, but this show is basically comprised of 50-minute-long episodes that are completely stand-alone mini-movies, where not only is the plot different, but the setting, cast, and even timeline as well.
This format isn’t my preferred one, as I would much rather watch a show where each episode compels you to tune in for the next one because of an interesting story that is continued to be told, but it does have its advantages: if you don’t care for a particular plot line, you only have to hit ‘next’ and immerse yourself in a new one.
So I did. Episode 3, “The Entire History of You“, was set in a modern-day world where people can record their memories and play them back at their leisure any time they choose. While this could be helpful for those of us not blessed with photographic memories, it could also prove a curse if too heavily relied upon, as is the case for the young couple whose relationship falls apart when the husband uses this novel technology to suss out that his wife not only lied about an old fling, but also cheated on him with this guy, who may or may not be their baby’s real father.
And that was the end of Season 1. Being used to 10 or 13-episode seasons, I was surprised when the Netflix auto-play function unceremoniously moved right over to Season 2, which was just as short. So, even though I wasn’t initially planning on following through with the entire show, having found it underwhelming after all the hype, I figured I might as well watch the whole thing, since every season is comprised by only a handful of episodes (which is something that continues to baffle me when it comes to British shows) and my OCD tendencies won’t let me quit something midway.
The second season continues is much the same vein as the first, and continues to deliver plenty of WTF moments in each of its three episodes.
The Season opener, “Be Right Back“, was once again wonderfully weird: Ash is killed in an accident, leaving his grieving girlfriend in shambles, especially when she finds out she’s pregnant, until she discovers a new app which simulates his speech patterns based on his public social interactions online. Comforted by his “presence”, Martha decides to take the leap into the next level, an actual replica of Ash housing his virtual consciousness. The android proves to be lackluster, however, their interactions falling short of her memories of him, and she decides to get rid of the simulacrum, until he starts begging for his life, much like Ash would have. Martha opts to keep him around, and we fast-forward a few years, when she and her daughter make frequent visits to the attic, where they keep the fake Ash.
And from the not-so-bleak ending to the season’s first episode, we move to what was the first actually terrifying installment of the show: “White Bear” centers around a young woman who wakes up in a house not remembering anything about herself and her life. Everyone she tries to reach out to for help is too busy recording her despair on their phones, until a woman shows up and helps her get away from a handful of people who try to kill her. Although horrific all by itself, the plot takes an even darker twist when it’s revealed that this entire scenario was an elaborately staged “play” to phychologically torture the young woman, who isn’t quite the innocent person we’re initially led to believe: she had a part in the brutal murder of a little girl, and this is the form of punishment doled out at White Bear Justice Park, where people flock to participate as spectators. After the game is finished for the day, the people subjecting her to this torture have her memory wiped out, so she can undergo this terrifying procedure again and again.
On to episode 3, “The Waldo Moment“. Waldo is a blue bear cartoon, voiced by Jamie, an actor who feels greatly unfulfilled by his career. The bear is crass and quite popular with the British public, especially when he starts attacking politicians, particularly the Tory candidate (none other than Catelyn’s brother Edmure Tully!) and exposes them as frauds, which complicates his personal life when he gets romantically involved with the Labour candidate. Waldo’s growing popularity results in his candicacy for the upcoming election, and even attracts international attention, but Jamie rejects an offer for global branding. Right before the election, Jamie urges the public not to vote for Waldo, but is quickly attacked by the show’s producer and fired. Waldo comes in second, but in a flash-forward scene, we see a homeless Jamie sleeping in the street and harrassed by police, as Waldo’s face is plastered all over town in what looks like a very dystopian police state.
“White Christmas” felt like a great palate cleanser after the first two seasons, if only because the longer runtime allowed for more plot and character development. (It didn’t hurt that John Hamm guest starred in it, either).
In a world where everyone has optical implants that allow them to upload what they see for others to watch, and “block” people they are frustrated with or mad at, Matt and Joe are stranded in a remote cabin for a few years, and finally begin to open up to each other on Christmas day. Matt reveals that his actual job was to implant copies of his clients’ consciousness into “cookies” and force them to work as
slaves virtual assistants running smart houses, as was the case with a woman played by Oona Chaplin (Talisa from GoT!), who had to comply or spend enternity in this virtual world doing absolutely nothng. And if that wasn’t scary enough, he recounts the story of how he got there: he used to help single guys find dates, but when a nerdy introvert ends up dead because Matt helped him hook up with a crazy suicidal girl (Osha from GoT!), his wife blocks him and abandons him, taking their kids along with her.
Joe finally decides to share his own story: his pregnant girlfriend blocked him after a tiff, never to unblock him again. Desperate to see her, he started stalking her and discovered she actually kept the baby. Every Christmas he went on his yearly pilgrimage to her father’s house, to catch a glimpse of her and their daughter (even though ‘blocked’ people can only see vague shapes of the ones who blocked them), until she’s killed in a train wreck a few years later. He finally goes to see visit his daughter and discovers that it’s not his child after all. In a fit of confused rage, he clocks her father on the head and storms off. The little girl wanders out of the house to look for help after a few days, only to die of exposure.
In a twist reveal, we find out that Matt, having struck a deal with the police, was actually using his expertise to extract a confession from Joe. With the job successfully done, the authorities agree to let him go, but with a dire caveat: he will now be free, but forever blocked by everyone.
Although I wasn’t super impressed with the show so far, the Christmas special felt like it actually took things up a notch, so I decided to follow through with the remaining two seasons.
Unfortunately, episode 1, “Nosedive“, was a disappointment. Bryce Dallas Howard was great as Lacie, the young woman obsessed with her social ranking, in a world where everything is a popularity contest and people are instantly rated via a phone app during every social interaction, but a full hour of watching her fake-smile her way towards a higher rating in order to secure an apartment a in great neighborhood was just too much. Midway through the episode, the story unfolds almost like a comedy of errors, where everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. She gets a reality check from an older woman who stopped caring about her ratings long ago, and Lacie ends up tanking her ratings completely, resulting in a massive public meltdown.
Luckily, “Playtest“, the second installment, was a major improvement: Cooper, an American tourist on the last leg of his trip finds himself stranded without money in London. To secure funds for his ticket home, he signs up for an experimental VR horror game, which uses your own mind against you to create too-real projections of your biggest fears. Eager to leak the videogame company’s secrets to his new friend, Cooper ignores his instructions to switch his phone off, resulting in signal interference when his mother keeps calling him. The glitch renders the whole experience too intense for him to take, and ultimately kills him. This episode was the first straight-up scary installment of the show and I thoroughly enjoyed Wyatt Russel’s performance (the fact that he’s a dead ringer for his dad doesn’t hurt, either).
Despite the underwhelming start to the season, Black Mirror seems to be really bringing it this season, with Episode 3 being just as good: “Shut Up and Dance” focuses on a young guy whose computer is taken over by malware that records an incriminating video of him jerking off to porn. The people behind it start blackmailing him, threatening to leak the video to everyone he knows unless he does their bidding. An escalating series of challenges reveal that he is not alone in this predicament: he teams up with Jerome Flynn (Bronn!), who has been cheating on his wife with a prostitute, and together they are forced to rob a bank, before they are split up and young Alex has to fight to the death with another blackmail victim, also guilty of child pornography, to win the ‘prize money’ from the bank heist. The twist ending reveals that despite complying with the blackmailers’ orders, every participant is ultimately exposed and punished for their crimes. The episode parallels White Bear in its bleak outlook on justice, but I found the overall plot and action of Shut Up And Dance much more intriguing, despite the annoyingly cliche troll face meme text the guilty parties received as a farewell ‘gotcha!’ message.
On to episode 4, “San Junipero“, which is refreshingly different from everything we’ve seen so far, even though it follows the same VR concept Black Mirror frequently explores. In a virtual world set in the 80’s, complete with era-appropriate movie marquees, wardobes, decor and soundtrack, shy and sexually repressed Yorkie meets Kelly, a party girl who pushes her to have fun and explore her sexuality. The people inhabiting this reality are mostly dead, which is a mindfuck all on its own, and the live ones who visit for a few hours each week are basically exploring the trial version, either for sheer escapism or in order to decide whether they actually want to become permanent residents once they ‘pass over’. When Kelly starts to distance herself from Yorkie, who starts visiting other eras in this VR, desperate to find her, it is revealed that both women are actually quite old; Kelly was widowed, lost her daughter and now has months to live; she’s not interested in passing over. Yorkie is quadriplegic because of a car accident when she was 20 and wants to be euthanized in order to finally live her life, albeit in a virtual reality. This is probably the first episode that offers what you’d deem as a happy ending, and it was as sweet and nostalgic as it was a tearjerker.
“Men Against Fire” explores the same motif of augmented reality we’ve seen several times before on the show, but tackles an entirely new subject: in a post-apocalyptic settings, soldiers agree to have a neural implant called “MASS” inserted in their bodies, which enhances their senses and makes them better killing machines. Their mission is to kill mutants called “roaches”, who present like subhuman monsters akin to growling zombies. After his successful first run, newbie Stripe’s MASS starts acting up, but the army psychologist insists he’s in top physical condition and writes it off. During his second mission, however, he starts seeing the roaches for what they really are: fellow humans, deemed by the winning side of the war to have inferior DNA, and therefore declared as the enemy. When Stripe refuses to keep killing them, the psychologist (Michael Kelly, aka Doug from HoC) reminds him that he volunteered to have the implant inserted, explains that MASS is necessary in order to dehumanize the enemy and gives him an option: to erase this entire conversation (and accompanying revelations) from his memory and keep fighting, or to be incarcerated, the horrible reality of killing a fellow human playing in his head on a loop. Later, a much decorated Stripe returns home, to what he sees as a perfect house and his dream girl waiting inside, while in reality it’s a delapidated, graffiti-ridden structure. It’s a bleak take on war, PTSD and racism, but I felt the plot lacking because of the short runtime restrictions, which is an issue for most Black Mirror episodes: by the time we get enough exposition and background information to understand the reality explored, there is very little plot and character development left to fully connect with what the main characters are experiencing.
“Hated in the Nation” was the supersized season finale, but I found it a bit underwhelming, even though it deals with a handful of issues that are as current as they are important: the bees have gone extinct, and the British government has backed a project for “Autonomous Drone Insects” as substitutes for plant pollination, created by the ‘Granular’ company. There’s also an added perk: these ADIs can be used to spy on British citizens, providing helpful information to stop terrorist attacks and the like, but also invading everyone’s privacy. Meanwhile, social media hashtags have gone out of control, with users now tweeting hateful #deathto messages about anyone who offends them, ranging from normal people posting stupid stuff online to celebrities being dicks to their fans. After a couple of murders are tied to these ADIs, law enforcement embarks on a wild goose chase to track down whoever is controlling these mechanical bees and turning them into killing machines, while trying to protect potential victims, who are revealed to be the ‘winners’ of an online game where the most hated person on social media is the new target. Then comes the twist at the end, when we learn that Scholer, a former Granular employee, has baited the detectives on the case into activating thousands of ADIs to target everyone who has used the #deathto hashtag, resulting in over 300,000 deaths all over the country. Scholer had saved his flatmate from suicide after an online hate campaign against her, and wants to teach social media users a lesson: their actions have consequences, and they can’t hide behind their online anonymity. Although the message is powerful, there are several glaring plot holes throughout the episode, particularly the fact that police officers and victims were simply transported to “safe” locations in order to protect them, but no one thought to provide a hazmat suit to actually prevent contact with the lethal ADIs. Given that this was the longest episode we’ve had to date, which started off as an interesting whodunnit murder mystery, I was a bit disappointed in its conclusion, especially since the whole ‘moral of the story’ business is getting a bit tiresome.
… And here I come full circle to my first introduction with the show, “USS Callister“. Having finished the entire episode this time around, I can safely say I wasn’t too impressed. Sure, it was fun to see Breaking Bad Todd play yet another douchebag, and Cristin Milioti is cute but will always be The Mother from HIMYM to me. The whole Star Trek simulation left me cold, and although it was an entertaining adventure-mindfuck, it was possibly the least interesting episode I’ve watched so far, and certainly not a good Season 4 opener for me.
“Arkangel” was much more up my alley: after losing her 3-year-old daughter Sarah at a playground for a coupld of hours, a worried mother decides to give her kid an experimental implant that allows her to monitor her every movement and even use ‘parental control’ blocks to shield her from stressful situations. Once again, we get the same plot device of looking through someone’s eyes and being able to rewind their memories, which has been featured in several Black Mirror episodes. Sarah goes through childhood completely sheltered from anything that might spike her cortisol levels – violence, porn, even a barking dog down the street – until it’s no longer possible to avoid being exposed to all of that, as she interacts with her implant-less friends. Abruptly overloaded with an overwhelming amount of stressful and even traumatic information, Sarah starts acting bizarre, so her mother finally decides to heed a therapist’s advice and stops monitoring her daughter through the tablet that accompanies Sarah’s implant. She stows it away in the attic for a few years, but when Sarah, now a teenager, lies about her whereabouts one night, her mother can’t resist the urge to check on her daughter; and then she keeps doing it again and again, watching as Sarah has sex and experiments with drugs. After discovering Sarah is pregnant, her mom slips her an ’emergency contraceptive’ in her morning smoothie, causing Sarah to vomit at school, where she goes to see the nurse, who reveals the cause of her sickness. Shocked by the invasion of her privacy by her mother, who threatened her boyfriend and told him to stay away from her daughter, Sarah attacks her in a fit of rage and leaves home, to hitch-hike her way away from her overprotective mother. This was one instance where the sci-fi element was completely unnecessary for the story, as worried parents can easily cross the line into becoming controlling and overbearing, thus alienating their children and causing them to act out, even without the help of a monitoring device.
“Crocodile“, the season’s 3rd installment, wasn’t quite as impressive. Once again we see the much-used plot device of memory replay, only this time we follow a woman who’s perhaps the most antipathetic character of the show so far: 15 years after helping her friend Rob cover up an accidental death, Mia is married, has a family and a successful career. When Rob shows up wanting to confess his crime, she murders him and disposes of the body. Meanwhile, outside her hotel room an accident takes place, and insurance agent Shazia starts investigating, tracking down potential witnesses in order to piece together their memories of the event. When she looks up Mia and watches fragments of her crime on her ‘memory machine’, she panics and tries to leave, but Mia catches her, ties her up and kills her when she uses Shazia’s memory machine to discover Shazia had told her husband whom she was going to interview. Determined not to leave any witnesses behind, Mia pays the husband a visit and kills him. She hears a baby crying in another room and kills the baby too, which was probably the most despicable thing we’ve seen on this show. When police are called to investigate the case, it is revealed that the baby was actually born blind, and wouldn’t have been able to remember her, so his death was in vain. The police have no leads whatsoever, so there’s no comeuppance for Mia’s terrible crimes. Aside from the recurring easter egg that is Irma Thomas’s song we often hear throughout all seasons, the episode not just utterly bleak, but also didn’t need the sci-fi element at all to tell the story.
This rollercoaster of a season is like a scottish shower, with “Hang the DJ” being a huge improvement on the previous episode. In a world where romantic relationships are all predetermined by “the system”, people live inside a gigantic construct waiting for their ‘coach’ to set them up with a new potential partner. They are assigned their living quarters for the duration of the relationship, which is also determined by the machine, right down to the second. After several relationships, everyone is guaranteed to meet ‘the One’, whom they’re supposed to spend their lives with. Amy and Frank meet on their first arranged date through the system and there’s instant chemistry between them, but when they check their allotted timeframe, they realize they only have 12 hours to explore their connection. When they part ways, both start switching partners as per the system’s instructions; Frank has to stay with a horrible woman for a year, while Amy meets a guy she’s much more compatible with, but is still not satisfied. When the system matches them again, both are ecstatic to get a second chance, and agree not to check their relationship’s expiration date, but Frank can’t help himself and asks the coach how long he has with Amy. While the initial deadline was supposed to be 5 years, the machine starts to recalibrate the data, triggered by the one-sided check, until it goes down to mere hours. Amy is devastated and angry, and both return to the meaningless relationships the system assigns to them, until it brings them together again, at which point they decide to screw the system and its rules and escape the construct so they can spend their lives together. But wait, there’s a twist: what we see are actually simulations, and Amy and Frank are back in the real world, eyeing each other nervously in a crowded bar. For once we got a ‘happy ending’, and an original commentary on relationships, fate and the fact that AI will simply never be advanced enough to account for actual feelings.
“Metalhead” was a big letdown after Hang The DJ: we watched a woman, in a post-apocalyptic, machines-have-taken-over world, running away from a… murderous robot watchdog? The entire episode was about this poor woman and her friends, who went on a deathwish mission to retrieve something for someone in their group. Both her comrades die, and she’s left to her own devices, as the dog implants her with trackers when it catches up with her, and proceeds to chase her around the desolate location. Not only was it boring, but it was also quite dark, as she finally decides to give up, and we return to the warehouse she first visited to find out that the object they initially wanted to find was a teddy bear. Granted, the stuffed animal’s importance is explained in the season finale, but still. Boo.
Which brings me to “Black Museum,” my second favorite episode of the season. Nish, a young woman traveling in the desert stops in the middle of nowhere to recharge her car, and decides to kill time by visiting a museum next door. Rolo Haynes, the man who owns the place and curates the various artifacts, used to work in tech, and starts to recount stories about the various objects on display. We first hear the story of a doctor who got an implant that allowed him to feel his patients’ pain, which made him a diagnostician rockstar among his peers. Kinda like Dr. House, except instead of being addicted to vicodin, he got addicted to the pain, which led him to start hurting his lover, then himself, then his patients, and finally turned him into a full-blown murdering psychopath. Next we hear about Jack, whose wife was in a vegetative state following an accident, until Rolo offered a solution to their problem: he could transfer his wife’s consciousness into Jack’s mind, so her physical body would die while her spirit could live on and experience everything through Jack. Eventually this arrangement became unbearable, especially when Jack started dating someone new, and he had to put his wife on ‘pause’ for long stretches of time, until Rolo came up yet another solution: to implant her into a teddy bear that could only speak a couple of sentences, and would be the perfect gift for their son to keep forever. Finally, we visit the museum’s main attraction, a hologram of convicted murderer Clayton, whom Rolo convinced to sign over the rights to his posthumous consciousness. Through a device, Rolo not only captures Clayton’s last moments of agony on the electric chair, but he also uses the holographic projection in a simulation where visitors get to pull the lever and torture Clayton over and over, getting a gruesome little souvenir for their troubles. At the end, it is revealed that Nish was Clayton’s daughter, who poisons Rolo so she can turn the tables on him. It was a cool revenge story, with several easter eggs thrown in, and Douglas Hodge was excellent as the grisly museum proprietor.
While the idea of picking up a TV show any time I wish, without the ‘pressure’ of following through with a particular plotline or having to remember details of episodes past for continuity, this format is not ideal for someone who likes to binge on a show because they enjoy the setting, the plot, the characters, or all of the above. And even though the writing, acting and directing is top notch, I can’t help but see it as almost ‘cheating’, when all each episode has to do is keep the viewer entertained for a mere 50-odd minutes.
What actually surprised me, however, was that the sci-fi aspect wasn’t the turn-off I expected it to be. This is probably owed to the fact that when I think of sci-fi, my brain immediately goes to aliens or technology too advanced to even grasp, which is definitely not the case with Black Mirror. What the show does brilliantly is portray a not-too-distant, not quite dystopian future, an alternate reality even, where technological advances have dehumanizing effects on society as we know it and are detrimental to any form of relationship.
And while I can definitely appreciate the effort, I have a hard time getting on board with a piece of fiction whose role is akin of a cautionary tale. The show touches on a variety of issues, ranging from the class system, racism, sexism, politics, mob mentality, the war, the justice system and so on, to our voyeuristic culture, increasing reliance on technology, invasion of privacy and the fact that we live in an age where everything can be perceived as ‘entertainment’. And while a think piece that serves as social commentary can be interesting, the fact that its message is blatantly thrown in my face is a bit of a turn off, especially when the conclusion of each story is almost invariably bleak. There’s a line between a piece of art that makes you think, and one that comes across almost as propaganda against our declining society (without really offering an alternative) and, at the end of the day, I just don’t want a moral lesson when I sit down to enjoy a TV show.
That said, the show actually grew on me as I kept watching. I’m still not a huge fan of the anthology series format, but I found several plotlines intriguing, and the overall themes explored are undoubtedly touching on important current issues. I also enjoyed watching a handful of actors I associate with other shows in vastly different roles, particularly the Game of Thrones cast, and I loved Irma Thomas’s ‘Anyone who knows what love is (Will Understand)‘ and the various easter eggs that keep popping up if you’re paying attention, which I guess serve as a hint that everything on Black Mirror takes place in the same extended universe.
Despite the shared universe, I kept missing the sense of continuity that most shows provide: if a particular plot line or character stays with you, you want to follow up on their story, but the show’s format doesn’t give you that option.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a fun show to binge on, this isn’t the one for you. It’s not one of those shows you devour in one sitting, nor it is easily digestible. In that sense, I wasn’t completely enthralled as most fans seem to be. (I also realize this is an unpopular opinion, but just like I was never really into Twilight Zone, Black Mirror doesn’t seem to affect me the way other, non-sci-fi shows do). That doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s well-made, with excellent production values, and most episodes will definitely hold your interest. So if you don’t mind your entertainment with a side of moral lesson, then it’s certainly worth a shot.