Black Mirror: season 4

Continuing on from my appraisal of season 3.

Even though it’s technically just the second half of a twelve episode run, season four definitely has a bit of a different flavour. The overall feel of these episodes is ever so slightly less bleak, and the show even dabbles in slightly happier endings.

There’s also a definite shift in the dialogue, with plenty of blunt language and jokes about sex.

USS Callister

USS Callister is sheer brilliance, and starts season four off in style. Robert Daly appears to be a hard done by software engineer, a geeky genius who is mocked and looked down on by his co-workers. In his downtime, he enjoys playing a Star Trek-esque virtual reality game, in which he gets to be the captain and AI versions of his co-workers must all do his bidding.

Good on him, you think. This is just what Daly deserves. That is, until you learn the truth. All of these AI co-workers are sentient virtual clones of the original, and Daly himself is a complete sociopath who has tortured them into cooperation. The measured calm with which Daly inflicts pain on his crew is chilling to behold, and we soon find ourselves rooting for the sentient simulations in their attempt to fight back.

I very much enjoyed USS Callister. The Star Trek inspired setting had already sold me on it, and I enjoyed the change in perspective as Daly turned from nice guy to Nice Guy. From then on, I was desperate for the crew to attain their freedom, and felt every minute of tension right alongside them. Props also go to everyone in this episode for some great acting.

Arkangel

When her three year old daughter Sara goes missing for several hours, single mother Marie decides not to take any more chances. She has the Arkangel implant installed in Sara – a special chip that lets Marie see where her daughter is, what she’s looking at, and even filter out stressful responses. But as Sara gets older, will Marie be able to give her daughter more freedom?

This episode is a new take on an old debate – how much monitoring is too much? We all want to protect our children, but at some point we have to trust them and give them their freedom, even if they use that freedom to make mistakes. Right from the start, we’re unsure about the benefits of the Arkangel technology; as long as it protects Sara from seeing anything stressful, how will she ever learn how to deal with unpleasant situations? When her grandfather has a heart attack right in front of her, she can’t even see him – and although help does come in time, it’s a close thing. Sara’s skewed view of the world also means she doesn’t really understand how to deal with her own feelings of anger, or the consequences of acting on them.

Flash forward to her teenage years, and Marie has put the Arkangel interface away. Sara now seems like a normal fifteen year old, and like any teenager, she occasionally lies to her mother. But when Sara stays out late one night, Marie digs out the Arkangel once more – and sees her underage daughter having sex. From then on, Marie can’t quite give up keeping an eye on the Arkangel, with predictably disastrous results.

Notes: When the Arkangel employee is demonstrating the operation of the filter, she plays Sara a clip from Men Against Fire. Later, teenage Sara has a poster of Tusk, the rap singer from Hated in the Nation.

Crocodile

Fifteen years ago, Rob and Mia accidentally killed a cyclist whilst drunk driving. At the time, they agreed to keep it quiet, lest one or both of them end up in jail.

Flash forward to the present day, and Rob wants to find the cyclist’s widow and make amends. Unwilling to let Rob jeopardise her successful career and family life, Mia forcibly stops him – by taking his life. But there’s no such thing as a perfect crime, and when an insurance agent asks to scan Mia’s memories to settle an unrelated case, it seems inevitable the truth will come out.

Crocodile is almost certainly the weakest of the new Black Mirror episodes. The ability to scan memories was already used – albeit in a different way – in season one’s The Complete History of You, so making it the gimmick for another episode feels a bit repetitive. The acting is spot on, and the location shoots impressive, but neither of these can make up for the fact that Crocodile’s central plot is weak and uninspiring. If it’s meant to be a message about how things can spiral horribly out of control, then it has very little to say that hasn’t been said better elsewhere.

Hang the DJ

Finding the right person to spend the rest of your life with used to be fraught with uncertainty, but these days, The System takes care of all that. By setting you up with potential partners on a strictly time-bounded basis, The System gathers enough data to match you with your “ultimate compatible other”.

After their initial encounter, Frank and Amy are sure they want to spend more time with each other, but The System seems to be doing its best to keep them apart. Should they trust the purported 99.8% success rate of The System, or is there an alternative?

I have mixed feelings about Hang the DJ, and they all centre on how the episode ends. I found the concept of The System to be really intriguing and thought-provoking – here’s a world which takes away the pain and uncertainty of trying to navigate the world of romance by yourself, but which of course brings with it its own issues and difficulties.

And then we get to the ending. Hints scattered throughout the episode already suggested that something wasn’t quite right with the world we were seeing, but at the end we discover that it’s all a simulation – just one of a thousand simulations, in fact – that have been run by a real world dating app to determine the compatibility of the real Frank and Amy. Everything we’ve seen and experienced up until now – the instances of the characters we’ve become attached to – was all just taking place in memory of a smartphone. One could argue that it’s a neat and clever twist in true Black Mirror style, but equally it feels like a big middle finger from the writers, a smug “made you look, didn’t we?”, declaration.

Metalhead

In a post apocalyptic world, the few remaining humans are relentlessly pursued and killed by tireless robotic “dogs”. After a mission to retrieve something from a warehouse goes wrong, Bella finds herself injured and on the run from a dog. Can she make it home alive?

Metalhead is set in a world where no explanations are given. What are the dogs? What happened to make them turn against humanity? I find myself both frustrated by the lack of answers to these questions, and appreciative of the pared down simplicity of a story that doesn’t muck around with world building.

Metalhead is certainly an aesthetic treat. It’s entirely shot in black-and-white, a move which only adds to the stark, minimalist quality of the world in which the story takes place. It’s very different to the other Black Mirror episodes, and it’s by no means my favourite, but I have a keen appreciation what it achieves, and believe that it does indeed deserve its place in the line-up.

Black Museum

Whilst waiting for her car to charge, Nish decides to stop by the Black Museum, a collection of some of the darkest and creepiest technologies around. The museum’s proprietor, Rolo Haynes, gives her a tour of some of the technologies on display and the stories behind them. There’s the doctor who was able to cure patients because he could feel their pain – until he became a little too hooked on the vicarious sensations. Or the comatose woman whose consciousness was transferred into her husband’s brain – a move which ultimately made no one happy. Or the death row convict who signed over a copy of his consciousness, not realising it was for an exhibit where punters could have a go at flipping the kill switch themselves.

As with season three, Black Mirror saves its big ticket item for last, presenting three stories that ultimately weave into a single narrative. A cynical person might write Black Museum off as a mishmash of ideas that couldn’t individually support a full episode, but that would be to deliberately overlook the excellence of this instalment. Rolo Haynes as narrator is superb, and his tales are the culmination of the twisted futures that this series specialises in.

All three stories leave the viewer with something to think about, but it’s the second one that really hits home. We all know that when Jack agrees to have his wife’s consciousness transferred into himself, it isn’t going to end well. At first, it seems like a great way for the couple and their son to have a second chance at happiness, but predictably, Carrie hates being an observer in someone else’s body, and Jack resents the lack of privacy. As inevitably happens, Jack eventually wants to move on with his life, and for Carrie, this means her ultimate fate is to be transferred into a toy monkey, able to only express herself with two set phrases – “Monkey loves you”, and “Monkey needs a hug”. At the time of the episode, Carrie is still ‘alive’ and well inside the monkey – unable to properly communicate with the outside world, but also not allowed to die. It’s perhaps the most chilling fate yet to befall a Black Mirror character.

Notes: Items on display in the Black Museum include the smashed Arkangel tablet, the 3D printer Daly used to upload people to the USS Callister, and probably loads others that I missed.

Saint Juniper’s” hospital is the English translation of San Junipero. It’s run TCKR, the same company that runs San Junipero. Nish and Rolo also talk about old people being uploaded to the cloud, as per the episode San Junipero.

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