We finally got round to seeing Black Mirror Season 4 (made available to watch on Netflix on the 29th of December); all six self-contained episodes with their morally challenging and often ‘live or die' conundrums. The series has become writer Charlie Brooker's vitrine for showcasing the dark depths of human nature and like in the season's predecessors, he insists on painting a bleak picture; forecasting ethical dilemmas that go hand-in-hand with technological innovation through a myriad of intrusive means such as: beyond big-brother style surveillance to capturing and recording people’s memories although the way through to digitally transferring consciousness from one host to another. The bar is set higher and higher with each episode and each season.
Brooker effectively sells us his doom and gloom, even in the tamer episodes or ones with a semblance of a happier ending as the loomingly perverse feeling prevails as we anticipate some warped, often life-threatening, often humiliating personal cost to the episodes' characters. One begins to feel rather helpless and unsettled, not so much about the technology itself but the widely assumed prophecy of artificial intelligence (A.I.) acting independently and taking over, which is a chilling and possibly an inevitable outcome. So, on that happy note we have reviewed each episode of Season 4 below.
Some reviews may contain spoilers.
1. USS Callister
USS Callister's protagonist, Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), is the creator of Infinity, a successful virtual game that has amassed him and his partner Walton (Jimmi Simpson) great wealth and a profitable company to boot. Daly, however is rather meek and insecure, a total doormat, ignored by his own employees and side-lined from any executive decisions. Unbeknowst to his colleagues and partner, Daly gets his retribution every evening, back at his swanky pad where he has created his own version of Infinity. One where Daly is this ultra confident suave yet sadistic captain of a stylised retro Star Trek themed spaceship and manages to clone Walton and his wrong-doing employees, forever trapping them in his game, forcing them to be part of his crew. Daly thought it was all under control, until he inserts the clone of new office recruit Nannette Cole (Cristin Milioti) who proves much trickier to handle as her defiance and technological know-how re-ignites the delusioned crew in finding a way out, even if it means death or permanent deletion.
It’s a rather cute and stylish episode by TV director Tobi Haynes, whose CV appropriately includes work on shows such as: Doctor Who, Spooks and Being Human. As we oscillate from real world to Daly's world, Plemon’s displays his characters gradations perfectly as he fluctuates from docile, down-trodden geek to merciless dictator. Brooker gives an amusing if piercing commentary of the current villains of the tech world; playing on the usual stereotype of the socially awkward guy, hiding behind his computer screen who with luck, focus and technological ingenuity creates software that ends-up ruling the world. It’s a 180 degree turn away from the usual Revenge of The Nerd type scenario where the nerd becomes a hero; offered in attractive Barbarella sci-fi package.
The Arkangel concept is a probably a control-freak parent's wet dream; surveillance software inserted in their child’s brain that visually tracks them at all times, as well visually blurring any negative input. With Jodie Foster at the directorial helms fleshing out Brooker’ unsettling story of single mum Marie’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) whose momentary nightmare of losing her daughter Sara (aged 3 played by Aniya Hodge) in the park, prompts her to join the Arkangel trial and has the implant inserted at the back of her eye. Microchip is connected to a tablet, through which has access to what Sara sees at all times.
Things go smoothly until Marie’s realizes once Sara, aged 9 (Sarah Abbott) is at primary school and starts to exhibit stunted cognitive development attributed to minimum exposure to negative stimuli. Marie puts the tablet away only to bring it out once teenage-hood hits (age 15 played by Brenna Harding) and boys and drugs come into the picture and things expectedly, in true Black Mirror style, escalate to dramatic proportions.
Foster is carving herself a fine reputation as a talented director; providing us with rich imagery and vivid story telling. She casts a subtle female gaze over proceedings; like in the natural and intimate way she portrays Maries' over-protectiveness. Furthermore she sets an accelerated pace throughout, which cleverly aids in showing Sara’s development from child to teenager. This episode, the whole series infact, is reminiscent of US TV show The Twilight Zone in the way it feels like a normal, current day situation yet there is some absurd twist which takes us on a detour to somewhere else. Arkangel is a much lighter instalment comparatively, but still verges on the disturbing, raising poignant questions about the ethical considerations of future parenting and surveillance.
Crocodile features an outstanding performance by Andrea Riseborough, who plays Mia Nolan, a once happy-go lucky 20-something who becomes embroiled in a car accident with her then-boyfriend Rob (Andrew Gower), knocking a cyclist off his bike, killing him. Rob panics and instead of reporting it, dumps his body in a nearby river, despite Mia’s objections. The event haunts both their lives and years later the guilt-ridden Rob is now desperate to confess and approaches Mia in her hotel room to frantically declare his desire to approach the cyclist's family. Mia now with much too loose, married with a child and a burgeoning architectural career, is having none of it, determined to stop the erratic Rob and surprising herself, she ends up choking him to death. However she does so right by the window over-looking a main road, which at the exact very moment of a car accident where a self-driven pizza van knocks over a pedestrian.
The insurance company officer Shazia Akhand (Kiran Sonia Sawar) looking to compensate the injured pedestrian, uses a memory recall contraption to validate claims; looking at witnesses surrounding the car accident and sure enough, she is led to Mia. Things spiral out on control as Mia unintentionally goes all out on killing spree in a bid to cover her tracks.
Riseborough’s interpretation of Nia’s descent into a reluctant psycho-killer is mesmerising; all skinny and elfin looking but with an inner strength and steely determination; making her able to kill a man twice her size and unwavering enough to kill a helpless toddler. Mia is an old-fashioned murderer in a perhaps too sophisticated future; as she tries to conceal evidence her efforts are futile as the equipment used is simply too advanced. Her attempts prove nonsensical, the incidents are forever imprinted in her mind and ae able to be traced. The technology feels very intrusive and claustrophobic; but on a practical level its the perfect way of reducing crime. The episode's is incredibly slick and fine looking, showcasing the directorial flair of John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless, Triple 9). Its edited beautifully as one scene smoothly merges with the next, heightening Mia's paranoia, as the oblivious Shazia unintentionally comes closer and closer to uncovering her tracks. This is where Brooker is at his best, creating a tense, nerve-wracking plot, which builds and builds to an ominous crescendo which leaves us with a sinister moral enigma to ponder over at the end. As we revisit the theme of future of surveillance, we see how it could take on God-like magnitudes, where nothing goes un-noticed, all our actions can be re-traced and any bad deeds, will never go unpunished.
4. Hang The DJ
Season 4's ‘San Junipero’ moment. Hang The DJ is a smart prediction of the complexities of dating, where refined algorithms pairs you up with a corresponding mate but also further dictates the duration of each match, whether it be one night, three months or five years. IMDB rates it as the most popular episode, perhaps because it’s not as jarring or violent or challenging as the rest, but there’s still a tinge of the troublesome. Like in the previous episode, Hand the DJ the A.I.'s behaviour feels very invasive and controlling where our protagonists Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank's (Joe Cole) successful date where they form an immediate and genuine connection but its just too short at just one night. As both of them want to take things further, but by doing so turn the system’s logic on its head.
Hang The DJ feels like a dropped BBC comedy pilot; at points its painfully twee and saccharine. It's pretty to look at and entertaining enough to watch once, but one that I am not likely to return to. Campbell and Cole’s on-screen chemistry feels convincing and wholesomely endearing enough; both affable characters with a level of depth that viewers can identify with. The ending is slightly perplexing as I wasn’t sure where whole thing took place: in the future? a parallel universe? or in Amy's smart phone? Furthermore, I found the narrative completely heteronormative, with no sign of any same-sex encounters in either of Amy and Frank’s dating patterns; which perhaps would have hinted at progress, more open societal norms, but maybe that would have been too positive as Black Mirror goes.
Shot in black and white in a dreary post-apocalyptic landscape of the Scottish Moors, Metalhead plays yet again on the proverbial threat of A.I. takeover. In Metalhead’s case its much more obvious as we see autonomous, killing machine ‘dogs' which reign supreme with the single-mindedness and ferociousness that reminds of Terminator 2’s T-1000. Bella (Maxine Peake), Anthony (Clint Dyer) and Clarke (Jackie Davies) raid a warehouse to steal a teddy bear for her nephew, a weak and flimsy motivating factor, only for a ‘dog’ to appear and in no time, kills Anthony and Clarke, whilst Bella escapes. The rest of the episode is a continuous pointless chase, as Bella is one step ahead of her tireless pursuer in a desolate world with nobody around apart from the odd muttering response from her radio.
Peake is expectedly brilliant as the enduring and long suffering Bella. Her expressive face, conveys her adrenaline fuelled ‘live or die’ desperation but also a certain cheeky-ness, intelligence and steely determination. Her colloquial accent hints at a time in the not-so-distant future. Brooker's story in this instance, leaves too much to the imagination; painting an ambigious picture of the current state of humanity and we have no idea of the origins and intentions behind these dogs. The sparse radio contact with a non-responsive base or the large house which Bella manages to temporary find refuge in are supposed to provide some clues, but its rather minimal leaving viewers lacklustre with too many questions, unable to immerse fully within the story or fully empathise with Bella’s nightmare.
6. Black Museum
Black Museum's overarching story is an empty museum, ‘The Black Museum’ run by proprietor Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge). Randomly British tourist Nish (Letitia Wright) appears for a visit and Haynes, with nothing much else to do, gives her a personal tour through the museum’s artefacts detailing each one's backstory, highlighting his involvement when he worked as the head of a hospital research facility. The first story tells of the A&E doctor Dawson, played by Daniel Lapaine (Muriels Wedding), where a device implanted into his brain allows him to feel his patients’ pain and pinpoint their symptoms. Dawson becomes addicted to pain and eventually stabs a homeless person senseless, possibly the most horrific scene in the whole season. The next story seemed like a repeat of season 2’s White Christmas where a woman rendered to a vegetated state after an accident has her consciousness transported into her husband’s mind; a sinister re-interpretation of 80s comedy All of Me. Of course, things turn sour when issues such as personal space and a new love interest for the husband, who evetually has his wife's consciousness transported into a soft toy. The last story sees innocent death row inmate, who Haynes digitally transported his soul into a prison cell in the Black Museum, where he becomes the most popular exhibit as visitors can individually electrocute him, over and over again. It’s at this the point where Nish drops the British accent to reveal that she is actually the inmate’s daughter; she poisons Haynes and proceeds to trap his essence in a key chain in a permanent state of torture and then sets the museum alight.
The episode does retain Black Mirror ‘ethos’ of an eye for an eye type scenario, but proves tricky as one cohesive episode. Its feels more like 4 episodes condensed into one, but nonetheless its still highly watchable. Hodge plays Haynes' buffoonish, self-aggrandising character to a tee. Wright’s British accent and overall performance is regretably anaemic; however, she possesses a certain, leftfield look which viewers will definetly find intriguing. Despite the episode re-visiting already explored themes with its predicted outcome of a bittersweet revenge, its a paints a colourful and vibrant picture, making it a stimulating watch.
Season 4 may signal that we may have seen the best of Black Mirror and possibly nearing the end of what Brooker has to offer with it. As we see him reprise motifs and characters from previous seasons; parts of this current series seem tried and tested, hinting that maybe Brooker has run out of steam. Not that another season would go amiss and like The Twilight Zone, it was revived a few times over four decades; with different writers. Perhaps that will be Black Mirror’s analogous fate.
Black Mirror Season 4 is available to watch on Netflix now
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_