Black Mirror’s fourth season is the most inconsistent yet
After making a name for itself as one of the smartest, darkest TV shows around upon its Channel 4 launch in 2011, Black Mirror went global in 2016 with its move to Netflix. No longer just a cult hit, Black Mirror became one of Netflix’s most popular originals, with the transatlantic move providing bigger budgets, bigger stars, and six episodes per season.
However, the show’s Netflix run has been somewhat patchy so far. While season three featured some of creator Charlie Brooker’s finest writing to date (especially the jubilant San Junipero and the horrifying Shut Up and Dance), it also featured mediocre instalments like Men Against Fire and Playtest. Unfortunately, season four is even more inconsistent; while there are a few enjoyable episodes, none rank among the best ever episodes, while three episodes rank as some of the worst Brooker has written. Let’s break it down episode by episode:
Tackling the online world of possessive fan culture and misogynistic internet trolls through a pitch perfect Star Trek-homage, the feature-length U.S.S Callister is a fun, inventive start to the season. Starring Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Fargo) as a creepy tech programmer, U.S.S. Callister is reminiscent of both White Christmas and The Entire History of You, presenting a world in which digital clones can be uploaded into computer games (the clones function like the ‘cookies’ of White Christmas).
Weak and powerless in the real world, Plemons’ Robert steals DNA samples from his irritating co-workers, uploads them into virtual reality, and rules over them, giving himself the power he lacks away from his computer. Into this world comes new programmer Nanette (How I Met Your Mother’s Cristin Millioti), who quickly enrages Robert and winds up as another digital clone. Refusing to go along with his demeaning sci-fi fantasy (in which he portrays a Captain Kirk-esque hero who kisses all the female crew members at the end of a mission), Nanette hatches a plan to escape with the rest of the enslaved crew, including sardonic James (Jimmi Simpson) and repulsed Shania (Michaela Coel).
Mixing genuine action spectacle (that Netflix money is coming in useful) with sharp observations about the hateful egos of straight white men on the internet, U.S.S. Callister is very much Black Mirror in ‘fun’ mode. While the technology featured in the episode is a bit derivative and the plot a little too predictable, the characters are some of the most likable Brooker’s ever written (it’s virtually impossible to not find Millioti charming), while Robert is a terrifically-unlikable villain, Plemons nailing the William Shatner impersonation and cold, vacant sneer. If it’s not as shocking or memorable as the very best Black Mirror episodes, it might be the most purely enjoyable episode yet.
The first disappointment of season 4, Arkangel wastes a truly creepy premise on a flat narrative. Directed by Jodie Foster, the episode focuses on single mother Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt), so concerned about her young daughter’s safety that she installs a tracking monitor in her head. Seeing what daughter Sara sees, Marie also has the ability to block out anything harmful to her daughter, leading to her ‘filtering out’ her daughter’s world. As Sara grows into a curious teenager (portrayed by the clearly-adult Brenna Harding), Marie finds it hard to stop her daughter from experiencing life, no matter how much she tries to block it out.
The idea of a helicopter parent being able to literally control what their child sees is a terrific idea, so it’s disappointing that Brooker barely scratches the surface of what this technology could lead to. Early scenes hint at something far darker – Sara can’t help her dying Granddad because stressful situations are blurred out, a brief moment without the filter allows her to see videos of porn and horror films – yet Arkangel doesn’t go anywhere interesting. Sara grows up to be a perfectly reasonable teenager, and there’s very little hint that her Mum constantly watching over her has had any major effect.
Even the ending, which goes into slightly darker territory, is a bit of a letdown; after hinting that Sara could grow up to be an emotionless psychopath or a disturbed loner, Arkangel becomes a lame soap opera with some unpleasant violence. Despite having such a terrific premise and a story built on relationships and emotion, Arkangel is mediocre, offering little in the way of surprise or intrigue.
Move over The Waldo Moment; there’s a new worst episode of Black Mirror. Dull and grim in equal measure, Crocodile offers beautiful scenery and almost nothing else. Wasting the terrific Andrea Riseborough as a one-note villain, Crocodile follows Mia (Riseborough), a loving mother and successful businesswoman with a dark secret; she once helped her ex-boyfriend Rob (Andrew Gower) cover up the hit-and-run of a cyclist. When Rob tells her he’s going to confess, she quickly flips and violently kills him, leading to an escalating series of events in which Mia must cover her tracks – not easy when insurance investigator Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) wants to interview Mia as a potential witness to car accident, using her ‘Recaller’ device to dredge through Mia’s memories.
Though the central technology is by far the highlight of the episode – in a neat touch, Shazia uses smells and music to capture a clear image of each witness’ memories – Crocodile hardly features the ‘Recaller’ at all, instead devoting most of its runtime to Mia’s endless crimes. Told in a slow, flat style, the episode features some incredible Icelandic locations and a couple of inventive ideas, but features little in the way of interesting characters or plot twists.
The best episodes of Black Mirror invent believable sci-fi technologies and explore their potential downfalls, or take a modern problem and depict a dangerous solution; Crocodile does neither of these things. Instead, director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, Lawless) seems more interested in violence and cruelty. As for Brooker, Crocodile is among his most self-indulgent ideas, as if he got carried away in making his protagonist as irredeemable as possible, while the final ‘punchline’ is a dreadful attempt at a Tales of the Unexpected-style twist.
Hang the DJ:
Charlie Brooker clearly listened to the ecstatic praise heaped upon San Junipero, as Hang the DJ plays like a spiritual-sequel to his California-set romance. Starring the utterly charming Joe Cole and Georgina Campbell, the episode takes place in a strange, closed-off world reminiscent of 2015 black comedy The Lobster. Living by the rules of ‘The System’, a strange-matchmaker that puts single people together and tells them exactly how long their relationship will last, Cole’s Frank and Campbell’s Amy spend one night together before they are separated and placed in long term relationships with unbearable partners. Gradually realising they developed a connection during their night together, Fran and Amy begin to resent ‘The System’ and try to break free, all while questioning exactly what kind of world they live in.
Hang the DJ works because it feels fresh and different compared to most Black Mirror episodes. Set in a world that isn’t recognisably ours, the episode is lighter and faster than the rest of season four, establishing a nice comedy rhythm and depicting a romance that feels genuinely heart-warming. It helps that Cole and Campbell have excellent chemistry, exchanging sharp dialogue and casual flirtations in a way that makes even the most cynical viewer want a happy ending for the couple. Though the central idea does veer a little too close to The Lobster at times (I’d be amazed if Brooker isn’t a fan), the positive message and lovable romance is unique to Black Mirror.
If the ending isn’t as powerful as the rest of the episode, acting more as a punchline than a genuine climax, it at least fits with the relatively-breezy tone of the episode. While Brooker throws in at least one upsetting twist (not through shock value, but through emotional investment in the characters), this is the first Black Mirror episode since San Junipero that might make you punch the air with joy. Hang the DJ isn’t quite as surprising as San Junipero was upon its release, but it’s a confident, clever episode that suggests Charlie Brooker still has some great ideas up his sleeve.
The most divisive episode of Black Mirror to date, Metalhead is a radical departure for Brooker, stripping down any backstory or plot for a nihilistic forty-minute chase sequence. Starring the incredible Maxine Peake as a woman being hunted down by murderous robotic dogs, Metalhead is a bold experiment, but one that doesn’t quite pay off. Its black-and-white cinematography and bare bones story are unsettling enough, but its exposition-free world building leaves a lot to be desired.
On a raiding mission, Peake and her gang of survivors are quickly attacked by the ‘dogs’, four-legged robots on a mission to kill all humans. After the ‘dog’ kills everyone but Peake, she’s left to fend for herself, doing everything in her power to stay alive. For the next thirty-five minutes, she will driver cross-country, hide up trees, and brandish a badass shotgun in her crusade against her metallic enemies, but can she ever survive against the seemingly-unstoppable ‘dogs’?
Directed by veteran David Slade (Hard Candy, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Metalhead is always exciting, raising your pulse with a series of violent, unpredictable setpieces. Carried by a tour de performance from Peake, who acts alone for most of the running time, Metalhead occasionally hints at greatness, especially in its final ten minutes. Unfortunately, it lacks any real impact, offering violent thrills but lacking genuine emotion. While its impressive that Brooker has attempted to create a bleak depiction of the future with almost no exposition, his world isn’t defined enough, and Metalhead ultimately feels a bit throwaway.
Almost meta in its depiction of sadism and cruelty, Black Museum is an ambitious portmanteau of unpleasant shaggy dog stories that occasionally tries too hard to be nasty, but mostly just feels pointless. In the titular museum dedicated to all manner of criminal artefacts (most of which are references to other Black Mirror episodes, like a mannequin dressed in the balaclava used in White Bear), curator Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) shows passing tourist Nish (Letitia Wright) some of his favourite items, detailing the gross stories behind them.
In the first segment, a doctor experiments with a neurological implant that allows him to feel a patient’s pain, only to get addicted. In the second, a young mother (played by Utopia’s Alexandra Roach) dies and has her consciousness transferred into her husband’s brain, only to discover how much power he has over her. Finally, Haynes explains his most popular attraction, the digital consciousness of a death row inmate that offers people the joy of electrocuting him to death over and over again.
Deliberately off-putting, Black Museum has a certain sick charm, but most of the segments feel too short to be effective. The story of a man addicted to pain has potential, but is too interested in gross-out gore effects, while the tortured digital consciousness explores similar territory (again) to White Christmas, looking at how a virtual clone feels pain and the disturbing mob mentality of capital punishment. If both of these are interesting ideas wonkily executed, the second story is just plain bad. More famous as an idea invented by Karl Pilkington, the tale of a deceased woman living within her husband’s head is colossally stupid, and only gets worse when she’s transferred into a toy monkey. Brooker is one of the UK’s funniest writers, but the segment lands with a thud, and Black Museum’s attempt at a witty, self-referencing edition of Black Mirror doesn’t offer nearly enough in the way of black comedy or science fiction.
It’s a disappointingly inconsistent season from Black Mirror; despite two great episodes in U.S.S. Callister and standout Hang the DJ, there’s little here that ranks up among the very best episodes. Neither Arkangel or Black Museum do much with their solid premises, while Crocodile is the worst episode of the show to date, and it’s a worrying sign that only four seasons in, Brooker seems to be recycling previous ideas. If each season provides an episode as terrific as Hang the DJ, Black Mirror will remain a worthwhile watch, but on the evidence of season 4, Charlie Brooker could do with a break.
Season Grade: B-