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Black Mirror – Season 4: “Brooker insists on painting a bleak outlook, forecasting the challenging moral dilemmas of the future”
January 12, 2018
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 challenging, moral and often ‘live or die’ conundrums; writer Charlie Brooker’s vitrine for showcasing the dark depths of human nature. Like in the season’s predecessors, Brooker insists on painting a bleak outlook; forecasting moral dilemmas that may come hand-in-hand with technological innovation through a myriad of intrusive means such as: big-brother style surveillance to physically accessing people’s memory bank although the way to digitally transferring consciousness from one host to another.
Brooker effectively sells as his doom and gloom, even in the tamer episodes or ones with a semblance of a happier ending, the perverse looming feeling prevails as we anticipate some warped, often life-threatening or humiliating personal cost to the episodes’ characters. One begins to feel rather helpless and unsettled, not so much about the technology itself being the issue 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 protagonist Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), is the creator of Infinity, a successful computer game that has amassed him and his partner Walton (Jimmi Simpson) great wealth and a profitable company to boot. Daly is a doormat despite being the boss, he is constantly ignored by his own employees and Walton is forever side-lining him from any executive decision. However Daly gets his retribution every night back at his swanky flat, where he creates his own version of Infinity where he takes on the role of sadistic captain of a stylised retro Star Trek themed spaceship and universe and manages to clone all his wrong-doing colleagues, forever trapping them in the game as part of his crew. Daly’s plans derail when he inserts the clone of new office recruit Nannette Cole (Cristin Milioti) who proves trickier as her defiance of imprisonment and technological know-how re-ignites the delusioned crew to find a way out, even if that 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 like 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 from the usual Revenge of The Nerd type scenario where the nerd becomes a hero; offered in attractive Barbarella sci-fi package. An even deeper analysis reflects our liberal bubble, in this case Infinity’s headquarters, which excludes the non-conformist or the conservative, whose old fashioned ideas don’t fit the status quo, who then proceed to vent out their frustration online, on social media.
The Arkangel concept is a probably a control-freak parent’s wet dream; surveillance software inserted in the child’s brain that visually tracks them at all times, as well visually blurring any negative or scary 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, which is then connected to a tablet, through which Marie can spy on her. Things go smoothly until Marie’s realizes once Sara (aged 9 played by Sarah Abbott) is at school and she has stunted her cognitive development and thus 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 expectedly, in true Black Mirror style, things escalate to dramatic proportions.
A testament to Brooker’s story-telling, we receive all the necessary cues, ever so clearly from the get go and this allows the viewer to be immersed in the story’s realm straight away. Foster is carving herself a reputation as a truly talented director; providing us with such rich imagery, implementing a subtle female gaze over proceedings; like in the way she portrays the initmacy and over-protective of Marie and Sara’s relationship and further 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, such as the Twilight Zone‘s ‘fifth dimension’. Arkangel is a much lighter instalment comparatively, but still verges on the disturbing, raising poignant questions about the ethical considerations on the future of parenting and surveillance.
Crocodile is my personal favourite, mainly sue to the outstanding performance by Andrea Riseborough as 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 the 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 that he wants to approach the cyclist’s family. Mia is now married with a child and a burgeoning architectural career and so has much to lose. To her own disbelief, she becomes determined to stop the erratic Rob and ends up choking him to death but 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; and make in time to her own child’s recital. Mia is an old-fashioned murderer in a perhaps too sophisticated future; as she tries to conceal evidence her efforts are redundant as equipment used is simply too advanced. Her attempts prove nonsensical as the incidents are forever imprinted in her mind. The technology is 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 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 is 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. 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 AI’s behaviour feels very invasive and controlling where our protagonists Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank’s (Joe Cole) successful date where they both form an immediate and genuine connection but its just too short at just one night. As both of them want to be re-united 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 is pretty and entertaining enough to watch it 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 an outcome.
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 rather 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 futile 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 Bella. Her expressive face, conveys her adrenaline fuelled ‘live or die’ desperation but also a certain cheekines, 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 the origins of the dogs. The sparse radio contact with a non-responsive base or the large house which Bella manages to temporary hide 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 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. 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, as he worked as head of a hospital research facility. We have 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 felt, like a repeat of season 2’s White Christmas where a woman rendered to vegetated state after an accident has her consciousness transported into her husband’s mind; a subdued re-interpretation of 80s movie All of Me. Of course, things turn sour when issues such as personal space and husband’s new love interest; who evetually has his wife’s consciousness transported into a soft toy .The last story sees innocent death row inmate, who Haynes has his soul digitally transported 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 vivid and visually stimulating picture thus making it an enjoyable 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_