By: Scarlett Machson, Class of 2020
Sometimes we all get a little too happy and comfortable with our technology use and that’s when we have Black Mirror to barge in and remind us that we should be scared of it. In an age as cynical as ours, it’s easy to see Black Mirror as the product of a preachy older generation warning of doom and destruction at the hands of the little black mirror of our phone screens. But you can’t deny that the show has brought us some excellent hours of television, ranging from bleak to thought-provoking to even heartwarming at times. The show’s anthology format means that the episodes are easy to consume. Don’t like the sound of the summary? Skip to the next one. Don’t want to commit to watching a whole series? Feel free to watch one and then wait a year before you watch another, there’s no information you’ll need to retain from episode to episode. And while the show is nothing if not hit or miss, some of the episodes have been groundbreaking both visually and narratively. But when it comes to the most recent season of Black Mirror, here are my rankings from worst to best. I won’t reveal any major twists but…some spoilers ahead.
#6) “Crocodile”: No one episode this season was exactly bad but this was the one that felt the most generic and underwhelming. “Crocodile” reads like Black Mirror’s take on a Hitchcockian murder mystery: a woman (Andrea Riseborough) kills her friend to keep him from revealing her involvement in a fatal car accident years before. She would have gotten away with the murder too if an investigator, using a new technology that allows her to see into people’s memories, wasn’t investigating a completely separate crime that took place nearby while she was committing the murder. Even writing out the synopsis feels confusing and convoluted. There was a lot of talking in this episode, certainly not unexpected for a Black Mirror episode, but the conversations felt more like exposition than character development so it’s easy to lose interest. The main character isn’t very well developed so when she starts doing some truly despicable things toward the end of the episode, not only can the audience not sympathize with her but it also feels unmotivated. Of all the episodes this season, this is the one I feel most comfortable telling people to skip.
#5) “Arkangel”: I feel bad putting this episode so low on the list because it is a really well-done episode. The flaws are in the basic premise of the story but the plot is executed about as well as it could be. Directed by Jodie Foster, the episode follows a stressed single mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) struggling to keep her young daughter Sara safe from the dangers of the world. After Sara gets lost chasing after a stray cat, her mother decides to implant an “Arkangel” chip into her brain, a tracking device that not only relays everything Sara sees and hears to her mother’s tablet but also censors imagery that may frighten her. It’s this element of the device that gets the most focus. Blocking out violent or obscene imagery is one thing but when the device blurs out Sara’s grandfather having a stroke, making her unable to call for help, it’s clear that the device has some dangerous implications. As Sara grows up, she finds herself strangely attracted to the things that her implant blocks out, culminating in her engaging in self-harm in an attempt to simply see what blood looks like.
This is the point where I would expect an episode of Black Mirror to really explore the effects of censorship. What harm are we doing to children in our efforts to shield them from violence and mature content? Unfortunately, as soon as Sara’s mother witnesses Sara hurting herself, she is advised to turn off the device (or at least get rid of the monitoring tablet and turn off the filter, as the implant itself is permanent) and she does so for the next roughly ten years of her daughter’s life. Sara becomes a rebellious teenager and her mother can’t help but return to monitoring her over the Arkangel again, witnessing her having underage sex, trying marijuana, and generally hanging with the “wrong” crowd. And the rest of the episode plays out a lot more like a teen drama than an episode of Black Mirror…and goes just about where you’d expect it to go.
With such a typically Black Mirror setup, it was really a letdown when the story lost momentum after the first twenty minutes, just when most episodes start to raise the stakes. The most disturbing imagery–Sara witnessing her blurred-out grandfather begging for help during his stroke and her later attempts at self-harm–appear early in the episode and after seeing those things, it’s hard to be horrified when she tries a bit of cocaine as a teenager…and the episode implies that there’s nothing terribly wrong with that either. The episode doesn’t go that extra step further to show the effects of censoring what a child sees; there’s a lack of the darkness that makes Black Mirror so disturbing, The second half of the story in which the mother starts following her teenage daughter could work without the eponymous Arkangel being present at all. That’s a particularly bad sign for a Black Mirror episode, given the show’s focus on showing us the dangers of technology. So while I admire the episode’s scope, the visual style, and the acting, it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Too bad, because it’s the first episode of Black Mirror to be directed by a woman. Hopefully, the next one will be more successful!
#4) “Metalhead”: This episode I admire a lot more for its style than its substance. Another person might rank this episode higher for the visuals alone. Shot entirely in black-and-white, the episode takes place after an unspecified apocalypse leaves the world a barren wasteland, with a handful of survivors scavenging for resources and running from murderous robotic tracking “dogs.” The story is a simple chase, in which one woman (Maxine Peake) attempts to evade the pursuing robots. There’s not a whole lot to say about this one, given its extremely simple story. The episode didn’t have much commentary on our society (except, perhaps, a critique of our use of military drones) but I did like the bleak setting and the general sense of isolation and helplessness that the episode evokes. The twist at the end isn’t the sharpest irony that Black Mirror has done, but it was enough to make me cringe just a little. In many ways, the episode feels the most out-of-place of the season. It is definitely out of the mold for Black Mirror. But I respect the creators for being willing to make an episode that breaks so much with their usual style.
#3) “Black Museum”: I’m going to sound like a hypocrite here, given what I said about “Arkangel” but…this episode was just too dark for my taste. The episode seemed almost sadistic at times with the punishments it was putting its characters through; Black Mirror has never held back from putting its characters through all manner of dystopian hellscapes but this episode took that to an extreme that I wasn’t totally comfortable with, verging into the area of exploitation at some points.
The episode is split into three stories woven together by an overarching framing device of a young woman (Letitia Wright) stopping by a museum of technological criminology. The museum proprietor (Douglas Hodge) tells his visitor the stories behind some of the strange artifacts in his collection, while the shrewd-eyed viewer can spot references to previous Black Mirror episodes lurking in the background of the museum.
The story structure is similar to the Christmas special “White Christmas” but it lacks the cleverness of that episode and when the thread connecting the stories is revealed, it doesn’t feel nearly as impactful as the first time the show employed this device. Most of the future technology highlighted in the episode relates to sharing/separating consciousness…a concept that might have worked better if it hadn’t been showcased in four or five other Black Mirror episodes before this one. I wouldn’t recommend skipping it if you like Black Mirror (the ending, at least, hits all the right beats and even has surprisingly poignant commentary on the way people of color are treated in the American prison system) but it’s one of the weaker episodes of the series.
#2) “Hang the DJ”: Definitely the “San Junipero” of this year, “Hang the DJ” is Black Mirror’s take on dating apps, especially Tinder. A young man and woman (Joe Cole and Georgina Campbell) are set up on a date by the mysterious “System,” a program that systematically pairs couples for a predetermined amount of time and forces them to remain together for that period, regardless of their level of intimacy with one another. Thus all choice is eliminated from the situation; no need to worry about which person is right for you or when it’s time to break it off. The “System” will tell you when you’ve found your “ultimate match.” You stay with a person as long as you’re told to, then you shake hands and go your separate ways at the allotted time. It’s an exaggeration of our dependence on technology to make for us what used to be organic decisions.
This episode was surprisingly sweet for the cynical premise and the ending was about as hopeful as a Black Mirror ending can get. Sure there’s always the nagging sensation that perhaps we shouldn’t be as satisfied as we are with the final fate of the protagonists, but if you don’t think too hard about it, you’ll probably be pretty happy by the time the credits roll. The two leads have excellent romantic chemistry with each other and the audience is rooting for them to stay together, despite the “System” doing its best to keep them apart and pair them with other people. It’s as close to a rom-com as Black Mirror will probably ever get and it’s an extremely likable one at that.
#1) “USS Callister”: Gonna be honest with you, folks, when I saw the teaser for this season and saw that Black Mirror was doing a Star Trek send-up, I groaned out loud. First of all, I’m not a huge fan of original series Star Trek. I’ve seen a few episodes, didn’t hate it, but wasn’t really my thing. But I’m usually willing to give these types of parodies a shot and I would have done so here if the show wasn’t Black Mirror. The reason I give the show a lot of passes when it comes to plot holes–and trust me, Black Mirror has a lot of plot holes–is because the show has its own distinct style and does a great job at designing worlds that are just barely recognizable as our own in just a few years…in the worst case scenario. Where was Star Trek going to fit into that?
Well, I have never been happier to say that I was 100% wrong on this one. Not only is “USS Callister” my favorite episode of season four, it may just be one of my favorite episodes of the series overall. The premise is creative, the Star Trek parody not overwhelming to less-familiar viewers, and the characters are tragic in their plight but still allowed to be uproariously funny. This may have been the episode of Black Mirror that made me laugh the most but managed to juggle that with the darkness inherent to Black Mirror.
The plot follows the crew of the “USS Callister,” a ship that is basically Star Trek’s “Enterprise,” right down to the crew dressing in bright primary colors while cheering on their effortlessly charismatic Captain Daly (Jesse Plemons, doing a close approximation of Shatner’s Captain Kirk while still adding in his own personality touches). They defeat the bad guys, everyone celebrates, it seems like the perfect ending to a 60s Trek episode…and then Black Mirror kicks in. Turns out the whole thing is just a VR-esque video game played by Daly, a way for the disgruntled video-game programmer to escape the monotony of his office life. And of course there’s another twist on top of that, but I’ll keep that under wraps for now. Let me just say that not only is it a clever and tragic turn but an excellent takedown of the kind of toxic masculinity that women deal with on a daily basis. It’s the best of the bunch because it knows when to be serious and when to have fun, when to be action-packed and when to actually confront an issue. It has some of the most memorable characters in any Black Mirror episode and I enjoyed every minute I spent with them. Give it a watch, I promise it will not disappoint.