This review contains some light spoilers.
Netflix has just dropped a 4th season of “Black Mirror,” the acclaimed near-future anthology series created by Charlie Brooker that taps into collective unease about the technology with which we have surrounded ourselves.
The locales in series 4 are as diverse as the genres, from space opera to crime scene investigation. If series 3’s focus on high-tech eye-tech and ubiquitous social media seemed a few minutes behind the times, series 4 taps into a timeless, primitive fear of being trapped in the very digital hells we’ve constructed — minds with no bodies, no agency. The queasy techno-fear unease of previous seasons often gives way to full-blown existential terror (or perhaps that’s my claustrophobia talking).
Criticism of “Black Mirror” as Luddite is unfounded: Every episode betrays an attraction to the crisp cleanness, the undeniable neatness of new tech. Still, a word to the wise: If you’re caught in a “Black Mirror” episode, don’t volunteer for any beta-testing, no matter what the free swag.
The underlying techno-theme of these six new episodes is digital consciousness, uploaded and exploited for amusement, profit, revenge, and (most frighteningly) obsolescence. After 2017, a world where we found out all too much about our fellow citizens, “Black Mirror” sends us into 2018 with the fear of existence as a solitary consciousness, utterly cut off.
“Black Mirror’s” song choices are, as usual, on point without being too on the nose. “Strict Machine” is heard in the background of a dance club in “Crocodile” (your guess is as good as mine; Brooker likes puzzling titles) and the “you’ll always be a part of me” line in the pop standard “Always Something There to Remind Me” takes on a sinister quality.
I’ve rated the six episodes comprising series 4 below, keeping in mind that any adequately mixed anthology will fail to please everyone each time out. Anthologies aren’t necessarily built for binge-watching, especially one so stylistically spread out, but if you do binge, Netflix’s suggested episode order works fine (and the last episode makes more sense if watched last).
Episode 1, Grade: A
The first one up, “USS Callister,” is the crème de la crème, an unqualified success, taking familiar-seeming parts (the technical genius and put-upon schlub who is a secret hero in his digital fantasy life) and scrambling them into something new and sinister. Not a minute is wasted, though it’s the longest episode in the fourth series. The episode launches is a play on “Star Trek,” and opens with Captain Daly playing the heroic leader of a loyal crew in a fantasy universe called “Space Fleet.” In real “Black Mirror” life, Robert Daly is chief technical officer of an immersive reality gaming company.
But his harmless sounding choose-your-own-adventure fantasy is all too real for those who cross him at work, including a new girl whose DNA-digital copy is forcibly recruited into Daly’s personal “Space Fleet” fantasy universe. What follows are some Inception-level tactics on the part of the digital crew to escape the tyranny of the “asshole god.”
To make an unforgivably retro-reference, this is the album equivalent of a “Side 1, Track 1” showstopper, the hit single of the season, both brilliant and accessible, whose appeal wears a deeper groove in your brain the more you ponder it.
Episode 2, Grade: B-
“USS Callister” is followed by “Arkangel,” a domestic family drama that has some powerful things to say about the unintended consequences of helicopter parenting, but is the closest thing to a dud in the series. Everyone can relate to the cold fear of a mother who misplaces her child at a playground, and maybe even empathize with her overreaction — putting a chip in her daughter’s brain, enabling her not only to trace the little girl, but also able to see everything the daughter sees.
But is the wholly innocent, untroubled childhood the mother wants to craft for her daughter compatible with personal development, or even personal safety? After a thoughtful start, “Arkangel” overdoses on unconvincing violent imagery, though the very last scene is a perfectly aimed dagger at the mother’s worst fears. At heart, it’s an after-school special with a gizmo.
Episode 3, Grade: B
“Crocodile” is set in a bleak Icelandic landscape and plays as a lower-octane CSI thriller, from the view of the villain. Mia is a successful architect whose environmental humanitarian gloss hides a ruthless genius for self-preservation. Then an accident on a beer-soaked avenue may indirectly implicate her in crimes past and present, via a thingamajig that can read memories straight from the brain.
The idea that the olfactory sense most effectively triggers memories is used to amusing effect here, as potential witnesses take a whiff from a beer bottle. It’s a light moment in an episode that could use less bleakness. The technology, mind-blowing in theory, comes off a bit too close to a mere survey of local surveillance footage to be enthralling.
Episode 4, Grade: A-
“Hang the DJ” is the most light-hearted of the bunch — relatively speaking. There are echoes of the series 3 standout “San Junipero” in the setup and the romance angle, though it lacks that episode’s ecstatic finale minutes that made Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” actually mean something. A couple meets cute at a hip lodge of sorts full of young couples forcibly paired up and frog-marched through dates where even the appetizers are pre-ordained.
So why does the ruthless dating machine seem compelled to keep them apart?
Episode 5, Grade: A
“Metalhead,” clocking in at a brisk 41 minutes, is a suitably sleek, black-and-white minimalist masterstroke that follows a trio in the aftermath of a sci-fi apocalypse on a supply run gone bad. Actress Maxine Peake plays the resourceful survivor with a weakness for scavenged soft peppermints. Circumstances pit her alone against a disconcertingly smart metal dog, one of many roaming the desolate land, that has a single obsession orbiting its metal circuitry — hunt and kill humans.
The why’s and how’s in this world are left to the imagination, which could be frustrating but registered as intriguing, and suited the minimalist feel of the episode.
Episode 6, Grade: B-
“Black Museum” is an anthology within an anthology, and the show at its most self-referential, with several mini-episodes playing within a frame story of a tourist visiting a museum off a desolate highway outside Las Vegas. The Black Museum is the now-lonesome home to various artifacts representing infamous techno-horrors, some from previous “Black Mirror” tales.
Rolo Haynes is our sleazy carny-maestro of ceremonies, as he takes a tourist through the displays. Corniness competes with revulsion in scenes involving a doctor aroused by his patients’ pain. An exhibit of a stuffed animal leads to a tale of a comatose wife who becomes a nagging shrew when her consciousness is welded into her grieving husband’s brainpan.
Unfortunately, this wider view of “Black Mirror’s” world (all the episodes seem to take place in a single universe) makes the scary scenarios less stomach-churning — locked safely in the past behind glass and relived as ghost stories. But not everything behind the glass in this episode stays locked away.
Series creator Charlie Brooker has sworn off getting ideas from current events, yet “Black Museum” serves as his version of a hot take on current events, with a shoehorned reference to “fake news” and scenes of protests over police brutality that give the episode a moralizing tone the more fleet-footed installments avoid tripping over.
“I’m suspicious of shows that have a message,” Brooker recently told Variety, although a couple episodes here flirt with heavy-handedness. If “Black Mirror” has a recurring flaw, it’s in the final reveals that surprise, yet sometimes deflate, what has come before by rendering it seemingly pointless. Yet even that flaw points to a “Black Mirror” narrative strength. Brooker never forgets the human factor behind those black mirrors, an essential humaneness which graces even “Metalhead,” among the more merciless of the new stories, with poignant hope.