Black Mirror S04 Review: Something for everyone

As I was beginning to watch this season of Black Mirror, I paused it so I could crank up my ol’ review machine. Just after I did that, it unpaused itself and kept going–a very Black Mirror occurrence.

That’s because, if you’ve somehow missed the anthology series Black Mirror, every episode is about the increasingly strange ways in which we interact with technology. There are still no flying cars, alas, but that doesn’t mean that the needle hasn’t moved. I can take and produce a picture right now and share it with a friend in Boston or Berlin or Brisbane right now. I have a disembodied voice who lives next to my television who can tell me what the weather is going to be and what my cat is named and what time I need to wake up. And don’t even get me started on Twitter–on the subject or the app itself. Thanks to years with that infernal social network, it’s been possible to go from “uhhh, G. Gordon Liddy responded to my tweet about Nixon” to “just got into an argument over the Alabama special election with a comedian.” [Both of these tales are unfortunately true.] But beyond my petty squabbles, the very social networks that were meant to bring us together have often been used to tear us apart, by radicalizing the lone and lonely into terrorism. And I’m not talking about trolling–I’m talking about actual, real-life violence. In the same way that some people have used Facebook, for example, to share pictures of their newborns, others have used it to share photos of the person they just murdered.

That’s the premise behind Black Mirror–not that technology is necessarily inherently bad, but that some humans will always find a way to misuse it, often at the expense of others. Sometimes these instincts are born out of good intentions, like with Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) in “Arkangel.” After her young daughter, Sara, (Sarah Abbott) wanders away one afternoon, giving everyone a good terror, Marie gladly accepts an invitation for Sara to be a guinea pig in the trial of Arkangel, a parental monitoring implant. Although I think it sounds like a glow-in-the-dark nightmare, it’s not hard to understand why Marie would go for it. Unfortunately, as these things do, especially in a Black Mirror episode, it doesn’t work out like Marie would have hoped.

But she had had hope, that thing that springs eternal. Hope is especially important in an episode like “Hang the DJ.” That episode is a riff on online dating, which went from a novelty that The New York Times once wrote about with a breathlessness that suggested they were observing a tribe’s secret rites, to something more like catalog-shopping. This episode imagines a world in which we don’t even get the catalog. Instead, users are paired off according to an algorithm’s whims and must respond accordingly. The system even decides how long a relationship will last and again, the users must follow its guidelines. But once we get to know Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell), as they get to know each other, we know they’re meant to be. Are we smarter than the System, though?

That’s the kind of worry that made us dream up rules for robots. But if we make them smart enough and maybe even smarter than us, how do we know they’re going to follow them? That’s the dread behind “Metalhead,” one of the most unusual episodes ever of Black Mirror. Shot entirely in black and white–and almost shot without dialogue–the episode is a spare and compact look at a world that seems to be post-apocalyptic. Inspired by the work at Boston Dynamics, the episode can also be seen as a meditation on drone warfare. After all, Boston Dynamics’s most famous work was designed for use by the military. Granted, it was intended only to carry supplies, but by the time the project was discontinued, it could pick up things and throw them. That’s…nice.

“Metalhead” stands a little apart from the rest of the season, as so little of it is devoted to relationships, unlike the other episodes. The season seems fixated not only in the ways with which we interact with technology, but also the way we use technology to interact with each other. Or use it to avoid interaction. That’s where we find Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the CTO of an MMO game company in “USS Callister.” Unable to relate normally to people, he escapes instead into a mod he’s made for his company’s game based on his all-time favorite show, a Star Trek-alike called Space Fleet. He seems so nice that we can’t help but feel for him. That is, until it turns out that he’s not an actual nice guy–he’s a Nice Guy. So it goes.

Ferreting out people’s motivations is often one of the most fun aspects of Black Mirror. You won’t have trouble doing that in “Crocodile,” the episode in which a character commits an act as shocking as any we’ve seen on a series that started with the British Prime Minister being forced to you-know-what. But you might wonder who’s zoomin’ who in the final episode of the season, “Black Museum.” Ostensibly it’s a set up for an anthology within an anthology as owner Rolo (Douglas Hodge) tells Nish (Letitia Wright) tales of the mysterious objects the museum holds. Nish has stopped in because her car’s out of a charge (INDUSTRY! SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY!) and you’re thinking, there are worse ways to kill time. And although Rolo’s stories start out with good intentions–that old thing again–Nish cleverly points out that every story takes a turn. Every story has a “but.”

In fact, once we clear that mark in each story, there’s a nastiness to them that could stick in your throat. Or your head or your heart. Especially if you knew someone who’d been negatively affected by a hustler like Rolo. But that’s human curiosity. It may not be the healthiest for cats, but it’s what keeps us alive. We can’t help but stay to find out what happened in Rolo’s stories and in the season overall. We want to know. We’ve built a booming social network industry because we–most of us, at least–are drawn to make connections with other people. We want to be special. But sometimes, as Black Mirror illustrates, we’re creeps.

8.75/10 – LMAO, idk. I gave last season an 8, but this season deserves to be higher. I’m not willing to commit to a 9, though. Overall, season 4 was a much stronger effort than the previous season. I’m a marshmallow, as everyone knows, so my favorite episode was “Hang the DJ,” unlike the critical consensus for favorite, which seems to be “USS Callister.” Callister was very of-the-moment, but sometimes you need to try a little tenderness. That’s the beauty of an anthology series, though. There’s a flavor for everyone. 

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