Season four of Netflix’s Black Mirror takes on fanboys, helicopter parents, vehicular manslaughter, and the like. Does it hold up to the high standard set by previous seasons?
The jam-packed 75-minute season opener, “USS Callister,” immediately immerses us into the world of the episode. Infinity is an online multiplayer game designed by Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), but he kept his initial prototype offline: a modded, Star Trek-style world in which Daly is the captain and his crew is comprised of digital copies of the employees that ignore him in real life.
In the episode’s opening scene, Daly is depicted as a hero, the crew literally hip-hip-hooraying his exploits. But it becomes clear over time that he is rather malicious to these digital character models. Digital character models that happen to have Turing test-passing personalities and consciousnesses.
“USS Callister” is a great way to open season four. Its world is distinct yet grounded, high concept yet original. The acting from Jesse Plemons is sinister yet strangely sad; the supporting roles, too, are all very fun to watch. In short, “USS Callister” is the best episode of season four.
In the Jodie Foster-directed second episode of the season, single mother Marie (Rosemarie Dewitt) puts her child through an experimental new form of tracking. With a single injection into the young girl’s temple, Marie gains the ability to track her child’s location as well as block out any unwanted stimuli that threaten to raise her child’s cortisol levels.
After an incident, Marie decides to unblock these stimuli, thereby allowing her child to experience life as it was designed to be lived. Except, Marie can still check up on Sarah whenever she pleases.
“Arkangel” enlists in similar subject matter to “The Entire History of You,” only the neurotic obsession of the latter’s protagonist is replaced by parental concern in Marie. Surprisingly, the technological schematics of this episode read more pedestrian than Black Mirror generally drums up. Even with Foster behind the camera, yielding a crisp-looking episode if nothing else, “Arkangel” loses something in the rapid progression of its characters and its lack of a substantial turn in its final moments.
What the episode does have is a strong performance in Dewitt, but her character does not rise to a level of intrigue that is required to make her ironically circular arc get under the skin.
“Crocodile” follows two characters: one a woman with a haunted past involving a car accident (Andrea Riseborough) and the other an employee for an insurance company who runs investigations over accident claims (Kiran Sonia Sawar). Slowly, the two characters’ stories converge.
That is the operative word for “Crocodile:” slow. It inches its way toward its conclusion, a conclusion that is not particularly hard to see coming. The isolated tension of Riseborough’s character slowly losing options makes for some strong periods of drama, particularly near the end of the episode, but the overall picture lacks the powerfully bleak ambience that the show is known for.
Even though it has a few references to one of the best Black Mirror episodes, “Fifteen Million Merits,” “Crocodile” fails to live up to the Black Mirror brand.
Hang the DJ
In the world of “Hang the DJ,” romance is dictated by electronic discs called “Coaches.” People are assigned dates, romantic suites, and pre-loaded expiration dates for the relationship. The episode follows two people (Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole) who, after experiencing a 12-hour relationship with each other, part ways and engage in the next romantic foray.
I guess this episode is attacking the rote lack of romanticism in “hookup culture,” gauging based on the amount of sex depicted in the hour, although this satire is not altogether coherent. Not to mention that the episode bears some resemblance to Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, which tackles the subject of contemporary romance with sheer originality.
Either way, “Hang the DJ” is not a bad episode. Especially given the wrinkle in the final third, this Schrodinger’s Cat looking-changes-the-outcome wrinkle, and the repeated automated mantra of “Everything Happens for a Reason,” the episode has some tragic mileage (plus a little something extra). The consequences may be less dire than in other episodes—think of it as this season’s “San Junipero”—but the character work is handled quite well.
A post-apocalyptic wasteland. Killer metal “dogs.” Three survivors on a mission. It’s a brutally simple setup for an episode, but it plays out in some exhilarating ways. Shot in gritty black and white and utilizing some great slow-mo, “Metalhead” is a bloody, fast-paced chase.
It is a different take for Black Mirror, both stylistic and narratively. While not the best the show has to offer, this fresh take is welcomed in a season with more low-lights than highlights.
“Metalhead” is not a meaty episode, coming in at a lean 41 minutes in length. One can attribute this to a lack of story, but I think as a pure survival narrative this episode at least has an adequate grasp on tension that keeps it moving. It’s not like a depth of story is necessary for that kind of story.
Got three hours and 20 minutes to kill while the portable solar charger charges your car? Wanna beat the heat of the Nevada desert? Check out Rolo Haynes’ Black Museum! But be warned, it “ain’t for the faint-hearted.”
What is the Black Museum, you might ask? Well, in effect, it is a hall of Easter eggs from previous Black Mirror episodes, as well as some other trinkets that get stories of their own in this episode.
Weirdly enough, this makes “Black Museum” an anthology episode within this anthology television show. The episode is a trio of stories told by the museum curator (Douglas Hodge). Each individual story is an interesting fragment of the Black Mirror universe; technological miracles gone awry. As a whole, though, the film feels more inert given its framing device. Even with how the episode wraps itself up, “Black Museum” feels more like an Easter egg factory than a bonafide episode.
Season four of Black Mirror, when all is said and done, contains one great episode in “USS Callister,” one good episode in “Hang the DJ,” and a smattering of middling episodes in the remainder. One is left wanting after binge-watching the six or so hours of content herein. While there are certainly worst standalone episodes among the four season-long crop, season four may be the worst season.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)