Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s dark, twisted, technology-driven Twilight Zone riff, is about return to Netflix for yet another season of woe and punishment. There’s a cold cosmic justice at work in Black Mirror; a sense that any transgression, no matter how mundane, will be met with the bleakest of punishments. It can often make for an unpleasant experience. Yet Black Mirror explored exciting new possibilities last season, with the acclaimed San Junipero – an episode that revealed that hopefulness was also a possibility in the Black Mirror universe. Best of all, it was an episode that wasn’t obsessed with conveying a twisted moral – it simply used the Black Mirror premise to tell a story about two characters and the results were stunning.
Black Mirror season 4, sadly, does not have an episode that resonates as much as San Junipero did last season. The show once again continues down a dark, unrelenting path – which is to be expected, since that was the built-in methodology long before San Junipero came along. But how does Black Mirror season 4 stack up as a whole? The good news is that the latest season of Black Mirror goes off into new, unexpected directions and has fun playing around with style and form. The six episodes that occupy the latest season all vary in plot, tone, and message, which is a welcome change compared to previous seasons, which had a tendency to blur together.
Season 4 has assembled a fine line-up of talent: Jodie Foster, Toby Haynes, John Hillcoat, Tim Van Patten, David Slade, Colm McCarthy helm episodes that include Andrea Riseborough, Jesse Plemons, Letitia Wright, Rosemarie Dewitt. The episodes are slick, well-produced and continually disturbing in the way that most modern-day horror movies can only dream of being. But there remains a distinct sense that Black Mirror is missing something. That it’s messaging is too blunt, that its punishments are too harsh. Then again, the real world itself no longer deals in subtlety. As 2017 draws to an end, we find ourselves trapped in a daily cycle of surreality – up is down, black is white, and norms that once seemed to be universally accepted have been tossed out the window. These are times that should, in effect, speak directly to the type of entertainment Black Mirror is selling.
Yet I find myself mentally returning, again and again, to The Twilight Zone, the televised fountain from which Black Mirror springs. Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone also trafficked in stories loaded with themes and messages that reflected on society, and more often than not they ended on bleak, unforgiving notes. But there was a balance to The Twilight Zone that Black Mirror continuously struggles to achieve.
That’s not to say Black Mirror season 4 is a complete wash. It remains an engrossing piece of pop entertainment, loaded with enough dark, cerebral material to make you squirm and reflect in equal measure. Let’s pick apart the new season episode by episode. Rather than listing the episodes the way they’re presented, I’m going to list them below in order from best to worst. In other words, the first episode discussed is the best episode of season 4, while the last is the worst. I will do my very best to avoid spoilers, since half the fun of Black Mirror comes from the shock to the system it delivers. Still, anyone hoping to be 100% oblivious to what the new season has to offer, take heed.
It’s every son or daughter’s nightmare, and every over-possessive parent’s dream: imagine being able to keep track of your child, at all times, with the push of a button. Jodie Foster helms this twisted, darkly funny take on parental control that grows increasingly disturbing as it unfolds.
Rosemarie Dewitt is a single mother who has trouble letting go of her daughter (Brenna Harding). Thankfully, Dewitt’s character inhabits the Black Mirror universe, where becoming an overly-vigilante parent is only one technological upgrade away. Dewitt’s decision might seem harmless at first, but things get swiftly out of hand, especially when Harding’s character finds herself hooking up with a local bad boy (played by It’s Owen Teague).
Narratively, Arkangel starts to run out of steam as it nears its inevitable conclusion, and one gets the sense that the storyline was never completely developed beyond the episode’s great initial premise. Yet this ends up being the best episode of the season primarily due to Foster’s inventive direction. The episode spans several years, a feat Foster accomplishes with a simple yet highly effective montage that takes us forward through time in a blink of an eye. Foster also has a lot of fun playing with the technological aspects of the narrative, particularly an element that serves to censor disturbing material in real-time.
Also adding to the episodes are the three central performances. Dewitt’s overly-cautious mother could’ve easily come across as shrill or unsympathetic, but the actress hits just the right note to make the character’s actions seem understandable. Harding makes the biggest impression, bringing a cocky confidence mixed with a vulnerability to her role – this is a performance that confirms this actress needs to go on to bigger and better things. And Teague, as the older boy Harding falls for, brings a likability to his role. The actor has been building a resume playing troubled young men, from Bloodline to It, and a less-intelligent script would’ve turned this character into a walking cliche. But Brooker’s writing and Teague’s performance makes the character well-rounded.
Arkangel is not the best episode Black Mirror has ever produced, but it’s certainly one of the most effective. Best of all, the writing is clever and somewhat subtle enough that by the time the episode’s shocking ending arrives, it doesn’t feel like a cheat on Brooker’s part. Rather, all the clues have been in place to reveal that this is where the story had been heading the entire time.
Rating: 8 out of 10
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