A Unified Theory: BLACK MIRROR (Season 4 – Review)

Black Mirror arguably has found its place as The Twilight Zone of its generation, and the fourth season only serves to remind you of its allegorical power.

There’s a strong argument that the third season, which aired last year, cemented its position in that regard. That was the point Netflix pulled off one of its biggest coups – stealing Charlie Brooker’s anthology series from British terrestrial Channel 4 after two successful three-part series which brought together some of the strongest up and coming British actors to tell twisted tales regarding the ominous infiltration and immersion of technology in our lives.

Almost always set in a future ever so slightly ahead of our own, never too far to be alienating or unrecognisable, Brooker’s stories tapped into those primal existential fears we all feel – that maybe, just maybe, all these black screens, social media platforms, VR gaming innovations and so on, are destroying our culture and society rather than enriching or evolving it. Black Mirror posits a world filled with people unable truly to utilise this advanced, game changing technology often in a positive way, and frequently the majority of episodes end up being cautionary tales of some sort.

Season Three upped the ante particularly, allowing Brooker the finances and scope via Netflix’s (seemingly) bottomless money pit to realise stories of greater magnitude – American actors and directors of significant note, global locations, HD cinematic filming etc… without losing the core elements which made Black Mirror already a British success as it morphed into a transatlantic one. Brooker divides almost equally his settings between Britain and the US, and often populates his cast with a mix of American TV and sometimes movie stars (such as Bryce Dallas Howard) with well regarded British character actors (Maxine Peake, for example). This lends it a uniquely Anglo-American quality that could only happen from the unusual concoction of an acerbic, satirical TV writer who happened to successfully bridge the gap from columns in The Guardian to being the sarcastic Rod Serling of his generation.

In many respects, Black Mirror‘s fourth season brings this unified theory of sorts into the narrative itself. The season finale–though finale suggests the ending to an ongoing story and an anthology series such as this doesn’t really warrant that term–‘Black Museum’ is the first indication all of Brooker’s disturbing tales are part of a shared, connected universe. The tale is distant enough from the artefacts which connect to a collection of episodes going right back to Season 1, for them to not necessarily be anything more than Brooker just winking at his audience (and he’s cheeky enough to do that), but equally it lays the foundations if future series wanted to begin inter-connecting concepts and characters in a shared universe context. Honestly, don’t bet against it. Brooker clearly relishes telling concise, conclusive stories within the broad framework of his central idea, but he’s certainly a fan of many a genre show and movie franchise which relishes continuing, ongoing narrative. Either way, he opens the door to that possibility this season.

You also feel the inspirational pull of Brooker’s own personal fanboy adoration with the opening episode, ‘USS Callister’, which very much lampoons and takes a cue from the Star Trek franchise, a series Brooker is well known to be a fan of. Arguably the series’ most technically ambitious and expensive episode to date, ‘USS Callister’ feels more like a mini-movie (and some have said pilot episode of a spin-off series), taking the Trek concept as it does and inverting it with its tale of a bitter tech-genius who creates his own Trek-esque pocket universe in which he can rule like a God. Brooker is aware of the Trek tropes his (and William Bridges) script are playing on but at the same time they chart the very evolution of the Trek saga from a camp, kitsch 60’s curio through to the modern, sleek incarnation we are witnessing in the here and now. While not perfect television, it shows the developing scope, reach and commentary of Black Mirror nicely.

In truth, when it comes to quality, Season 4 is probably the most consistently strong season of Black Mirror – yet it lacks the gems which truly stood out as televisual masterpieces previous years gave us; Season 2’s ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ our Season 3’s ‘San Junipero’. The closest, perhaps, is ‘Hang the DJ’, a very touching, naturalistic love story about a dating program which exacts a time limit on those who connect, an episode which ultimately riffs aesthetically and narratively on numerous classic sources – The Prisoner, The Matrix, even The Truman Show. It’s the one episode of the season where you truly *feel* with these characters and how the technology they’re interacting with affects their attempts at happiness. Oddly enough some of Brooker’s best work across this entire show has been how love stories and connections are made within technological innovations, and Season 4 is no exception.

Another standout also has to be ‘Metalhead’, in which the aforementioned Maxine Peake channels her inner Final Girl to deliver a wrought, sparse and thrilling performance as a woman stalked through a post-apocalyptic British wilderness by a metallic guard-keeping dog. Brooker and director David Slade–known more recently for stunning work blending visuals and esoterica on Hannibal & American Gods–use a washed out, sepia tone to convey what is easily Black Mirror‘s most stripped back, punchy episode yet; set to Penderecki’s haunting strings (borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, to similarly tense effect), Peake is put through a bloody and visually coarse wringer; one part The Walking Dead, two parts The Terminator, with a bittersweet tinge at the conclusion. Discussing this season, it’s interesting how many cinematic and cultural touchstones are being called on by Brooker and his talented directors, outside of the technological warnings and innovations. More perhaps than any other season, the fourth feels like it’s tapping into many of Brooker’s inspirations from cinema and beyond.

Front and centre as always, nonetheless, are how human interactions influence advances in technology, and the other way around. ‘Crocodile’, a paean to ‘Scandi-noir’, depicts the gestation of a female serial murderer where the technological innovations–a memory reading device used for insurance purposes–only exacerbates her descent into darkness, and certainly doesn’t cause it. ‘Arkangel’ is a key example of a cautionary tale which places the cause and effect in human hands – a device which can allow the ultimate in parental control over a child which leads to self-destructive, violent behaviour and deep loss.

Brooker’s message continues to be a simple one, underneath the dressing – technology isn’t always going to save us, or allow us to protect our loved ones. Technology can be corrupted for nefarious, immoral ends by men like Robert Daly from ‘USS Callister’ or ‘Black Museum”s Rolo Haynes. It can very easily and decisively turn against us as in ‘Metalhead’, stripping away our humanity. Though sometimes, as in ‘Hang the DJ’, it can help us find happiness, even via the most surprising and unorthodox means. It can also aid catharsis, though Brooker’s mechanism of delivery through that in ‘Black Museum’ is as dark as anything his show has ever given us; in a world of racial segregation and subjugation, the powerful vengeance in the season’s final episode strikes a chord.

With this latest season, Black Mirror cements its credentials as one of the most fascinating and challenging series in modern television. Though it may end up lacking the reach and sheer influence of The Twilight Zone, it speaks to our societal anxieties about the creeping advance of technology controlling or dominating our lives in a varied and satisfying way.

When the sky remains the limit, you wonder if Black Mirror continues–and there is no reason to suggest it wouldn’t–just how high it may reach.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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