It took me a while to get here. Last year I ranked all 6 episodes of season 3 of Black Mirror, so it seemed fitting to do the same for the latest season of the acclaimed series by Charlie Brooker that has been airing on Netflix since 29 December last year.
Since it moved to Netflix, it seems to have become an annual tradition that I now spend a few warm summer days in December binging my way through the latest season of Black Mirrror. Once again, in 2017 we got 6 episodes of the show released all at once, as Netflix does. Since this article will rank the episodes from my least favourite to my most favourite, please prepare yourself for spoilers, and make sure you’ve seen them all before you continue reading.
This season appeared to be very divisive, as critics and audiences hailed some of the episodes and disliked others. Overall I thought it was a decent season; even though I’m a much bigger fan of earlier seasons of the series (in its pre-Netflix days).
Just in case you kept reading by accident, I’m placing the Black Mirror Season 4 trailer here to help you avoid spoilers:
Still here? Okay, then let’s get into it.
Synopsis: “In the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Scottish Moors, a woman attempts to survive the land full of ‘dogs’.”
Even though it comes in dead last on my list, Metalhead is by no means the weakest episode of television in general. For me, it was just a weak version of what I expect a Black Mirror to be. This story was thin on plot and thrusts audiences into a post-apocalyptic world where small robotic creatures called dogs are hunting and killing people.
Our protagonist, Bella is scavenging with a group of comrades when they get ambushed. As the only survivor, she spends the rest of the episode trying to… well.. survive.
Spoilers: Things don’t end well for her. It’s got the bleak ending that we expect from a Black Mirror episode, so points for that. Stylistically, this episode is beautiful. It’s got a harsh black and white chrome finish with a simple narrative, and great visual work with the machines.
There’s really not as much exposition in this one; which is something Charlie Brooker has gotten away with in the past in episodes where characters spend lots of screen time actively explaining details of how technology works, or how the world operates.
Nope. Here we just get evil robot dogs, very reminiscent of the creatures we’ve seen as prototypes from companies like Boston Dynamis. Exhibit A:
With things like smart homes and the increasing proliferation of automation in our lives both at work and at home, Metalhead is a cautionary tale about how technology can quite literally turn on us, the creators. One could consider this beautiful because of how simple the idea is executed; but I wanted just a little more detail from it.
Synopsis: “A woman interviews various people using a device that allows her to access their memories.”
The cold open in Crocodile of two people discarding of the body of a man one of them killed by accident drew me in hard. I was ready for this one to go just about anywhere and I would be happy just to be along for the ride.
I was, once again perfectly happy with the narrative. But, this time it didn’t feel like a Black Mirror episode for a very different reason: it felt more like I was watching an episode of Fargo.
The synopsis above is fairly misleading as this focuses on Shazia, who works for an insurance company and has to investigate various claim-related incidences in order to help clients process claims, or stop them from doing so. The story actually spends more time with Mia, who is one of the two people who discarded of the body at the beginning of the episode. The guy she did this with corners her years later, and tries to come clean by admitting what they had done to the man’s widow. Naturally Mia doesn’t want this, and that’s when things start to hit the fan.
The rest of the episode focuses on Mia’s descent as she has to keep murdering people to cover up her secret. Just like Fargo!
What makes Black Mirror, well Black Mirror is the focus on technology and its impact (usually unforeseen, and often negative) on human beings. And in this sense, the technology operated by Shazia to help people recall visual memories, leads to the eventual downfall of Mia. It’s a thrilling story of desperation and a descent into madness. I mean, just imagine what it would do to your mind if you killed someone (let alone multiple people).
The focus here isn’t so much on the technology as it feels more character driven. The coincidence of the fateful meeting between Mia and Shazia is beautifully telegraphed throughout the episode, and it all ends in a very tragic way.
Synopsis: “After nearly losing her daughter, a mother invests in a new technology that allows her to keep track of her.”
From here on, the rest of the list starts to feel a lot more like a Black Mirror episode. We get the set-up of why the technology is being used, how it works, and what the consequences are.
A mother loses her daughter at the park one day, and is thrown into a panic. When her daughter returns safely, she decides to have a chip installed in her head as part of a trial for a new form of technology. This allows her to keep track of her daughter’s whereabouts, but also allows her to not only see what her daughter sees, but censor what she’s able to see and hear.
That last bit is what really leads to the downfall. Arkangel appears to be a clear commentary on helicopter parenting, and how this can negatively impact your child’s response to various emotions, stress, and situations they are introduced to. By the time she’s a tween, Marie’s daughter Sara is hurting herself so that she can feel something and see blood – something that the censorship has kept out of her life experience up to that point.
Later on Marie agrees to turn off the tracking and censorship entirely. Obviously by now Sara is a young adult and her lack of exposure to the real world and all the shit that’s in it has completely messed her up. Her deprivation means that she’s way more experimental and wants to try every new thing that she can.
In addition to helicopter parenting, Arkangel explores the idea of privacy in general as wearable technology and even mobile phones become more invasive (yeah Facebook we’re looking at you and your KFC ads that appear after we have a verbal conversation about how hungry we are). This episode fits in well with the Black Mirror formula, but tells it from a unique perspective as this was the episode directed by Jodie Foster, and the first episode of the series directed by a woman.
The themes of hurting the ones you love the most, and getting the opposite of what you wanted by pushing too hard, are strong in this episode, and really hit home in a sobering fashion.
3. Hang The DJ
Synopsis: “Paired up by a dating program that puts an expiration date on all relationships, Frank and Amy soon begin to question the system’s logic.”
I have to start this one out by saying that I didn’t get the hype around San Junipero. I ranked it 6th on my list for season 3, and then it went on to win 2 Emmy’s. I was like, what the hell is wrong with me? But then I explored more of those thoughts and emotions, and realized that it’s okay to not always like or understand what everyone else likes about something, whether that’s a movie or book or some other form of popular culture. And I wrote about this: 6 Things To Remember When Talking About Movies on the Internet
But enough about me and my insecurity about how I feel about San Junipero; Hand The DJ came to the rescue and delivered a what I feel is a much better “dating/ relationship” episode of Black Mirror. The idea of a system that matches you with someone and adds an expiration date is that brilliant kind of almost-here technology that makes Black Mirror so captivating and feel like it could actually happen in our lifetime.
Maybe a conscious version of ourselves won’t get stuck in a simulation, but maybe the future holds a version of Tinder (an app that matches people for dating based on their interests) where you can overcome obstacles or do more specifically delegated tasks with your match to see just how compatible you are beyond the initial attraction… maybe.
I’m really not looking forward to that day… but as someone who actively uses Tinder, who the fuck am I to judge…
2. Black Museum
Synopsis: “A woman enters the Black Museum, where the proprietor tells his stories relating to the artefacts.”
Black Museum is a lovely crafted love letter to Black Mirror. Yes, Black Mirror wrote a love letter to itself. The Black Museum is a little shop of horrors that explores some Black Mirror-esque cases about the past, as tour guide and museum owner Rolo Haynes takes Nish (the only tourist that day) on a tour of the place, telling her the stories of his past experiments and how they ended up as exhibits in the museum.
This episode is a collection of small stories, with one becoming the main story of the actual episode by the end as the re-telling of a particular story merges with what’s happening in real time. I really don’t want to go into the details here because there are many, and if you’ve seen it you’ll know.
What I loved about this episode is how bold it is; it uses extensive exposition through dialogue and details the inner workings of the technology and its impact on human lives in a brutal and relentless way. And don’t even get me started on all the Easter eggs littered throughout the episode that call back to previous episodes from season 4 and earlier seasons. These callbacks are present in the short stories, as well as the museum itself. While the episode was labelled problematic by some critics, overall I thought this was one of the boldest episodes of Black Mirror to date, and that’s why it’s in at #2.
1. USS Callister
Synopsis: “A woman wakes up on a Star Trek-esque ship where the crew praise their all knowing and fearless captain.”
Yup, here we are. I strongly believe that Black Mirror’s first episode from season 4 was the strongest this season. It’s got everything: A great set-up that misdirects, interesting and worrisome technology, strong social commentary (in this case it tackles toxic masculinity and the entitlement of geeks/ fanboys) and this one had a much more cinematic appearance than usual episodes of Black Mirror.
I mean, the final shot where Cristin Milioti’s character Nanette literally looks at the camera and smiles is a clear swing at that kind of behaviour by people online.
From a technical perspective, the graphics were not bad, and even in moments where they were not 100% believable, we could write this off as being part of the graphics of the simulation created by our villain Robert Daly.
While this episode defies some philosophical theorizing around the separation of mind from body, it’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing, as it’s featured in Black Museum and, more specifically in a previous episode of Black Mirror called White Christmas. The idea of a version of one’s self existing entirely separately from the individual, yet having full consciousness and sentience as that individual is one of the more interesting concepts that Black Mirror has toyed with.
USS Callister takes this concept and adds so many interesting layers like traditional and modern gender dynamics, power and control, as well as suppression and the toxic nature of entitlement. There’s just a lot to explore here, and whether you agree that they nail it or not, overall you have to agree that it’s an interesting direction that decided to go with what was being labelled a Star Trek episode of Black Mirror. Visually, it’s that, but there’s just so much more going on here.
Sadly, this was one of the weakest seasons of Black Mirror to date, yet it had some of the boldest episodes. That may sound contradictory, but maybe I’m just feeling a bit old fashioned. Black Mirror continues to be the phenomenon that makes us question not only our technology, but the way we interact with one another, whether we’re strangers, acquaintances or loved ones.
Charlie Brooker and the team keep bringing us interesting and unique stories that make for some of the most compelling television airing right now.
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