If you’re reading this review, then you’re either on the Internet or leafing through a paper copy that a very patient friend has printed out for you. If you fall into that second category, then don’t worry — “Hated in the Nation” will take mercy on you. If you are indeed accessing this article via an Internet-enabled device, however, you’re cordially invited to join Charlie Brooker on the path straight to hell.
The final episode of Black Mirror’s third season orients itself around an experience well-known to even the most casual denizens of the World Wide Web, a toxic phenomenon that has regrettably inched closer and closer to being normalized as a part of everyday life. As recently as ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable that getting repulsive invective spewed at you by complete strangers would be par for the online course, and yet, here we are. We’ve gotten too desensitized to the epidemic of online hatred, and Brooker’s season-ending technoparable reminds us just how ugly human nature can turn with the proper prodding.
The anthological structure of Black Mirror defeats the concept of a “finale,” and yet it feels all too appropriate that “Hated in the Nation” should close out the new wave of episodes. The 90-minute run time marks this as a yarn with more to say than usual, not unlike the marvelous holiday triptych “White Christmas.” And like that grim story of sin and punishment, Brooker doesn’t simply indict one narrow channel of tech or dig into the details of a high-concept premise. His goals are far wider, to do nothing less than expose how modern life has shifted with sea-change enormity. Inventions, he suggests, are just toys until they start to fundamentally change who we are as a society.
Further expanding his repertoire of genres to include “cop procedural,” Brooker and his director, TV stalwart James Hawes, set up a cracking serial-killer mystery for the season’s closing number. Our heroes are no-nonsense veteran detective Karin Parke (Kelly MacDonald, triple-fire emojis from start to finish) and her newbie partner Blue (Faye Marsay), and their first case together is a real puzzle. A newspaper columnist pens a controversial column badmouthing a disabled activist, and slashes her own throat. Soon afterward, a rapper has a violent seizure following a markedly dickish appearance on a talk show in which he makes fun of a child’s dancing. The only apparent link? Both victims were the subjects of online dog piles in the hours before they passed. Of course, something’s still fishier than yesterday’s rubbish.
Mercifully, none of the lines in “Hated in the Nation” are as clichéd as that one I just used. Brooker shows a surprising facility for the stylized language of pulp crime novels, a departure from his usual terse, reserved dialogue. As the BS-averse lead investigator, MacDonald lays claim to the episode’s best lines, bringing the wry comedy that Brooker usually leaves unstated right to the fore. She’s not a Luddite by any means, but Karin isn’t nearly as jacked into the latest tech as Blue. After her junior partner explains a complex method of phone tracking to her, Karin grumbles, “I can’t believe I’d be living in the future, but here I fuckin’ well am,” effectively summing up how watching Black Mirror feels to a third party. What may be the greatest and most teasingly profane one-liner of the series — “Okay, the government’s a cunt, we knew that already” — sounds like poetry on her lips.
But the cop-talk is just flavoring on the hearty dish that Brooker’s cooked up for his captive audience. The real treat here is a twisty and twisted mystery that involves government malfeasance, Twitter, a densely coded virus, and robotic bees used to artificially pollinate the country’s plants in the wake of a colony collapse. (And, in the parlance of today’s headlines, What It Means For Us Now.) “Hated in the Nation” splits the difference between Brooker the storyteller and Brooker the wild-eyed prophet, equal parts surface-level genre pleasures and more philosophical substance. Come for the high-tech whodunit, and you’ll be surprised at how darkly implicating the eventual discovery actually is. Come for the searing meditations on the mob-minded culture of online hatred, and you’ll start to feel guilty when you recognize the sick fun of Brooker’s taut plotting.
Come for the robot bees, though, and you’ll be satisfied through and through. The robot bees deliver.
As invigoratingly unusual as “Hated in the Nation” is, its agile movement between cerebral sci-fi and emotionally rooted moralizing identifies it as a satisfyingly representative note for Black Mirror to go out on before returning to hiatus. (Netflix has ordered a fourth season, and Brooker already confirmed that Jodie Foster will direct an episode, but his gradual pace means it could be another year or two before we get more.)
A viewer stumbling into the series for the first time with “Hated in the Nation” would get the full impression of what Black Mirror has to offer. We get the chance to see some outstanding actors, writers, and directors have a little fun outside the constrictions of Hollywood and try out an idea a little too risky for a big-budget movie production. Brooker treats us to his best black humor, which coaxes out the laughs from under the terrified whimpering. He shows off his Rod Serling–level skill for short-form narrative, building dazzlingly elaborate worlds in mere minutes. And most crucially, Brooker builds stories with urgent timeliness. He trades the traditional concerns of decades past — Twilight Zone–favored themes like Commie paranoia and homeland intolerance — for the mounting generational anxiety over technology we don’t yet know how to control.
And somehow, he doesn’t come off looking like a scold, either. “Technology is evil!” would be an awfully boring stance to take for six hours at a time, and Brooker knows this. His prevailing take is something closer to “Technology is wondrous, but people, yeesh, what bastards.” If there’s a villain to be found in these stories, it’s the fickle human, so prone to such system errors as vanity, selfishness, pettiness, and vice. No story about technology would be worth reading if it weren’t also a story about people, and Brooker never loses sight of rooting each episode in the now. We gape in horror at his full-immersion video games and personality-sapping social media platforms, but that’s pretty rich, coming from us. As if we don’t get a little further from the better angels of our nature with each new Facebook update.