In order for an episode of Black Mirror to function properly, it has to obey the “yeah, no shit” Rule. The show usually excels in bridging the gap between the outlandish and the frighteningly plausible, but every suspension of disbelief has its limits. The rule comes into effect when a premise leans too hard on our willingness to play along, followed by a knee-jerk instinct to say “yeah, no shit” when an obviously imminent disaster finally strikes. A lot of discomfiting, surreal developments have come to pass in real life, and so creator Charlie Brooker gets a lot of leeway for his wilder figments. Ask yourself, though: Wouldn’t you have a misgiving or two about the ethics of eradicating your child’s mental privacy?
Yeah, no shit.
Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) does not, at least not after a close call at the playground where it seems for a moment like her precious Sara has been abducted. Nobody else at Arkangel, the company specializing in brain implants that live-stream a child’s eyesight to a parent’s iPad, seems to realize what a colossally bad idea they’re sitting on, either. That so many people could approve of a concept with such glaring potential for calamity and/or human-rights violations is simply too far-fetched to accept. (Brooker knows it, too! After a couple scenes and one time jump, the Arkangel program has been banned, a tacit admission that the idea wasn’t really workable to begin with.) The question isn’t so much “What could go wrong?” but rather, “How could it possibly go right?”
While the core conceit doesn’t make any damn sense, at least “Arkangel” trains its sights on an interesting idea. Helicopter parenting gone mad is the commentary du jour in this episode, as well as the bad practices that arise from the best intentions. Marie would probably tell you she’s only guilty of being a mother who cares too much. Even when she’s flagrantly violating her daughter’s selfhood, it’s always borne from a paranoid concern that something bad has happened. But parenting is a game of moderate negotiations — you must be authoritative but approachable, engaged without stifling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of the nurturer and the enforcer — and that’s tough for Marie to manage. She’d rather be overprotective because she knows full well how cruel the world can be for a young woman.
But skinned knees, failed tests, and other assorted screw-ups also toughen kids up and ready them for the world of adulthood. The “filter” feature on the Arkangel program, which blurs any offending material from a bare breast to a barking dog, deprives the subject of any opportunity to do that. The mythical “perfect parent” is not the one who insulates their child from all of life’s scary bits, but rather the one who knows when it’s safe to let their kid flounder on their own a little. Again, it’s all about threading a tricky needle: Your teen will probably have a couple beer-y nights in high school that prepare them for college, maybe an educational hangover or two. A teenager regularly boozing is a bad sign, but sending your young one off to get utterly blindsided by the effects of alcohol can lead to a stomach-pumping just as easily. For this episode’s failings, we must credit Brooker with creating the rare meditation on the millennial generation that rightly looks to the parents for answers instead of blaming the youth.
Whatever wisdom “Arkangel” has to offer concerns the unusual psychological ramifications of total parental control. Because Sara (portrayed as a teen by Brenna Harding) has been denied a normal relationship to such grown-up matters like sex and violence, she grows up with dangerously skewed notions of what they’re for and how they work. Brooker draws a clear line through carnality, inviting us to connect the dots between a girlhood glimpse of porno and the highly theatrical nasty talk she busts out while losing her virginity. Because Marie has muted enough mitigating factors in Sara’s day-to-day maturing, she has to learn about complex parts of coming-of-age in secrecy. In Spring Awakening, this repression spun out into back-alley abortions and furtive sex-ed pamphlets. For Sara and Marie, it’s even darker.
Understandably, Sara isn’t too jazzed that her mother installed a nanny cam inside her brain, and her rebellion drives her to dark extremes. I’m not referring to her fling with a coke dealer named Trick, by the way. He turns out to be a pretty decent guy, hustling for a good cause and never getting high on his own supply. He even advises Sara not to mess around with the stuff, but her curiosity gets the better of her. Still, Brooker is sharp enough not to play Sara’s experimentation with drugs as particularly scandalizing: Kids get high, then they come down a little more experienced — such is the way of life. Again, Marie is the one at fault, nervously tuning in to the Sara Show at the worst moment possible.
It’s not often that you encounter an ending that feels both inevitable and like it came out of nowhere. Of course Marie and Sara are on a collision course with one another, and yet the episode still sprints from 0 to 100 when Sara acts out by brutally beating her own mother. (Sara bludgeons her mom to a bloody pulp with the Arkangel-enabled iPad, as Brooker bludgeons us over the head with symbolism. Bludgeonings all around!) One would charitably call that an “overreaction,” though as previously mentioned, Sara’s stunted psychology could have something to do with it. Regardless, the moment is played as abrupt and melodramatic, getting incredulous snorts where it’s angling for gasps. It would take a director with a mastery of tone-shifting to swallow Brooker’s big pills, and regrettably, this episode has Jodie Foster.
As incessantly demonstrated in her directorial features The Beaver and last year’s Money Monster, Foster is a pro when it comes to misunderstanding the emotional timbre a scene should have. The former, execrable even if it wasn’t a stepping stone in the Mel Gibson comeback I refuse to accept, slopped sugary corn syrup all over the morose tale of a deeply depressed, compartmentalizing man. The latter tried to be a taut thriller, a satire on the economy, and a character study along the lines of “What if Jim Cramer was handsome?” all at once, with some boner jokes thrown in for good measure. Again, Foster mishandles “Arkangel,” which could have stood a chance of success if only the character beats had been arranged properly. Instead, it lands perilously close to after-school special territory in the awkward jag of brutality in the final scene. The kill adds up in the episode’s larger moral calculus, and it might even pass muster under the episode’s ridiculous but intact internal logic. But all that counts for peanuts when it feels so misplaced.
Empathy is often in short supply on Black Mirror, but maybe Foster just feels for Marie a little too much. “Arkangel” wants her to be a good person so badly, for the gross invasions of her daughter’s autonomy to be all in good faith. That’s the part that rings falsest of all. When you love someone, when you truly love someone and aren’t merely maneuvering to control them, you have to let them live.
A previous version of this recap incorrectly stated that Rosemarie DeWitt’s character dies at the end of the episode.