Black Mirror’s New Season Is a Little Light, Until It Gets Darker Than Ever

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It makes sense that a surreal mind-blower of a year would end with new episodes of Black Mirror, the Netflix anthology series that is often surreal and always intent, sometimes to a fault, on blowing minds. The question is whether audiences will be up for more dystopian technological terror at the end of what has felt, to some, like 365 days of punishment.

Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, who wrote or co-wrote all six episodes that debut on Netflix on December 29, said that “there is some more hope” in this season, but that’s only true to a limited extent. Although a couple of the new installments have a lighter tone, three of the others skew unflinchingly dark in ways both too gratuitous and gimmicky to enjoy.

A good Black Mirror episode either grounds a futuristic, high-tech, high-concept premise in a relatable context, or it steers the story into unexpected, emotionally resonant places. The best ones, like “San Junipero” or “Be Right Back,” do both. Only one of the new episodes, “ArkAngel,” succeeds on that metric. Too often, this season skews too heavily toward bleakness, is weak on character development, and strains so hard to shock that it ultimately frustrates more than transfixes. This is only the second season to be fully created under the auspices of Netflix and to feature six episodes instead of three. Given how thematically redundant some of the new material is, it’s fair to wonder whether Brooker would be better off doing less rather than more.

All six episodes, directed by filmmakers ranging from Jodie Foster to David Slade (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), are elevated by strong performances and incredibly detailed production design that makes the settings feel credible, even when the characters in those settings engage in behavior that isn’t. As is always the case on Black Mirror, each narrative functions as a cautionary tale about our increasing reliance on all things coded or in the cloud, primarily its effect on personal privacy and its Orwellian freeze on free will. But some highlight those issues with more subtlety than others, so I’ll approach each episode individually, listed in order from best to worst.

“ArkAngel”

Jodie Foster’s deliberately low-key and efficient directorial style gives this episode a slow-burn, dramatic punch that feels earned, rather than demanded. Rosemarie DeWitt is thoroughly convincing as Marie, a single mother so protective of her daughter that she buys into ArkAngel, an experimental software system in which chips are implanted into children so that parents can not only keep an eye on where they are, but adjust the settings to block unpleasant imagery — even the real-life kind — from innocent eyes, and also see what their kids are experiencing in real time as if there’s a 24-hour, accessible security cam in their heads. Naturally, this provides reassurance at first, and quickly becomes problematic.

This is easily the most emotionally affecting episode of season four, in part because the ArkAngel program doesn’t feel like it’s that far away from actually happening, but also because it so effectively heightens the natural tension in a mother-daughter relationship by introducing misguided gadgetry into the mix. Black Mirror is supposed to reflect a version of our own experience back at us, while sounding technology-enhanced alarms about what the future may hold. “ArkAngel” does that better than anything else in season four.

U.S.S. Callister”

The longest episode of the season, with a feature-length run time of an hour and 16 minutes, “U.S.S. Callister” considers the sinister side of alienated fanboys, a topic that feels, uh, pretty relevant right now. Jesse Plemons does a terrific Jekyll and Hyde as Robert Daly, the meek and creepy chief technology officer at Callister Inc., and Captain Daly, the William Shatner–esque role he inhabits in a virtual-reality game based on his favorite TV show, the Star Trek–esque Space Fleet. That game also happens to feature several of his colleagues — including the company’s co-founder and CEO, played by Jimmi Simpson — whose digital alter egos cater to Robert’s whims in ways that initially seem like attempts to boost his fragile ego, but eventually reveal themselves as something far more disturbing.

“U.S.S. Callister” is problematic in a number of ways, most notably in the leaps of logic it must make to travel from mandated plot point A to mandated plot point B. But the ensemble cast is great — Cristin Milioti is the major standout as a new hire who gets sucked into Daly’s Space Fleet fantasy and immediately wants the hell out — and the premise is intriguing enough to stay compelling for all of those 76 minutes. “San Junipero” emerged as the talker of Black Mirror’s third season; I suspect this will be the talker of season four.

“Hang the DJ”

More rom-com than horror show, this Black Mirror episode immerses its characters and its audience in an online dating community that’s far more controlling than Tinder or match.com. Couples don’t just use an app; they live and breathe in a realm where they’re repeatedly set up with potential partners, and where they can learn what the expiration date of each new relationship will be. Every disastrous pairing that lasts too long and every flame that’s stamped out too early is supposed to provide data that the system uses to help participants find their perfect partners, but the problem is that Amy (Georgina Campbell of Broadchurch) and Frank (Joe Cole of Peaky Blinders and Thank You for Your Service) know right away that they’re into each other, even though their expiration dates tell them otherwise.

“Hang the DJ” is reminiscent at various moments of the soul-mate-matching aspect of The Good Place, The Truman Show, and an M. Night Shyamalan project, right down to its twist ending. Brooker and director Tim Van Patten shield important details for reasons that become apparent when it’s all over, but still are frustrating as the hour unfolds. (Do these people have their own homes? Don’t they have jobs?) It’s not nearly as insightful about romantic partnership as season two’s “Be Right Back,” but it’s intriguing, amusing, and sweet. And sweetness is particularly appreciated in light of the three episodes I’m about to describe.

“Metalhead”

This 40-minute piece is the first Black Mirror episode presented in black-and-white, and it unfolds in a mode similar to “White Bear” in that it’s an extended chase. But this premise is even more stripped down than the one in that season-two episode. “Metalhead” opens with a crew of people breaking into a warehouse to get a box whose contents are a mystery — MacGuffin alert! — at which point a drone that moves on all fours like a dog and has a gun for a leg starts attacking them. This robot beast takes out everyone except for a woman (Maxine Peake), who spends the rest of the episode trying to escape. That’s literally it.

The conceit makes for some suspenseful moments, though not nearly as suspenseful as the moments in “White Bear,” in part because we don’t have enough context about the protagonist, the world around her, or what she’s trying to accomplish. Once again, Black Mirror withholds information for a reason, but in this case it’s to the episode’s detriment.

“Black Museum”

If you’re one of those people who watches Black Mirror episodes in random order, I strongly recommend saving this for last, as it contains several references to previous episodes, including ones from this season.

“Black Museum” is a compendium piece that tells three separate stories that don’t quite have enough heft to merit a full episode on their own. The umbrella under which those stories sit is Rolo Haynes’s Black Museum, an institution that’s located in the middle of nowhere and contains a sizable archive of technological innovations that were misused to commit crimes. A woman visiting from out of town (Letitia Wright of Humans, and soon to be seen in Black Panther and Ready Player One) stops into the museum, where she’s regaled with tales told by Haynes (Douglas Hodge) about doctors who literally feel their patients’ pain, a man whose late wife’s consciousness is implanted in his head, and, most offensively, a hologram of a convicted killer who becomes the museum’s primary attraction because visitors are allowed to repeatedly electrocute him to death.

None of these stories are as inventive as Brooker and director Colm McCarthy seem to think they are. (The second one, about the man with his partner lodged inside his brain, reminded me too often of the movie All of Me.) What’s worse is the way the whole episode turns into a weird revenge fantasy that should feel like a cathartic strike against Trumpism, but instead comes across as forced and gratuitous. Since it plays like an overview of Black Mirror history, “Black Museum” could easily function as a series finale. If future episodes are going to be like this one, maybe it should be.

“Crocodile”

This one opens with a jarring and upsetting accident: After a night spent clubbing and drugging, a couple hits a young boy with their car and kills him. The woman, Mia (Andrea Riseborough), suggests they call the cops, but her boyfriend insists they get rid of the boy’s body as well as the bicycle he was riding, so they toss both into the nearby sea. The episode then jumps many years into the future, where Mia is a successful home designer with a husband, a son, and a chic new platinum-blonde haircut. Predictably, the events of that long-ago afternoon quickly reassert themselves into her life, forcing her to respond in some very extreme ways, then figure out how to cover up the choices she’s made.

It’s difficult to discuss what’s so annoying about this episode without spoiling it, but the main issue is that Mia does things that seem completely out of character based on what we learned about her in the opening sequence. “Crocodile” wants to explore how far a person will go to protect her reputation, and how advanced technology makes it harder and harder to take such steps without getting caught. But like “Black Museum,” it’s filled with so much brutal, senseless violence that it exists more to make the viewer grimace than anything else. (Of course, that’s not a first for Black Mirror: “The National Anthem” and “The Waldo Moment” both fit in that category, too.) Riseborough’s performance is certainly committed, but at the end of a tough year, the last thing people may want to see is torture porn. And that’s all that “Crocodile” has to offer.

Black Mirror’s New Season Gets Darker Than Ever