Before we get into the new season, I thought I should give just numerical scores for the previous episodes of Black Mirror:
The National Anthem – 4/5 | Fifteen Million Merits – 3/5 | Be Right Back – 5/5 | The Entire History of You – 5/5 | White Bear – 3/5 | The Waldo Moment – 2/5 | White Christmas – 5/5
And now on to Season 3:
Nosedive was not a great opener to the season. But we’ll start with the good.
Bryce Dallas Howard and Alice Eve were fantastic as our try-hard protagonist and queen bee antagonist respectively. Black Mirror continues to nail the look of near-term speculative sci-fi while keeping everything tonally and thematically on the level: the forced twee of the pastels contrasted with the brutalist overpasses and overall sterile nature of the world. I loved the little detail where everyone in a service job was a POC, which then has very unfortunate implications when you have neighborhoods gated by ranking.
But the overall premise felt too cliché and hamfisted. As soon as the episode started, I knew exactly how this episode would go, and what would happen to the protagonist, and what that would look like. And the old lady in the truck…really? And it’s not just that the premise – that giving people a ranking on how well they perform their own lives is superficial – is overdone, it’s really not as profound as it thinks it is.
Maybe counter-intuitively, Black Mirror is better when it says something about today rather than trying to say something about our future, when it’s about humanity, not technology. And the fact is, this system is clearly inhumane. We already live in a world where we’re constantly judged, project only our best selves on social media, and can only move up in status through knowing the right people; but when people do have the idea of trying to actually boil all that down to a single number, we’ve rejected it. Not only was that Peeple app from some time ago wholeheartedly rejected, but we don’t currently judge each-other based on how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers they have. We’ve all already realized that’s completely idiotic, and we tend to think of the people who do place importance on those numbers as superficial.
Really, the closest thing this episode should draw comparison to is credit scores…which is an entirely different kind of hell.
Also, Community did it better…or at least with some more humor.
On the other hand, this episode blew my mind. As soon as the episode lays out its premise, that the protagonist – played right up to the edge of where likable becomes unlikable without ever going over by Wyatt Russell – is testing an augmented reality horror game, it knows exactly what the audience thinks is going to happen, and stays one step ahead right up until it’s final killer button. Charlie Brooker knew his audience would be looking for Chekhov’s guns, so he sets decoys that you still feel great for falling for. It’s as much a game for that audience as it is for the main character, and it’s one that’s completely thrilling to lose.
And the main reason it works is because each layer of the episode is done so well. Dan Trachtenberg directs the haunted house part of the episode as straight horror, with impeccable use of empty space and still cameras to build suspense, but only during the haunted house scenes. He commits to the more innocuous settings just as well, but it’s the clear transition into more genre-heavy stylistic choices that sell the multiple misdirections of the episode.
And that Bioshock reference – brilliant.
Shut Up and Dance
I feel like this is the television equivalent of a “u mad?” and I think the show knows it too.
Our main character, Kenny (Alex Lawther) is a timid teenage boy whose blackmailed into doing various tasks that quickly escalate from cake delivery to bank robbery to prevent some embarrassing footage of him being leaked. Along the way he meets other victims of the same blackmailer, all being extorted into doing seemingly random – sometimes criminal – tasks. The whole episode is a rolling snowball of suspense, which each text from the anonymous blackmailer feeling like a gun being shoved into the characters backs. And along the way, we’ve also gotta question how far Kenny is willing to go to prevent a seemingly relatively innocuous leak.
But the eventual pay-off…Well, it feels like the episode knows how disappointing it is and leans into it. I mean, you can’t have a Radiohead needledrop and not be leaning into it, no? Plus the actual visual artifact the episode uses? I mean, it has to be self-conscious…but that doesn’t keep it from being severely underwhelming.
If you start this episode feeling like it’s version of 1987 is a little too self-consciously period piece-y, you wouldn’t be wrong; and that’s about all I’m going to say about the plot of this episode. Well, that, and that, being a love story, it’s the most optimistic episode of Black Mirror yet.
Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw have dynamite chemistry as the nerdy girl and cool girl who end up falling for each-other, and Owen Harris’ direction of the episode is full of fun sight-gags, clearly relishing the opportunity the plot gives him to visually explore the time period. Plus there’s the period soundtrack, one song of which in particular takes on a very poignant meaning by the end credits.
Despite how well so much of this episode works, I feel like the Charlie Brooker was a little too married to the mystery box part of the plot, and the episode suffers because of it. While it works on pretty much every level as a reveal, and there are enough breadcrumbs where careful viewers can piece it together; by the point the episode shows its hand, it requires an additional exposition dump to explain everything it purposefully left vague. Even if you hadn’t figured it out before the reveal, there’s a sense that the episode could have told you some things a little bit sooner.
I also feel that one decision a character makes at the very end is a major switch from what she says like, two scenes before, I wasn’t exactly sold on that. However, all in all, San Junipero was a very cute Black Mirror love story, and I hope it isn’t the last we see of the show’s cheerier side.
Men Against Fire
I have the same the same problem with Men Against Fire as I do with Nosedive, except I think this episode executes on its premise better than Nosedive did.
The plot concerns Stripe (Malachi Kirby), a soldier defending against “roaches”, a sort of zombie-esque enemy with infectious blood. But after his first close encounter with a roach, he begins to think his enemy isn’t exactly what he believed. It’s Black Mirror’s version of a “war is hell” story that uses technology as a way to talk about soldier’s conditioning, PTSD, and the dehumanization of enemies.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this story is going, especially if you’ve seen Starship Troopers or District 9, and the episode doesn’t really take the opportunity to do anything novel with its premise. Plus, it does a thing I really don’t like, where at the end, it has a character explain all the subtext to the protagonist just so everybody “gets it,” even though everything had already been made pretty clear.
But the reason I prefer this episode to Nosedive is two-fold. One, while just as cliché, Men Against Fire’s premise is at least more sound – war really is hell, and its still something that we do. Second, Men Against Fire has some great depictions of PTSD, and how we treat soldiers who have it. The scene where Kirby jolts awake in his bed, surrounded by other soldiers sleeping comfortably, aided by their military tech, and the other one where he’s actually tortured by what he’s done on the battlefield are incredibly gripping, capturing the loneliness and trauma of being a soldier. And the ending of the episode is a damning image of how we still treat our veterans once they come home.
Hated in the Nation
This feature length series finale is Black Mirror at its best, distilling and condensing the message that technology is only as awful as we want it to be, and showing us one possible bad-timeline where we’re blind to how harmful technology allows us to be to each-other until it’s too late.
Hated in the Nation deftly combines ideas about call-out culture, social media’s enabling of mob mentality, the internet of things, cyber security, government surveillance, and the alarming rate at which bees are dying into a cohesive and thrilling murder mystery.
Kelly MacDonald and Faye Marsay play the grizzled detective and her fresh-faced tech-savvy shadow respectively, teamed up to solve a series of deaths seemingly linked to a public-shaming hashtag. The episode is smart, knowing that most of the audience will have figured out the murder weapon before the protagonists, and puts that mystery to bed early, instead shifting the main dramatic question to a classic who dunnit?
And while there does end up being one specific mastermind to catch, in true Black Mirror tradition, the ending doesn’t leave anyone off the hook. As Brooker has said time and time again about his show, the technology is never the villain; and in this case, neither is the criminal. The villain is a society who lets technology enable and reward their basest behavior to destroy the people and world around them. And by the end of Hated in the Nation, society pays a dear price.