Black Mirror can be as feared as it is celebrated.
The Netflix anthology series thrills in the form of anxiety, with writer-creator Charlie Brooker trading on our itchiest paranoias in his eerily prescient cautionary tales about the dystopian hellscape that awaits if we continue to let technology rise at the expense of human decency.
Gaining in popularity since its first episodes were released in 2011, the series has earned designation as “A Twilight Zone for the Digital Age,” resonating so chillingly because, unlike so many other sci-fi works, the technology and societal impulses it is warning against already feel familiar, not some far-flung future fantasy. The call is coming from inside the house—on your mobile phone, that you have uploaded all your personal information to for the government to peruse, in the smart house that you’re entirely dependent on.
Black Mirror is terrifying, stress-inducing, and often bleak. With the world around us increasingly the same, to the point that buzz for this new season jokingly wonders how the new episodes could possibly be scarier than 2017 is already, the idea of watching Black Mirror becomes at once cathartic and traumatizing.
Given all this talk of darkness, it’s all the more remarkable—or maybe, really, completely logical—that the standout episode of the new season is the one that’s actually hopeful.
“Hang the DJ,” the episode in question, will undoubtedly draw comparisons to last year’s uber-romantic “San Junipero,” which created the year’s rawest love story in a virtual-reality simulation. It’s also a league above the other episodes that were previewed for critics, for which the review embargo lifted Wednesday, though Netflix has yet to announce an official release date for their streaming.
“Hang the DJ” imagines a dating technology that is like Tinder on steroids. We’re introduced to two adorable and charming first-time users Amy and Frank, played by breakout performers Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole.
The app they’re using doesn’t just match its users based on algorithmic compatibility. It literally traps them in some sort of wall-enclosed community with other users, matching them with different partners for different periods of time until it has gathered enough data to provide the user with his or her Ultimate Match. That means that users aren’t just matched with each other, but their relationship is actually given a binding expiration date, after which they will be matched with someone else. Sometimes it’s hours. Sometimes it’s years.
Frank and Amy’s relationship has an expiration date of just 12 hours, which they find slightly confusing given how much they respectively enjoyed their brief time together. Confusion steadily evolves into frustration as they suffer through a series of miserable partners for years after, only to—finally—be matched together again.
That’s not the end of the story, though. As in life, Black Mirror rarely offers happily ever afters—at least not ones that come so easily. But what happens is immensely gratifying, and you’ll swoon through the twists and turns along the way.
It’s a fascinating look at the control we’re willing to give up on our lives in order to streamline the process of dating, and the blind trust we’ll put in technology, even when it comes to matters of love and happiness, when promised that some series of formulas and algorithms can offer some statistical guarantee of success. But the allegory here doesn’t necessarily go in the direction you’d expect, which is as fun a surprise as the electric chemistry served up by Cole and Campbell.
More, it’s a vital respite from the gloom-and-doom view of the future that’s come to define the rest of the series. And there’s plenty of that this go-round.
There’s “Arkangel,” which was directed by Jodie Foster and stars Rosemarie DeWitt as a mother whose maternal anxieties are first relieved and then horrifically burdened after she makes the decision to implant her daughter with a protective surveillance device. It might be one of Black Mirror’s most easily accessible episodes, spelling out the existential questions raised by advancements in technology with more clarity than other outings. In this case, it’s questions about how necessary exposure to darkness, fear, and grief are to us as humans, and the crippling seductiveness of control.
The bleakest of the episodes, “Crocodile,” was shot in Iceland, which serves as a mesmerizing backdrop to a violent psychological breakdown suffered by a mother (Andrea Riseborough) who is forced to confront a horrible event from her past that comes back to haunt her as a result of—you guessed it!—an intriguing advancement in technology. In this case, it’s a device that can access your memory and allow others, like investigators, to watch them.
It’s a fairly straightforward depiction of how guilt can cause a person to spiral out of control, told cleverly through the narrative weaving of her devolution with a side plot about this memory technology. But none of it would work at all if it weren’t for Riseborough’s riveting performance, easily the best acting work of the season.
The rest of the series once again dances through genres. The tense “Metalhead,” filmed in black-and-white, essentially becomes one giant chase film. The feature-length “USS Callister,” an entirely deranged and grimly funny Star Trek send-up, will make you never want to play a role-playing game again. In the same vein as the fan favorite “White Christmas” episode, “Black Museum” is a compendium outing of three stories contained in one.
While each is certainly well-executed, the kinds of stories these episodes are telling have now, after 19 episodes in the Black Mirror series, become somewhat familiar—hardly the psychological grenades that blew our minds in previous seasons. Bizarre as it sounds, this new batch isn’t as unsettling as you might crave. With the exception of “Hang the DJ,” they seem more emotionally distant.
But while that may be the case, the overall premise is still provocative, leaving the show as much of a conversation starter as it’s always been; the post-episode debate is often more engaging than the episodes themselves.
There’s still something provocative and viscerally upsetting about this very real idea that we’re creating our own doomsday, with all of these advancements essentially fashioning a demolition button. What remains to be seen is whether we’ll design it to detonate itself, of if we’ll be driven to press it in reaction to the world we’ve created.
Do we really want what we say we want when we greenlight these new technologies? What are we really giving up each time we shrug at surveillance modes on our mobile devices, or blindly approve an app’s privacy policies? We’ve become technology lemmings, working out how we can run faster off the cliff.
At a time when pop culture of all kinds has assumed different levels of immediacy or resonance because of today’s politics and societal tensions, there’s the question of whether we really want to be frightened by a series like this at all. Black Mirror used to be fantasy, warning. The prospect of its episodes becoming a reality was haunting. Now reality is haunting enough.
At the very least, for one hour in your Black Mirror binge, reality can be hopeful and romantic, too.