I had some concerns with the new made-for-Netflix season of Black Mirror, which I outlined in my review earlier this week. Netflix released the new season earlier today, which means at least some of you have had a chance to watch all six episodes (the rest of you can bookmark this for later reading), which means I can get more specific – with full spoilers – about each episode, coming up just as soon as I call Mom…
The Community episode with MeowMeowBeanz beat Mike Schur and Rashida Jones to this particular punch, but “Nosedive” took the idea seriously, and expanded it beyond one community college campus to show how annoying the whole world might be if we could all upvote and downvote one another. As mentioned earlier in the week, I think this would have done vastly better at 30-40 minutes, with a quick setup showing how much Lacie has invested – both in terms of self-esteem and her desire to get the discount she needs to afford her new home – in improving her ranking, followed by the trip from hell either ruining her or setting her free, depending on your point of view. In this version, the set-up just keeps repeating the same points over and over, when the real dramatic and comedic meat is in seeing her life fall apart as her plummeting score becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Still, Bryce Dallas Howard and Cherry Jones were great, and the catharsis of the final scene in the jail – when Elcie and her new neighbor can insult each other without fear of (additional) consequences because they're unconnected from the ranking system – a nicely bittersweet ending, which I would say is the closest Black Mirror gets to actually happy endings if it weren't for another one on this list.
This one leans very heavily on Wyatt Russell's sheer charisma and likability to work, since large chunks of “Playtest” are just Cooper by himself, or briefly interacting with CGI creatures that even he knows aren't real. But asanyone who saw him as Willoughby in Everybody Wants Some!! knows, likability and screen presence isn't an issue for Russell.
That said, the “Playtest” story felt a bit thin, with the ending – or one of the endings, anyway – telegraphed by all of Cooper's talk with Sonja about what it was like to watch his father slowly lose his memory. Once Katie warned him that the game would adapt based on his own fears, I figured for sure that some kind of virtual dementia was going to be a part of it, which made his time in the creepy cabin drag at points waiting for that cruel punchline. But there were at least several twist endings layered on top of each other, until Katie's original warning about turning off his phone turns out to be Cooper's undoing, leading to the cruel final joke that, after an hour of people telling Cooper, “You should have called mom,” Katie's final observation of him in her notes reads, “Called 'mom.'”
SHUT UP AND DANCE
Despite good work from Jerome Flynn and Alex Lawther as our terrified chief blackmail victims, this one never really worked for me. A big part of the problem was the need to have a twist ending: saving the explanation that Kenny had been watching child pornography for the end meant that for the bulk of the episode, he appears to be putting himself at greater and greater risk all to avoid the embarrassment of his friends and family seeing a video of him masturbating. Even allowing for the idea that teenagers can overdramatize things and are more acutely afraid of public mortification than adults, there were just too many moments before the revelation where I kept being distracted by the question of why he was still willing to dance to this particular awful tune.
Easily my favorite of the bunch, and the closest that Black Mirror is likely to get to an unabashedly happy ending. As Kelly notes, of course, this is really much more of a happy ending for Yorkie than for her, since Kelly's eternity will be spent without her husband and daughter, and since it's entirely possible that even with each other's company, she or Yorkie could eventually grow numb from the endless pleasures and lack of consequences of this virtual afterlife. But it's still a better “life” than Yorkie ever imagined she would get, a pretty good second act for Kelly, and the ending leaves the sense that those two crazy kids can make a better go of it than Wes and some of the other permanent residents. It's sad – particularly as Kelly and Yorkie's reunion is contrasted with a glimpse of what San Junipero really looks like (rows and rows of computer mainframes, with chips representing each person who has “crossed over”) – but far more optimistic than the series usually gets.
Before that ending, “San Junipero” also works so well because it has both a great idea (what if a technology company could not only build its own afterlife, but allow the living to occasionally visit it before their time is up?) and well-rounded characters to go with it. The opening scenes are repetitive, but not in a way that feels redundant like the first half of “Nosedive.” Instead, each jump forward by a week reveals slightly more about the women, and about San Junipero – and our knowledge of one will ultimately explain the other, and vice versa – dropping little hints that all is not as it seems, until Wes suggests that Yorkie start traveling through time, and we start jumping ahead to the '90s and early '00s (with song cues, pop culture props, and digital fonts to match) until all finally becomes clear when we see what the two women look like in the real world.
Throw in two great performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis and a killer '80s soundtrack – Belinda Carlisle's “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” is such a perfect closing song, given the subject matter, that I almost wonder if the episode, and initial time period, sprung from that – and you've got a highlight of the season, and of Black Mirror to date.
MEN AGAINST FIRE
This one's also oddly-paced, so that it's too long on either side of the twist. The scenes of Stripe and his unit hunting for roaches do more than their fill of explaining what they think their lives are like, and then once we actually see that the roaches are human, the episode takes too long spelling out exactly what this means. Michael Kelly gets a good monologue about how hard it is to get soldiers to actually kill, but the overall impact is too muted by the structure to really convey the horror that Stripe is experiencing.
HATED IN THE NATION
Brooker calls this his homage to Scandinavian noir, but it's basically a really long X-Files episode (there are even nefarious bees!) mixed with the kind of social media commentary Chris Carter barely had to worry about back in the '90s. Regardless of what influence you want to point to, this is as straightforward as Black Mirror gets: a sci-fi crime procedural that allows Charlie Brooker to vent his spleen some more about the evils of Twitter and the mob mentality it can create.
If it had been an actual episode of The X-Files revival, or a new cop show with sci-fi themes – and had been dialed back to the length of one – “Hated in the Nation” would have been a solid but unremarkable outing. But it felt a little too conventional as an episode of Black Mirror, even with the near-future tech and Twitter hate. And the ending – Blue, having faked her to death in order to better pursue the killer, is getting close to her quarry – seemed particularly off in this kind of anthology show. Yes, the implication is that Blue is going to get her man, and we don't need to see anything more, but even that's much more a resolution of the plot than of the theme, which is how Black Mirror stories tend to conclude.
What did everybody else think? Which new installments did you like best? Would you hold any of them next to the highlights of the earlier seasons?