Last year, Black Mirror — the sci-fi anthology series created by Charlie Brooker that’s like a Twilight Zone for the smartphone age — debuted its first season produced expressly for Netflix, which had previously held the streaming rights to episodes made in the UK. It was a glitchy transition, with the unlimited creative freedom of the streaming world mainly leading to episodes that were too long and/or shapeless to properly get their satiric points across. (There was still one genuinely great episode, the ’80s-flavored metaphysical romance “San Junipero.”)
The second Netflix season debuted earlier today, and it’s significantly better across the board. Brooker and company have a firmer handle on the proper architecture for each story (only one, “Crocodile,” really drags), and if the show is starting to repeat itself a bit (the last episode of this batch, “Black Museum,” is basically Black Mirror’s Greatest Hits), the execution tends to compensate for the spottiness or familiarity of the ideas.
Because so many of the episodes lean on surprises, in the premise and/or twists at the end, I didn’t write an advance review. Instead, I’m going to go episode-by-episode — with full spoilers for each — coming up just as soon as I steal back that lollipop…
Like a number of Black Mirror stories, this one raises a lot of questions if you think too deeply about it. How, for instance, would it have never occurred to anyone that little kids with the Arkangel implant would eventually become teenagers, and then adults, with the Arkangel implant? Obviously, technology in our own world gets rushed through all the time without the consequences full considered, and in the world of this story, the program was shut down years before Sara becomes old enough for the technology to start causing this huge rift with her mother. But this one seems so obvious, it’s a wonder no one — least of all Sara’s Luddite grandfather — thought to mention it and consider what might happen. And beyond that, the tech doesn’t make the story feel that different from a mother sneaking on her daughter’s journal, or tracking her phone or duplicating her texts without permission. Yes, Marie can see what Sara sees, and can monitor her vitals (which leads to her discovery that Sara is pregnant, and the surreptitious dosing of her with an emergency contraception pill), but the conflicts on the whole are almost too relatable to fit on this show.
Having said all that, I found pretty much all of “Arkangel” gripping in the moment, thanks to the performances of Rosemarie DeWitt as Marie and Brenna Harding as the older Sara, and thanks to sensitive and engaging direction from Jodie Foster. (Between House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and now this, Foster is becoming something of a Netflix house director.) “USS Callister” is this season’s feature-length installment, but “Arkangel” is the one that feels most like a movie (a compact indie short film, at least). The mundanity of the problems perhaps makes it an odd fit for the series, even with the implant in Sara’s head, but it’s the smallness of the whole thing — particularly in the way that Sara’s relationship with Trick seems much worse than it actually is because Marie can expose herself to so much of it (and then try to push the two of them apart, which only pulls them closer together) — that makes it so emotionally effective. Sara’s making mistakes, but even after the impact of having the Arkangel filtering out frightening images and concepts for a while when she was little, she’s grown up to be a pretty normal and level-headed kid, where it’s her mother who’s driven by the technology to do monstrous things like abort her daughter’s pregnancy without even telling her about her condition.
This is one where the idea could have used some tweaking, but the character work was so strong, it ultimately didn’t matter.
Where last season’s “Hated in the Nation” felt too long almost from the moment it started, “USS Callister” moves so briskly, and has such a strong central idea, that I didn’t even realize it was supersized until after it was over. Easily one of the best and most entertaining episodes the show has done.
What seems at first like it could be a wallow in nostalgia for the original ’60s Star Trek instead turns into a blistering screed against the whiny entitlement of fanboys and other beta males, a satire on the excesses and attitudes of the James Tiberius Kirk brand of space opera, and a rollicking thriller about the poor co-workers — or, at least, poor sentient digital copies of co-workers — trapped in Bob’s sick virtual fantasy.
To a degree, it’s a rehash of ideas Brooker used in “White Christmas” — specifically, the pure hell of being an artificial copy of a real person, forced to bend to the whims of whoever’s in charge of the system you’ve been installed in — but the Star Trek spoofing, the performances (by Jesse Plemons, Jimmi Simpson, and, especially, Cristin Milioti), and the prison break that “Lt. Cole” inspires the others to stage with her ultimately make it feel like its own thing. At times, it’s horrifying in its portrayal of toxic masculinity given godhood, at others incredibly fun, and in many moments, both at once. (Cole: “Okay, stealing my pussy is a red fucking line!”)
Brooker and William Bridges’ script is a bit fuzzy on the details of how Bob’s mind gets trapped in the game, leaving his body a useless husk back in the real world. (This also renders the lollipop-stealing gambit with the real Cole moot, not that the digital version knew it at the time she blackmailed herself.) The energy of the caper is so strong that the happy ending for everyone else — an anomaly in past Black Mirror seasons, but a slightly more frequent occurrence here (perhaps because Brooker felt the real world is now so dark, he needs to take it easier on us) — felt earned, and almost necessary. Plus, Cole and the others becoming immortal space travelers in the real version of the game allowed for a nifty voice cameo from Aaron Paul. (“Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, video games!”)