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!”)
Like last season’s “Nosedive,” this one suffers from the need to re-establish its technological premise — that both police and civilians (like the insurance investigator doomed by her own persistence) have access to technology that allows them to see a version of what crime witnesses experienced — so frequently, and at such great length, that it’s wearying by the time the real story kicks in with the investigator encountering Mia while looking into a claim that has nothing to do with the various murders Mia has covered up over the years. The idea at the core of this is pretty nifty — Hitchcock meets Serling, as the perfect crime ceases to be so perfect when machines can see what you saw — director John Hillcoat makes great use of the Icelandic locations he used to film, and the last 15 minutes or so, where Mia has to keep killing innocent people (including a baby!) because she can’t risk anyone being scanned, are pretty chilling. It just takes too long to get there, even with excellent performances by Andrea Riseborough and Kiran Sonia Sawar along the way.
“Hang the DJ”
Perhaps the most unequivocally happy ending of the series to this point, in part because it inverts the premise of some of the others, where digital copies of real people get to spend eternity together, even if things are a bit imperfect. Here, the twist is that the characters we’ve been watching aren’t the real Amy and Frank, but the digital copies, who are being run through the 1000th and final simulation designed by the dating app to figure out if the actual versions will be compatible.
Even before that revelation, “Hang the DJ” is significantly lighter than your average Black Mirror installment. It leans heavily on the chemistry between Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole, and though there are ominous hints that there’s more happening than just a dating program (the wall, the black-suited men with tasers), the actual stakes are fairly low-key for most of the running time, as the system keeps pairing them with other people, like the woman Joe gets stuck with for a year even though it’s hate at first sight, while Amy is bounced from one satisfying but brief relationship to the next. Things seem to be taking a dark turn when Joe impulsively checks the expiration date after promising he wouldn’t, but that just turns out to be the final obstacle to spur on their rebellion and prove that the actual versions of themselves are 99.8% compatible, because 998 out of 1000 digital Amys and Franks rebelled.
Too many episodes like this would risk making the entire series feel lightweight, but as a change-of-pace, this was a pleasure.
This one’s a departure in a few ways. First, it’s shot in stark black and white, which is a fascinating choice, given that director David Slade (Hannibal, American Gods) uses color better than anyone else in the TV business right now. Second, it’s relentlessly grim even by Black Mirror standards, taking place in a post-apocalyptic world with precious little hope, with a plot that ends with the death of all its characters. Third, where most of the series’ dark future visions draw a clear line from a contemporary technology to one where that idea has been taken too far, it’s not particularly clear what happened to ruin this particular world. Was it just the construction of these relentless robotic “dogs,” or were they a byproduct of something else? And even if it was just the dogs, they don’t feel like a logical endpoint to some current tech in the way that the stuff from “Arkangel” or “Nosedive” do.
But that last part doesn’t really matter. “Metalhead,” like “Hang the DJ,” is Brooker expanding the definition of what Black Mirror can be, in this case going for a horrific survival tale that doesn’t let the audience breathe any more than it lets Maxine Peake’s frightened Bella — who risked, and lost, everything just to get a teddy bear for a young survivor of whatever’s happened to the world — do the same. The series also wouldn’t work if most episodes were like this, but for different reasons than “Hang the DJ,” but as a one-off, it’s a tough but very effective watch.
This one not only engenders comparisons to past episodes, it invites them, with references to “15 Million Merits” (a graphic novel Jack reads as things start to go bad with having Carrie in his head), “San Junipero” (a technology considered obsolete by the time this episode takes place), and more. And the structure of a collection of increasingly creepy short stories that ultimately intersect is the exact approach Brooker took with “White Christmas.”
The short story approach is a double-edged sword. It allows Brooker to hurl out several ideas in one go that individually might not be enough to carry an episode, like the tale of poor Dr. Dawson, whose diagnostic implant in time makes him capable of only experiencing pleasure through other people’s pain. And it allows him to layer concepts on top of one another, so that the pain sensor can intermingle with the consciousness transfer tech to create the endless nightmare that Clayton’s digital ghost is trapped in at the museum. But where “White Christmas” felt like a satisfactory weaving together of its many concepts, this one felt more like Brooker tossing out a bunch of ideas that seemed to fit together, but not following them all the way through. We saw, for instance, how terribly things ultimately turned out for Carrie to be an observer in Jack’s head — and, for that matter, “Arkangel” shows what a terrible idea it is for a mother to be able to see through her daughter’s eyes — yet Nish’s mother ending up in Nish’s head as part of the revenge plot is treated as part of their shared triumph.
On the whole, it’s probably the shaggiest of this season’s outings, but works often enough — and is filled with so many callbacks from throughout the series — to make sense as the finale.
What did everybody else think? What was your favorite episode this time around?