S04 E01 – USS Callister: A standout episode for a reason, though I don’t think it was as good from a storytelling perspective as people have been saying. Cleverly subverts the “nice guy nerd” trope. (4/5)
S04 E02 – Arkangel: Not a terrible episode, but nowhere near as suspenseful or incisive as typical Black Mirror episode. The episode’s premise had a lot of unfulfilled potential. (2.5/5)
S04 E03 – Crocodile: Less social commentary than I normally expect from a Black Mirror episode; the future technology used in this story is never really examined except as a plot device. However, I have to give it credit for being one of the most intense thrillers I’ve seen in a long time. (4.5/5)
S04 E04 – Hang the DJ: The least suspenseful episode of Season 4. It’s already invited comparisons to Season 3’s San Junipero, while being simultaneously lighter in tone and darker in premise. (3.5/5)
S04 E05 – Metalhead: The least Black-Mirror like episode made so far, but I certainly don’t have a problem with a tense, fast-paced post-apocalyptic chase story. (3.5/5)
S04 E06 – Black Museum: If you liked White Christmas, you’ll probably like Black Museum. Had one of the most horrifying subplots I can remember from any Black Mirror episode—this one courtesy of Penn Jillette. (4/5)
Season Four: What Went Right and What Went Wrong
WARNING: Spoilers ahead
I’m going to echo the most common reaction I’ve seen so far to Season 4 of Black Mirror: that it’s still intense, insightful, and entertaining, just…not quite as much as the previous three seasons. Rotten Tomatoes currently has Season 4 rated at 93% by critics and 84% by audiences—tied for last place and in last place, respectively, among the four seasons. Those kinds of ratings are still nothing to dismiss, and I don’t want to come across as trashing the season, so I’ll start with what I liked.
First, the variation in environments was quite welcome. Black Mirror’s typical setting is a near-future Britain or United States that’s mostly indistinguishable from the modern versions of those countries, with the exception of one or two pieces of fictional-but-plausible technology. It’s this proximity to real life that often gives Black Mirror its edge (more on that later), but two of the most entertaining episodes of the season, “USS Callister” and “Metalhead,” diverge from our world far more substantially, and I think their enjoyability as stories benefited from the change of pace. USS Callister’s space opera setting might only be a simulation, but it provided the backdrop for most of the episode, while Metalhead’s wasteland setting and more tangible technology (autonomous killer robots) made it seem less like Black Mirror and more like a Mad Max fanfic set in Scotland (not necessarily a bad thing).
Second, a few of the stories kept my heart racing more than just about any others in the series—I’m thinking specifically of “USS Callister,” “Crocodile,” “Metalhead,” and the first subplot of “Black Museum”. The last half or so of “USS Callister,” where the captive digital crew try to make their escape against a man who is effectively omnipotent in their universe, constantly had me wondering how the hell they were going to pull it off without him finding out. “Crocodile’s” steady escalation of stakes—from reluctantly hiding the body of an accident victim, to killing her ex-boyfriend when he could expose her, to killing an investigator when she sees her memories, to killing the investigator’s boyfriend because he knew where she was, and finally to killing their child because his memories could be examined—had me completely absorbed and wondering how far Mia would go before something finally gave (the forgotten guinea pig, of course). “Metalhead,” as I’ve mentioned already, is a Mad-Max-meets-Terminator thriller. Lastly, while I thought “Black Museum” lost steam as time went on, the first of its three main subplots—an altruistic doctor who gets addicted to the pain he experiences through his patients—was fantastically chilling.
So, given those positives, what didn’t go well with Black Mirror this season?
My biggest complaint is that everything just seemed less relevant than it did before. What Black Mirror has always done well is show how easily humans in the here-and-now could fall into horrific traps with just a few changes to the social or technological order. Think of the major ways human nature is used against us in the modern world—advertising, social media, insecurity, celebrity culture, paranoia, public shaming—and see how frequently those ideas popped up in the first three seasons and how infrequently they’re used in the fourth.
“Crocodile,” for example, shows us a memory-reading technology called the Recaller, and shows how a killer starts having to take more and more victims to cover her tracks due to its presence. It’s a fascinating story featuring a technology that seemingly could be right around the corner, but most of us, I assume, will never be in the position of having to cover up the fact that we ran over a bicyclist fifteen years ago. “Metalhead” hardly has any real message at all. I guess you could infer “killer robots are dangerous” from the fact that the plot consists entirely of a woman running from said killer robot, but nothing about us as humans is ever really explored.
The episode that’s easily gotten the most attention and acclaim, “USS Callister,” was a fun episode to watch, but as I mentioned in the summary, I don’t think it really is as clever as people are saying it is. There’s really no character development or revelation for any of the protagonists over the hour and a half runtime; the biggest change any of them display is when Nanette (Cristin Milioti) goes from deferential fangirling to “stealing my pussy is a red fucking line” without a whole lot happening in between. It’s not a totally implausible development, but it is rather abrupt. The more interesting character study is of Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), who shows the dark side of the “underappreciated nerd” trope. Rather than finally receiving recognition and getting the girl, Daly feeds his resentment at the people around him by creating virtual copies of them to serve as his slaves—sans genitals, of course, to keep everyone chaste (hence “stealing my pussy”).
Additionally, the technology highlighted in “USS Callister” featured a lot more handwaving than any other episodes I can think of. “White Christmas” featured a similar concept of creating virtual copies of real people to serve as slaves, but it showed the copies being created by scanning people’s brains. “USS Callister,” on the other hand, showed Daly creating copies of his coworkers by taking samples of their DNA, and then showed those copies still having the memories of the original person. Obviously all science fiction requires some suspension of disbelief, but Black Mirror usually errs on the harder side of sci-fi.
Contrast all this with, for example, the stories from the first season: “The National Anthem” critiqued the sensationalism and vapidity of the 24-hour news cycle; “Fifteen Million Merits” showed us a world bombarded with advertising and celebrity culture, then pointed the finger at us for our participation in it; “The Entire History of You” showed how a useful, ubiquitous technology could feed paranoia and destroy relationships overnight. These episodes (and most of the episodes from seasons 2 and 3) didn’t just show how technology could go wrong, they showed how technology, when combined with some experience or tendency we all have, could go wrong. That’s what makes the best episodes of Black Mirror so much more than mere sci-fi thrillers.
I acknowledge, however, that I’m being somewhat unfair to Season 4 here. I’m not comparing it to other shows in general, I’m comparing it to the first three seasons, which were some of the best television of the last decade. That’s a high bar to clear, and while Season 4 doesn’t quite make it, it’s still worth watching.