By ANDREW FOERCH
It’s ironic how Black Mirror’s unsettling message encourages us to put down our cell phones and turn off the TV, when the show’s crazy originality makes it nearly impossible to not spend three or four hours just staring at a screen.
It feels more accurate to describe Black Mirror as a collection of mid-length films than as a TV series. The episodes run between 45 and 90 minutes, have no narrative connection to one another and all contain fully resolved arcs. Each unique world is a wonderful, frightening extension of our own, taking place in a future so close we can see it spilling over the horizon if we squint hard enough.
With just seven episodes scattered between 2011 and 2015, intrigued viewers like myself felt teased by Channel 4’s (a British TV broadcasting company) limited investment in this promising series. Our patience was rewarded in September 2015, when Netflix announced the production of 12 new episodes to begin rollout the following year. On Oct. 21, we got the first set of these new chapters: a six-episode first half of the show’s third season.
Written almost exclusively by the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror investigates how further development of today’s technologies might change the way humans live in the modern world. The new season considers phenomena including social media, virtual reality, internet blackmail and autonomous mechanical drones. As was the case in the previous two seasons, the outcome is rarely cheerful for the characters involved – though the episodes differ in style, cast and world, they are almost all laced thickly with dark cynicism and paranoia. If technology is going to change the world, who’s to say it won’t change for the worse?
This isn’t a show to just throw on for some living room background noise – you’ll want to really immerse yourself in Booker’s premises to get their full effect. Yes, this series features some really cool predictions about the technological future, but the social tension and strange human interactions that result are the true driving force behind Black Mirror’s success.
Of course, because the episodes are all so vastly different, it’s hard to judge the season as a cohesive unit. Instead, here are my worst-to-best rankings and reactions to each episode from Black Mirror’s third season:
“MEN AGAINST FIRE”
Black Mirror’s most righteous episode was actually the one I enjoyed least. A platoon of soldiers, including our protagonists Hunter and Strike, traverses a war-torn countryside clearing the area of dangerous vermin called “roaches.” The technology here is an operational implant called MASS that appears in the host’s field of vision. After a strange interaction with a roach, Strike’s implant malfunctions. He can now see what all the others can’t – roaches aren’t what they seem.
Subtlety is not among this episode’s strengths. At times, the message becomes a too-preachy lesson about nationalism, prejudice, and xenophobia. Also, we don’t ever get enough insight into the backstory of the characters to really be able to care deeply about either of them. It’s an interesting – if not subtle – concept really bogged down by a lack of character depth and a predictable ending.
The fact that “Nosedive” is second-to-last on my rankings shows just how strong Black Mirror’s third season is – by no means is this a weak episode. “Nosedive” is disconcerting (at least to me) in that the future presented in this episode feels the most likely to actually happen. Here, social media has evolved a step or two. Smart-contact-lenses are the norm, and social status is determined by a five-point peer rating system. If you’re below a 3.5, good luck taking out loans, getting a job or making friends.
The story follows insecure Lacey Pound as she struggles to improve her rating by mimicking the behavior of “high-fours” in an attempt to build long-term relationships in higher social spheres. This troubling satire reflects our current state where people care more about their virtual image than they do their actual life, and forces the audience to consider the value of social media. A dark tale of individuality and person-to-person relationships in the internet age, the episode actually surprises with a satisfying and relatively optimistic end scene. It’s an interesting and relevant premise, but this isn’t the most exciting or action-packed episode of the season.
This concept – a virtual reality fear factory – is one of my favorites from the season. Globetrotting cool-guy Cooper (who is fleeing from the pain of his father’s death) is strapped for cash. To earn an extra buck, he volunteers to be a test subject for a new virtual reality program developed by gaming company SaitoGemu. The VR game puts the subject face-to-face with his deepest fears, the goal being to last as long as possible in the virtual world without needing to return to reality.
On paper, Playtest warns against the dangers (and potential unethical applications) of virtual and augmented reality. Really, though, it’s about confronting your fears. The VR focuses on teasing the nightmares out of this character’s psyche, and they are seated deep. This episode is probably the scariest in a traditional horror film sense. We get some seriously dark emotional reactions when the VR experience gets intense – and it does. The visuals for the VR sequences are great too; they’re as real to us as they are to Cooper. Including a rhino-sized spider with the face of a high-school bully, his fears become our fears. The ending, an inception-esque twist, could have been done better, though. As it stands, the sequence is a bit confusing as to how it fits the logistics of the plot structure earlier in the episode.
“HATED IN THE NATION”
At 91 minutes, the season finale is the closest thing we have to a Black Mirror feature film. We’ve all heard bleak predictions of what will happen once the bumblebee population goes extinct; this story provides an intriguing answer to the speculative scenario. In the universe of this episode, bees have been replaced with mechanical Autonomous Drone Insects (ADIs).
The main conflict arises when an anonymous hacking group takes control of the ADIs for nefarious purposes: a twisted game where these metallic bees burrow into the brain of a new most hated individual in Britain at the end of each day. The pacing here is great. As the stakes grow and the plot unfolds, we are drawn in deeper and deeper, parallel to the characters we root for.
Unlike these last four episodes, “San Junipero” stands against the bleak future suggested by Black Mirror’s existing catalog. One of the most popular episodes to date, this is an endearing story set in the 1980s about two young women, Yorkie and Kelly, who frequent the party town searching for entertainment. Although the circumstances are inconvenient for both, the women meet and begin confusedly falling in love – love that transcends regular boundaries of space, time, and even death. The question arises – does human life really still mean anything in a world where San Junipero exists?
As with all Black Mirror tales, “San Junipero” has its heart-wrenching moments. This time, though, they’re balanced out by the story’s charming sense of hopefulness. That’s why this episode is so powerful – after sitting through hours of dark, ominous foreboding about the sinister possibilities of advanced technology, we are finally warmed by a rare ray of light.
The climax, while intriguing from a character development standpoint, isn’t terribly dramatic (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Visually, the episode is just lovely. Splashy fluorescent lights cast the town (and each scene) in neon, retro ambience. The soundtrack is awesome too. Featuring classic hits like Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” Saklkllt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” and Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown,” the episode captures the essence of identifiably nostalgic eras of American pop culture.
“SHUT UP AND DANCE”
For me, the new season’s most disturbing offering is also it’s most entertaining. In this twisted thriller, a seemingly average teenage boy named Kenny becomes one of many victims in an anonymous hacker group’s blackmail scheme. The hackers take control of Kenny’s laptop camera and film him during an extremely intimate moment with himself, then threaten to leak the video if he doesn’t follow their increasingly risky demands.
This story is terrifying because of how plausible it feels. Taking place in current-day London, this premise doesn’t rely on some sparkly new technology from the future to create conflict. Instead, it’s people who want to manipulate and destroy lives because they can – in the digital age, this kind of extortion could feasibly happen to anybody.
Kenny’s sudden panic, shame, and guilt are why we sympathize so strongly with him throughout the episode. He’s just going about his everyday routine (working at a diner and arguing with his sister) when out of nowhere, his entire future is on the line – Kenny must protect a truly unforgivable secret. Alex Lauther’s wildly convincing performance only adds to the episode’s intensity, which builds to a towering crescendo before Brooker’s shocking ending leaves the audience in shambles.
Andrew Foerch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.