The Christmas period was interrupted with the return of Charlie Brooker’s dark and dismal dystopian anthology series.
Mastering various storylines about the effects of technology on humanity and vice versa, Black Mirror has been an audience favourite since its inception 6 years ago.
Hailing from the witty yet cynical mind of Charlie Brooker, each and every episode has a topical concept with political and social themes – and whilst not all the stories are equally strong, even the weakest stand out with their intelligent concepts and writing.
This latest season is no different, and with even more stars and a bigger budget, it’s easy to see that Black Mirror is careering into a league of its own. Below is a spoiler free breakdown and review of each episode.
Episode 1 – USS Callister
We first meet Captain Robert Daly aboard his ship, with a Star Trek-style band of merry crew members. It’s only later that we realise Robert is actually a shy, mildly creepy CTO that is the laughing stock of the office, secretly using his advanced video game technology to create his own universe where he is the star.
He meets Nanette Cole, a new recruit at the company and fangirl of his work in coding – but soon loses her attention as his showy yet seedy business partner Walton (Jimmi Smith) and office gossip Shania (Michaela Coel) warn her away from him. Robert seeks virtual revenge on Nanette, and what follows is an incredibly hilarious, surreal, and horrifying ride through an internet universe.
Clearly the standout episode of this season, USS Callister is full of unexpected twists and genius performances from the whole cast, as well as sci-fi nostalgia. It’s an indicator of the budget now involved in the making of the show, combining a look into the future of virtual reality gaming with the technicolor of old sci-fi television shows to create a cartoonish version of hell.
It will have you laughing and gasping in equal measure – and in the age of virtual reality, doesn’t seem that far away. But then, isn’t that the uncomfortable nature of this show?
Episode 2 – Arkangel
Directed by Jodie Foster, this episode features Arkangel, a technology that allows parents to locate their children through GPS, see through their eyes, and even filter anything that they deem inappropriate or could cause them stress – all through a chip in their head.
After she loses her daughter Sara in a playground, Marie (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) decides to take Arkangel up on a free trial. It starts well, providing parental comfort, but it soon becomes obvious that the control it gives Marie over her daughter’s life is damaging and causing obsessive behaviour in the worried mother – so she turns it off, and puts it away.
Fast forward to a 16 year old Sara (Brenna Harding), and after a night where she stays out past curfew, Marie turns to Arkangel once more – as you might imagine, it doesn’t end well.
The setting to this episode is curious; it has the dystopian elements that you expect with Black Mirror, and retro American indie all in one. With this advance in technology set against the backdrop of peeling brown wallpaper and grungy 90s fashion, it embeds the idea into the viewer’s mind that this is a future not so distant and instils dread.
Of all the Black Mirror episodes, Arkangel is one of the most realistic in terms of the effect of the technology on the user. It taps into the concept of overbearing parental controls and takes it to the next level, leading to especially awkward scenarios once the daughter hits her teenage years. It creates an incredibly plausible reality in the way that this system could affect the children socially, and puts the nature vs nurture debate under the microscope.
Episode 3 – Crocodile
This next episode shows some heavy influence from recent Nordic dramas. Set in a vast landscape of ice and snowy mountains, it lets the audience know we’ve entered unsettling territory.
Years after a couple dispose of the body of a man they have accidentally killed, one half gets back in touch, unable to keep their secret any longer. Meanwhile, an insurance claims investigator interviews people whilst using a device which allows her to extract their memories.
We won’t divulge how the two stories intertwine, but know that this is one of the darkest stories of the season, exploring how far people will go to maintain their innocence, and also how technological advancements can help or hinder criminal investigations. Crocodile explores whether it’s the technology that’s evil or those who use it to great effect.
Andrea Riseborough is phenomenal as Mia, someone who has worked hard to make something of herself, but who quickly loses control of her emotions and actions. She displays a complete downward spiral very well in such a short run time.
Crocodile is one of the more grim episodes – however, fantastic cinematography and the use of suspense make up for any faults. Besides, cue one great cameo from a guinea pig and you have one of the most talked about episodes of this season.
Episode 4 – Hang the DJ
Hang the DJ is season 4’s answer to season 3’s San Junipero, though never quite reaches the same level as the previous Emmy award winner.
This episode covers dating in the modern era, with users living inside a system that provides an expiry date on each of their relationships, ranging from just mere hours to their “perfect” match which lasts for the rest of their life.
Frank and Amy’s relationship is brilliantly romantic, realistic, well-portrayed, and also exceptionally British, and the two leads deliver great performances.
The first two thirds of this episode are fantastic; it is a heart-warming love story that the audience want to root for. However, the resolution seems extremely rushed and somewhat out of the blue, with not much explanation provided for quite a convoluted ending. Questions are asked right at the end with no mention of them previously, and then these questions are answered practically straight away. The whole mood of the episode changes within minutes and then it ends – and we can’t help but feel that the writers were so keen on making another San Junipero that the finished product doesn’t quite come together at the end.
Episode 5 – Metalhead
The penultimate episode to season 4 has to be one of the most divisive episodes in the show’s history, and with a method of storytelling so different to others from the show, it is easy to see why. It covers only a short period of time, with no explanation of the technology or the world in which it takes place, and is shot completely in black and white.
A group of what seem to be thieves arrive at an abandoned warehouse in order to steal a mysterious object. Upon finding the box they’re looking for, they are met with a dog-like robot which is set to protect the goods of the building.
Metalhead is the shortest episode of the season, and is essentially a quick succession of horrific events surrounded by suspense and one big question – what was in the box? The lead character Bella (Maxine Peake) carries the whole show almost entirely on her own, right through to its grizzly end.
Maxine Peake is exceptional as Bella. She pulls off everything from drama to action in this one episode and does brilliantly well to carry the story as a sole character for pretty much the whole running time.
Metalhead is one of the better episodes of Black Mirror due to its uniqueness and stand out appeal, and sparks the most intrigue out of this latest season. It is scary, thrilling and suspenseful, and packs an emotional punch in its closing scene.
Episode 6 – Black Museum
Unfortunately, the finale of this season of Black Mirror was also the most disappointing.
Similar to the previous episode White Christmas, although not as well executed, Black Museum is a story that links together much of the previous seasons with plenty of easter eggs for megafans to spot.
Nish is the protagonist, a young woman on a road trip across America to see her father. Whilst charging her car she takes a visit to the Black Museum, run by the slight erratic Rolo Haynes and full of objects which were involved in horrific crimes. He tells Nish the stories behind some of the pieces before revealing the main attraction to her, which then leads to the big finale of the episode and the season.
Disappointingly, each segment of the episode made up of the different stories Haynes is telling is way too long and drawn out. Whilst relevant to the underlying message of the episode, the writers take the long way round – and despite the resolution being incredibly satisfying, cathartic and empowering, the pacing of the build up doesn’t leave the audience in a heightened state of anticipation (as you might hope), but instead mildly relieved that they have finally reached the ending.
For an episode with such an important message regarding race, the treatment of criminals in the US and the way humanity utilises technology, the dampening effect from the pace of the show makes for more passive viewing than perhaps was anticipated.
As always, the release of new Black Mirror episodes is surrounded by much excitement and hype, and whilst season 4 is probably the weakest season to date, it turns out that the stories in this show are like slices of pizza – even the bad ones are still pretty good.
Black Mirror is always innovative, surprising, and doesn’t seem to be showing signs of slowing down any time soon.
But the problems with an anthology format are perhaps starting to show; dealing with multiple stories means that inevitably, audiences are going to prefer some episodes over others, find different meanings and interpret a variety of messages in many different ways. And, could it be that Black Mirror is losing the elements of shock and surprise that made its earlier episodes so impactful?
We give season 4 of Black Mirror 4 stars for continuing to enthral audiences across the globe and for some truly standout episodes, despite not quite reaching the supremely high standards that the show has previously set out for itself.
All episodes of Black Mirror are streaming on Netflix now. Take a look at the trailer, if you haven’t devoured the full series already.