Black Mirror Season 4 dropped on December 29th, on Netflix.
Watch it. Oh my God, watch it.
Now, then; Spoilers ahead.
EPISODE 1: USS CALLISTER
The aspect ratio of the opening sequence matches the aspect ratio of the old Star Trek television show. It’s little things like that keep my coffee hot and get me up in the morning.
“USS Callister” really tells two stories: the first is the tale of a loser computer programmer named Robert Daly, who’s created a groundbreaking Virtual-Reality-based game that lets people fly around the universe in spaceships, explore planets, battle each other trade, etcetera. The guy he started the company with is a dick who doesn’t appreciate his contributions to the company. His coworkers think he’s weird and awkward and kinda creepy sometimes.
The second story is that of a sadistic and cruel God named Robert Daly. Daly has created a parallel Virtual Reality that allows him to play out his fantasies of being a Hero in Charge, based on a retro science-fiction television show he loves. (Think Star Trek.)
The twist of the knife is that he has peopled this game with digital copies of coworkers he dislikes, generated by stolen samples of their DNA. They have all their memories and personalities from the real world. They are sentient, thinking and feeling as their real-world selves.
What “USS Callister” asks us is (among many other things), are they alive?
Not that episode one is all scowling and torment. Brooker mentioned that Black Mirror would ‘explore a little more comedy in this season’, and there is certainly a strong heartbeat of humor here. It’s the best kind of laughter, too, for the series: black humor. Hangman’s jokes. The dry British chuckle in the face of the abyss.
Watching the tortured, terrified digital clones of the USS Callister unwind while Daly is logged out of the game reminds one of London in the Blitz. Sure, there are bombs and blood and rubble everywhere, and things are pretty awful, but at least the bottles behind the bar survived.
When the newest digital clone, Nanette Cole (played by Cristin Milioti) finds out that nobody has genitals in Daly’s digital world, her battle cry is priceless:
Okay. Stealing my pussy is a red. Fucking. Line.
“USS Callister” is like a great Doctor Who episode that just happens to be Rated R.
When the trailers for Season 4 dropped, the teaser for “USS Callister” left out the real world entirely. It was a move of twofold genius. First, it saves the surprise of our first, bleak glimpse of the real world. Our introduction to neurotic weirdo Daly (an absolutely stunning performance by Jesse Plemons) feels like a nihilistic sigh of relief. It doesn’t have to be full dark 24/7, but there’s something in the uncompromising, unblinking hardness of Black Mirror that has always set it apart. A certain bleak jouissance that no other show delivers.
Second, it works as a commentary on the episode itself. In our little taste of “USS Callister,” the real world isn’t there at all. The trailer promises pure sci-fi. Pure escapism. Fun. Adventure. There’s no trace of the sinister sadism of Daly, or the suffering of his comrades. There’s no sense of true tragedy or actual stakes.
Just like the immersive, next-gen VR in the episode.
“Callister” examines the more disturbing elements of the AI and VR booms we’re seeing right now. Ten years from now, if we have a bad day, put on our VR headsets, and kill a hundred digital people in Call of Duty online, what will that mean? In a world where code is ever-improving, at what point is a program as nuanced and multifaceted as us? We don’t feel anything drowning Sims or making them wet themselves…but should we? If not today, when? At what point does simulated suffering cease to be Catharsis and become Sadism?
With the advent of technology like CRISPR, perhaps we aren’t so far from Daly’s nightmare after all.
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EPISODE 2: ARKANGEL
The obvious big-gun episode of the season is “Arkangel.” There’re no scrubs in the directorial talent of Black Mirror, but Jodie Foster (four Oscar nominations, two wins, Silence of the Lambs, ‘nuff said) is clearly the Heavy Hitter.
She swung for the fences.
She knocked it out of the park.
I don’t even like baseball.
“Arkangel” tells the story of a mother and daughter. When her daughter Sara (Aniya Hodge, Sara Abbot, and Brenna Harding) goes missing, Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt, Cinderella Man, Mad Men) has a monitoring system implanted in Sara’s head. It’s called “Arkangel,” and gives Marie access to Sara’s location, biological vitals, and even a direct feed from her optic nerve. Marie can see what Sara sees.
But “Arkangel” isn’t really about the creepy sci-fi stuff. None of the best episodes of Black Mirror are, and this is one of the best in the series. No. “Arkangel” is about what happens as Sara grows up. It’s about the Helicopter Parents of the future. About how far Marie will go to keep her safe, and how much of herself she’ll compromise to do it.
And the inevitable price to be paid.
The brilliance of Foster’s episode is (to borrow from Blake), its fearful symmetry. Its balance. Each element dances with another, each character reflected darkly in the actions of others. Sara and the all-seeing eye in her head are like a weight in the center of the episode. On one side is Marie and her Orwellian baby monitor. On the other is Trick (a superb performance by Own Teague), the Cute Drug Dealer from the Wrong Side of the Tracks, and all the rebellion and danger he represents.
Every line, every interaction in the episode shifts that weight, tilts the precarious position of the scale. Structurally, it’s breathtakingly beautiful. There is no wasted moment.
I don’t know whether to give the nod to Brooker (who has sole writing credit on the episode) or Foster for the delicate dance of these threads. The interplay between the writing and directing style is an elegant pas de deux, each word and element circling the others, and pulling the weave ever tighter.
Brooker understands Irony in a way that few shows do, and utilizes it like the keen, heartrending edge that it can be. And he knows Tragedy. The Capital-T kind that the Greeks told us so much about, all those years ago. He knows it intimately. Knows that the key to Tragedy is Hamaratia: the Fatal Flaw.
There are several Fatal Flaws in “Arkangel.” They run (appropriately) in arcs through the episode. Tracing those threads back reveals the subtlety and nuance Foster and Brooker actually manage.
Almost everything Marie does throughout the episode is countered or echoed elsewhere: when she reactivates the Arkangel unit in Sara’s teens, she sees her having sex with Trick, the “Dangerous Bad Boy.” Yet, that same night, she met up with one of her patients from physical therapy: a devil-may-care biker who injured himself driving his motorcycle recklessly, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Marie sees Sara experimenting with cocaine in Trick’s van. The effect of the drug is that it raises Sara’s heart rate. A few days later, Marie grinds some drugs into Sara’s morning smoothie. The effect of drugging her daughter is the spontaneous abortion of a pregnancy Sara didn’t even know about.
It’s ironic that Marie should confront Trick, condemning him as “a junkie.” Throughout the episode, Marie treats the Arkangel parent unit as a junkie treats drugs. She hides the unit upstairs, laments over whether to use it or not. Okay, just this one more time. Uses it just a little. Just a few functions. Starts carrying it with her. It’s clear that she’s addicted to it.
There’s even a brilliant reversal of the classic “Parent finds drugs in the kid’s room” scene, where Sara rifles her mother’s room and discovers that she’s still using the Arkangel parent unit. Sara is horrified and tosses it down, the perfect picture of a parent discovering their child’s dangerous addiction.
Marie is the first victim of Arkangel, and in her victimhood, she stands for all of us. I don’t mean the program itself. I’m talking about the sentiment behind it. Beneath the eerie veneer of the invasive surveillance of tomorrow, “Arkangel” is quietly commenting on something we’re experiencing today.
Safety. In excess. In extremis.
The opening scene of the episode doesn’t just establish the characters and set the stage. It holds up a mirror. Marie is giving birth: after complications during natural birth, the doctor is performing a C-section. “Arkangel” opens with Marie looking away from the things that frighten her: the doctors, the nurse, the procedure she’s undergoing. When Sara is finally born, the doctors whisk her away to a table nearby. There is no sound. No cry. Other doctors gather, and Marie becomes afraid: afraid her baby is dead, that she’s lost her little girl, and is powerless to help.
“Tell me she’s alright,” she says.
The nurse holds her hand, tells her to calm down. Comforts her. Then Sara cries and is brought over, and she’s fine, and everything is fine. We get the sort of close-up maternal scene we’re accustomed to seeing when babies are born on television. Lots of nuzzling and happy tears and lifelong bonds being wound between mother and child.
And then, brilliantly, brutally, honestly, Foster shows us what we seldom see these days, too busy cooing over the microcosm and the close-up.
She shows us the big picture.
On one side of the curtain, Marie is bonding with her little girl. Her daughter is alive and well. Everything is fine. Nurses smile and nod and congratulate her. And on the other side of the curtain, her body is open and bloody. Doctors work quietly to stop the bleeding and make her whole again. Though a routine procedure, Marie has experienced massive trauma, could conceivably die if things go wrong…but she’ll never know. The sheet protects her. She doesn’t feel a thing: the doctors have numbed her to the trauma she’s experiencing. All that’s left is bliss.
(By the by, I’m not suggesting we force new mothers to watch surgeries performed on them without anesthetic. I’m not a monster. I am an observer of metaphors.)
The “parental control” of the Arkangel unit is obviously the darkest, most troubling of the sci-fi elements of the episode, but it raises some interesting questions about what safety might mean, in the long-term.
When Sara’s grandfather has a heart attack, she can’t see what’s happening to him, and can’t hear his pleas for her to get help. She’s shielded from the trauma by the unit. But there’s a parallel in our world, here: if we crumble in the face of fear and trauma, shutting down and closing it out, refusing to look, what are the consequences of that willful blind eye?
Later, as Marie grieves over her father’s grave, Sara can’t see her mother’s face. Grief is uncomfortable. It has been censored out.
Again, there are real considerations for us in the real world. If we turn our backs on grief and powerful, negative human emotions because they make us uncomfortable, what does that mean? The end of empathy? A society that must grieve alone and uncomforted, with no community to feel and grieve with us, no strength to be lent to us because we are, in our sadness, upsetting?
Just something to think about.
Sara’s grandfather speaks for some us, after Marie has the Arkangel implanted in Sara’s head:
“I remember when we used to open up the door and let the kids be.”
It provokes an interesting thought. The difference between opening a door and a locked one can be the difference between a home and a prison. Between a conversation and a censure is the difference between a parent and a warden.
And once you’ve escaped a prison, why would you ever go back?
There’s a common thread between “USS Callister” and “Arkangel.”
When Cristin and company break out of Daly’s digital world, they have a whole new universe to explore. They’re in charge of their own destinies again. They have free will, and the will to live.
Once Sara escapes her mother’s smothering safety, she has a whole world to explore. She’s free, finally, with her whole life ahead of her.
Watching these two episodes, I noticed something for the first time. In the opening credits of Black Mirror, just before the screen goes dark, and we stare into the black possibilities of the onrushing technological age…
The Black Mirror always cracks. The mirror Brooker holds up is not impervious. We can escape.
There’s always hope.