Review: BLACK MIRROR Season 4 (Part II – Episodes 3 & 4)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW

While “Crocodile” felt a bit like a filler episode, lacking the nuance and depth of the best of Black Mirror, the issue it examines (surveillance and the sanctity of thought) is interesting. Some moments shine.

“Hang the DJ” is Brooker back to True, at his best. Delicately structured, wonderfully shot, incredible concept…another bit of spec-fiction brilliance.

   

EPISODE 3: CROCODILE

If you read my first review, you’re probably still wiping off the drool from all my slavering praise. The season’s first two episodes are incredibly strong. “Arkangel” could very well show up in this year’s Emmy roster. “USS Callister” might be one of the single best episodes of anything I’ve ever seen.

“Crocodile” struck me a little bit differently. The episode starts with a hit-and-run accident (think I Know What You Did Last Summer, but more bleak, less Sarah Michelle Gellar). Mia (played by Andrea Riseborough) wants to go to the cops, but Rob (Andrew Gower) was driving drunk. He convinces her to dump the body and keep the secret.

There’s a thin line between “subtle” and “slow.” For me, “Crocodile” fell firmly in the mire of the latter. After the masterful structuring, nuance, and depth of the first two episodes, this episode is a bit of a slump. The stakes are part of the problem. Or, rather, the lack thereof. From the beginning, I didn’t care much about Mia: when Rob runs over the cyclist, she lets herself be steamrolled into keeping it quiet. When he gets sober and tries to make amends for what they’ve done, she kills him to protect the shiny, new, successful life she’s built. Wife. Mother. Architect with daring hair.

Except…we hardly see any of that life. Her husband is onscreen for maybe three total minutes, and we’re given no reason to empathize with him. Same with her son: he’s just a male human child, more the outline of a character than anything.

There’s a strange sterility in many of the characters, actually. Nobody seems to really mean anything to anyone. It’s like they’re all actors on a stage together, and they vanish from the world the moment the camera looks away. They are without weight or life. What characterization there is feels a bit like Bella’s clumsiness in Twilight. Lacking any real inner life or depth, Bella is “clumsy.” Some of us are clumsy. Thus, we can relate to her.

In “Crocodile,” Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) pops peppermint candies and likes pop songs. What are her dreams? Who does she admire? We find out in the end that she has a child with her husband, Anan, but I only know for sure that they’re married because the characters have the same last name on IMDB. He buys her a hamster, they talk about what time she’s going to be home. That’s sort of it. There’s no sense of history, or sexuality, or chemistry.

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They both get murdered. That’s pretty much all they have in common, as far as I can tell. We almost get a peek into Anan’s inner workings (he’s watching a movie when Mia comes for him), but…nope. All we get is the credits. Even our ostensible protagonist, Mia, is flat and gray as the landscape she lives in. (The scenery in this episode is the highlight. Shot in Iceland, there’s a rocky, desolate beauty that is almost a story in and of itself. The wide tracking shots of cars slipping along barren landscapes and empty roads like black clots into the heart of the wild are breathtaking.)

 

When Mia was young, she liked to party and dance all night. Some of the younger viewers probably like to party and dance all night. What do women drink? (White wine.) What do women do when they murder people? (Almost lose it, but keep it together. Drink white wine.) You see what I’m getting at.

With nothing to invest me, watching Mia murder people wasn’t so much shocking and horrifying as perplexing. And a little frustrating: I was interested to learn more about this newly-sober Rob. Maybe see something of their relationship. Oh. Mia killed him. This investigator might be on to what Mia has done. Oops. Dead. The investigator’s husband knew where she was going, so…nope. Also dead.

Even the baby at the end felt more like a cheap attempt to get me to feel something, like Killing the Dog. I assume Brooker was going for dark irony when the Detective reveals that the baby was blind all along. (So Mia killed him for no reason! Gasp!) But it ends up feeling so shoehorned-in and clunky that it falls flat.

There are definite high points and powerful moments in the episode. By high points, I mean one of the darkest, most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on a screen. This in a series that showed us a man having sex with a pig for nearly an hour.

Watching Mia examine Shazia’s memories without permission was excruciatingly like watching a rape scene. I think Brooker’s larger point about the theme of the episode is colored in, here, and in an episode I was fairly uninvested in, this scene stands out as masterful. Sawar’s acting, the sense of despair and rage and violation, is superlative. Riseborough stays on note, but the flatness of her deliveries works well in contrast to the work Sawar is doing. I nearly cried when Shazia started praying through the gag in her mouth.

Though similar ground was covered in earlier episode of Black Mirror (namely, Season 1, Episode 3: “The Entire History of You”) the thesis of the episode is interesting: what happens when the final privacy is removed? What happens when not even the contents of your mind are safe anymore?

Perhaps it’s reflective of the current political climate that two episodes in a row are addressing Orwellian concepts. Surveillance is a word that raises hackles. “Crocodile” raises questions. As Shazia points out to Mia when she comes to watch her memories, Mia is now required by law to talk about an incident if she’s seen it. The cameras Shazia might have used were vandalized, but what does she care? When you have legal leverage to look at people’s memories, everyone is a camera for the government. We are the surveillance. Big Brother is Us.

 

EPISODE 4: HANG THE DJ

The Mobius Story is a tried-and-true staple of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre. It’s also quite the tricky mistress. But this is Charlie Brooker (sole writing credit) we’re talking about here. With Timothy “Boardwalk Empire” Van Patten in the director’s chair.

Let’s just say they pull it off.

If you haven’t seen it, and you’re still reading this: don’t. Don’t ruin this one for yourself. “Hang the DJ” is too clever, the payoff and final implications too mind-blowing to wreck reading a summation and analysis. So. Go on. Watch it.

“Hang the DJ” is, on the surface, a story about the inevitable future of dating apps and online dating. Frank and Amy are two participants in a new dating program. The computer dictates not only who you are in a relationship with, but predetermines how long that relationship will last. It is infallible. The data it collects from the relationships (experiments?) it puts you through supposedly allows it to predict with 99.8% accuracy who your perfect lifemate will be. It’s never wrong. Nobody ever questions the authority of the program.

The episode asks the simplest, most powerful question science fiction can ask:

But what if…?

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There’s innumerable little bits we could dig into, but the two titanic elements that stand out and most need applause (roaring, standing, bleeding-palms applause) are: the Structure and the Irony. The way the end of the episode feeds back into the beginning feeds back into the end and on into infinity is very much in the spirit of the Mobius Strip. Up until the end, “Hang the DJ” is a good episode. The last five minutes are what make it a great episode.

It would be easy to write the O. Henry twist off as “Oh, really? ‘It was all a dream?’ Great.” But it’s so much more than that. So much more. The recursive genius of that twist was stunning: a dating app measuring compatibility by how many times a couple rebels against that dating app. I’ve said before that Brooker understands capital-I Irony in a way that very few people do.

Well, here: exhibit A. Think about the nuance and implications of that: the episode postulates a computer program that manages to simulate the irrationality and fire of the human heart, and then factors it in to its program in order to mitigate that factor in the real world. Is the final meeting between Frank and Amy hopeful? A happy ending mirroring the arc of their Romeo/Juliet computer analogs? Or is it showing us the real-world beginning of the very program that the app postulates in its calculations?

Not one to twist a knife just once, Brooker’s twist cuts a layer deeper, upon reflection. The app is so elegant and effective that, almost inevitably, its success in the real world will ultimately lead to the world it bases its simulations in. Excusez mon francais, mais… That is fucking brilliant.

Black Mirror explored similar territory in Season 1, but there’s so much more elegance here, such grace. Do we really want to know? All of it? Really? I don’t want to, and, neither, I think, does Charlie Brooker. There’s comfort in the fog. Perhaps the spark of life is really the little thrill of fear we feel in the face of the unknown.

 

IN SUMMATION

“Crocodile” might be your cup of tea. Maybe you need some shock-for-shock’s-sake TV. Maybe you like peppermint candy and pop music. It wasn’t really for me.

“Hang the DJ” has the sort of Forged of a Piece flawlessness that fans of the show came for and stayed for through the first two seasons. One of the great ones.

There’s less cohesion between these two than there was between “USS Callister” and “Arkangel,” but an overarcing 1984-esqu thread is emerging. Control. Privacy. Freedom. These are the concerns this time around.

Timely concerns for all of us, indeed.