TV Review: “Black Mirror” Season 4 – As Good As Ever

Written by Matt Butler February 02, 2018

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What makes a show bingeable? Looking at the current landscape, you can begin to notice certain patterns that point to an answer. Series’ like Stranger Things, Westworld, 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale share the same goal: bring us back for the next episode. This is accomplished by way of a carrot on the stick; ending one chapter in heated anticipation for the next. It’s an effective framework for engaging your audience in the building drama of your story (it even works with comedies, as exemplified in The Good Place). But then what of Black Mirror, an anthology series with no through-line continuity (seemingly). How does this tentpole Netflix series garner its insane binge-ability? Is it just clever writing? Something else entirely? Let’s look at each episode of the latest season to find out.   

SPOILERS AHEAD

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“USS Callister”

So by this point, you’ve probably seen Season 4 if not most of Black Mirror. If you’re like me, you’ve probably asked one or two friends “Hey, have you seen Black Mirror?”, and at least one of them would say “No, what’s that.” At this point, you’re put in a weird spot: How to sell your friends on Black Mirror. “It’s twilight zone for the modern age”. Yeah, that works, but does it work well. Does it describe the best parts of the show? Does it describe your favourite episode? As with most niche things, the only way to tell is to show.

I think “USS Callister” is one of the better intros into the world of Black Mirror. It starts with the safe and familiar feel of a Star Trek episode, then dives headlong into an exploration of artificial existence. There’s enough comfortable nostalgia to bring in conventional sci-fi fans along with enough critical social commentary to bring back fans of the show. “USS Callister” also helps solidify a lighter, optimistic feel for the season, widening the series’ tonal range.

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“Arkangel”

So right of the bat, I’ll say “Arkangel” is my least favourite episode of this season (Note that “least favourite” does not equal “the worst”). Mostly because the end result is exactly what you’d expect. A concerned mother’s attempt at constant surveillance over her daughter’s life ends up disconnecting her from her daughter’s life entirely. There’s some clever character work, and the pacing is on point, but all in all it feels like a retread of season 1’s “The Entire History of You”. However, this does showcase a cleverness to Black Mirror, that it doesn’t need a new piece of technology every episode in order to explore new angles.

One of Black Mirror’s greater strengths is its acute understanding of human behaviour, and how that differs between a husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, a mother and daughter, etc. This means we can explore the gives and takes of perpetual surveillance from specific perspectives (for the antithesis to this approach, watch the scattershot sci-fi “thriller” The Circle). “Arkangel” doesn’t present any groundbreaking ideas, but it nonetheless provokes thought.

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“Crocodile”

Just when you thought the show was lightening up for good, “Crocodile” takes us back down that old dark alleyway. Once again, ever-present surveillance plays a critical role in the story, but this time the user is the law. The uniqueness with this episode is that we understand the pros and cons of the tech to be in equal measure. We have a collection of free security cameras (people), but yet again the practice induces utter paranoia. It feels less like a dystopian nightmare and more of an experimental yet effective interrogation tactic. And while we empathize with how powerless Mia (Andrea Riseborough) is to the present technology, we know she is far from a victim. It’s fascinating watching her seamless transition from helpless accomplice to full-on infanticide. The enduring question though, do we take this as a cautionary tale, or a freak incident?

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“Hang the DJ”

I think this is the episode everyone’s going to be talking about the most. On the surface, it’s a satire of online dating. On a deeper level, it’s a loving critique of relationships. How they begin, how they end, rinse and repeat until the cycle runs monotone. On an even deeper level, it’s a question of free will. Is it better to leave love to the will of the universe? Or is the universe sometimes wrong?

In the end, “Hang the DJ” mixes the two: perceived willpower. It’s certainly less stressful leaving your dating prospects to the hands of an all-powerful machine, but only when you’re willing to rage against it do you know you’ve found something special. Just like season 3’s “San Junipero”, “Hang the DJ” ends on a warmly optimistic note. If you’re someone who’s grown cynical to the idea of romance, this episode should give the down-the-earth clarity you need.

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“Metalhead”

It’s the rise of the machines James Cameron warned us about. Think the T-1000 in the form of a faceless 2-foot tall black beetle, out to kill you. Of all the episodes this season, “Metalhead” sticks out to me as the most visually striking. If only because the absence of colour makes the CG killer “dogs” look way realer, and thus way scarier. Plus, the contrasting forest backdrop helps keep our focus on the techno-terror. It’s an ever surmounting threat that looms throughout the episode.

The only drawback for “Metalhead” is its simplicity. It’s not commenting on anything, it’s just using our anxieties about rampant AIs to fuel what is basically one giant cat and mouse chase between a relentless quadruped robot and a lone human survivor (Maxine Peake). That’s all the substance to it, which might come off as a downgrade after “Hang the DJ”. It’s a departure from a heady think piece into a chilling techno-thriller. But it’s effective. And for this story, that’s all that really matters.

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“Black Museum”

I have mixed feelings for “Black Museum”. On the one hand, it’s a clever wrap up of all ideas and themes explored throughout Black Mirror and functions as a perfect end note for the series. On the other hand, it’s just that. It’s too good of an ending to warrant any further explorations. To put it simply, “Black Museum” uses three mini-stories connected through one larger story to explore how we experience emotion. To put it more tactfully, watch this wisecrack video. It’s much of the same plotting from “White Christmas” – which feels like an intentional titling choice – only a touch more sinister.

This comes from the presence of a clear villain, Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge). He’s the puppet master behind most, if not all, of the technology in Black Mirror. And I don’t know how to feel about that. I’ve always felt like Black Mirror’s insidious technology was a matter of eventual technology advancements and unfortunate circumstance. It feels like a true threat that way; an inevitable near-distant future where our pursuits for simplifying life only make it more complicated. Having it all be just some guy minimizes the scope of the threat, especially since he’s killed off by the end of the episode. Rolo mentions that he has superiors, but he’s clearly filling the role of the Faustian bargaineer. I’m curious who the threat will be in Season Five, but I also fear that Season Five won’t happen.

But we’ll just have to wait and see! For now, Black Mirror is as thrilling and chilling as it’s ever been, with just the right dose of fun and optimism to engage and surprise. The insane bingeability comes in part from how starkly different yet underlyingly similar each episode is. Each is its own self-contained water cooler topic. But moreover, Black Mirror has an adept understanding of human emotion and how it motivates our collective desire for simplicity. But Black Mirror is anything but simple-minded. Delve in and see what everyone’s talking about!

My Rating: 9/10

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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