For three seasons, the Netflix series “Black Mirror” has left viewers wide-eyed, shocked and, frankly, a bit disturbed since its release in 2011. Often referred to as the “Twilight Zone” of this generation, the sci-fi series aims to warn its audience of the world’s ever-growing dependence on technology – the title, “Black Mirror,” refers to the dark reflection of a screen. Contrary to its message, the anthology series’ unique and unsettling premise has millions of viewers across the globe glued to their TV screens for hours at a time. Needless to say, the fourth season’s release in December of 2017 was much anticipated by viewers and critics alike – myself included. I watched the six-episode season in one caffeine-induced afternoon, initially impressed with the season’s plot and climactic conclusion.
Why is it, then, that I find myself skeptical of season four all these weeks later?
“Black Mirror” attracts such a large fan base due to its unforgiving and disheartening nature, making it difficult to watch in the first place. Every episode leaves viewers staring at their phones in horror or reconsidering their recent order of their Amazon Echo. This season, however, took a turn. The technology featured in the episodes includes artificial intelligence, online dating, parental monitors, memory recall, virtual reality and simulated consciousness. Certainly all that content could provide more than enough eerie storylines to fill a season, but producers showed a lack of originality and shock in the six new episodes. They have tons of bark with no bite. I could give a detailed analysis of each episode, but for this article I chose to focus on three in particular.
I already sensed a loss of focus in the new season within the first episode, “USS Callister,” which centers around computerized “humans” trapped in their boss’s virtual reality game. The antagonist, played by the talented Jesse Plemons, is the Chief Technical Officer of an up-and-coming virtual reality gaming company. While he is described as a ground-breaking coder, his co-workers treat him like a nobody, bullying him every opportunity they get. Plemons’s character, Daly, uses his programming to create his own world in a game of similar design to “Star Trek,” where he applies his coworkers’ DNA to the database. In his game, he can control his coworkers and submit them to endless torture. Here is where the moral dilemma gets complicated: the characters in the game are self-aware. They act and feel as though they are real humans trapped by their merciless boss. I know that viewers are supposed to feel bad for the simulated workers, however, you must keep in mind that these characters are simulated. The real-life workers are content and successful at their company, unaware that Daly has used their DNA for his own entertainment. Obviously, my sympathy for the characters only extended so far. Ultimately, the simulated workers hack a program update to escape Daly’s game via a “loophole,” leaving the CTO trapped in his own simulation – brain dead to the world in his home office. The game characters happily explore their free will in the universal “gaming cloud,” despite a nasty run-in with an online gamer voiced by “Breaking Bad” actor Aaron Paul.
While the premise is certainly chilling, the episode seems to focus more on comedic quips and celebrity cameos than the traditional “Black Mirror” horror. We watch the computerized characters drink and joke to themselves, making fun of Daly for their entertainment. We meet a giant bug-like alien that turns out to be “Jillian from Marketing.” We enjoy the smart jibes and one-liners from actor Jimmi Simpson (of “Westworld”). Don’t get me wrong, the episode was intelligent and kept me interested in a way that only “Black Mirror” is capable of; nevertheless, the relatively happy, humorous ending felt more than a little out of place.
While “USS Callister” missed the mark, the season’s third episode, “Crocodile,” didn’t even make the board. This episode follows the horrific antics of a woman, Amy, attempting to get away with a hit-and-run she aided with her then-boyfriend after a night of clubbing. Predictably, her body count increases as she tries to cover up the manslaughter. The technology under scrutiny for this episode is a memory recall device used by insurance agents and police to investigate eyewitnesses for crimes and incidents. When an insurance agent asks Amy to use the device so she can investigate a different hit-and-run that Amy may have witnessed (oh, the irony), Amy initially protests. Seeing that she cannot legally avoid having her memory replayed, she agrees. The agent views the screen in horror as she watches Amy recall two murders. In true “Black Mirror” form, Amy goes on a murderous rampage to avoid getting caught by killing the insurance agent and her family (including her newborn child). She believes that if she kills all possible witnesses to any of her crimes, the memory recall device cannot be used against her. The episode concludes with policemen observing the crime scene, noticeably disturbed that someone would kill a child. What is even more devastating is that the baby turned out to have been born blind, so Amy did not actually need to kill it. However, the woman forgot one minor detail: the memory recall device can be used on animals. The episode ends on police closing in on Amy, who was just vindicated by the memory of, yes, a hamster.
The episode “Crocodile” is not lacking in a horrific and unnerving plot. Actually, this episode probably fits with some of the most disturbing the show has to offer, yet, the episode hardly focuses on technology. You spend more time watching the panicked Amy kill and cry than learn the implications of a memory recall machine. In fact, the actual machine probably has less than five minutes of screen time. All in all, the episode feels more like a disturbing “Criminal Minds” episode than that of “Black Mirror.”
Last but certainly not least, I want to take a good look at the season’s fifth episode, “Metalhead.” Like “Crocodile,” “Metalhead” is certainly not lacking in the dramatics: the entire episode is in black and white. It centers on a post-apocalyptic world, where resources, as well as humans, are limited. Bella, a middle-aged woman, is traveling with two companions in search of an unnamed resource to help her dying nephew, Jack. They stop by an abandoned warehouse and find a box that contains what they’re looking for, but a four-legged robotic creature they call a “dog” prevents them from taking it. The creature emits several metallic trackers into the bodies of Bella and her friends. While her friends are shot by the machine, Belle escapes the warehouse. She is now completely alone with a tracker embedded in her skin. We (painfully) watch as she digs the tracker out of her body and eludes the seemingly indestructible artificial intelligence robot. She takes shelter in an abandoned house, where she finds the remains of a couple that had committed suicide in their bed. Bella’s moment of strength occurs in the last fifteen minutes of the episode, where she repeatedly shoots one of the dogs and seemingly destroys it. However, this is “Black Mirror” we are talking about, so the bad guy really isn’t ever dead. With its last bit of energy, the dog emits several trackers all over Bella’s body, including her face and neck. Bella realizes that she cannot remove all the trackers and resorts to killing herself like the couple in the house. The cameras pan out to reveal several mechanical dogs surrounding the house. The episode would have been acceptable if it had ended there. A desperate and suicidal Bella surrounded by machines of destruction. The episode finishes as the camera takes us back to the warehouse, closing in on the box that Bella had initially sought after to help her dying nephew. The camera reveals that the box was filled with teddy bears.
Naturally, I was devastated at this dramatic reveal. The poor kid just wants a teddy bear. Is that too much to ask? Then I took another step back. Bella and her friends went on a death mission and ultimately lost their lives in pursuit of a teddy bear. Not medicine, not an antidote. A teddy bear. Presumably, Bella and her sister are each other’s last relatives, not including the nephew. Humanity is a dying race. I would assume that most people, in the given situation, would think long and hard about the necessity of a teddy bear before putting their lives in danger. Call me heartless, but that child probably needed his aunt a lot more than a stuffed animal. That is why this episode was my least favorite of the season. I found the plot pointless and easily avoidable. The “Black Mirror” writers are smarter than that, but I felt that they went for the gut-punching conclusion over intelligence. I’m sure many viewers may have enjoyed the painful conclusion to this episode, but I would choose “USS Callister’s” comedic wit over “Metalhead’s” vulnerability any day.
Overall, I find season four of “Black Mirror” disappointingly weak. That’s not to say that there aren’t good episodes – “Hang the DJ” ranks among my top three episodes in the whole series, taking on a “San Junipero”-esque romance for which I’m a sucker. I felt that this season focuses more on the flaws of the human, not the technology. A few of the episodes even feature technological advancements that would benefit society, which heavily contradicts the show’s anti-technology message. My theory for this seasonal “softening” is that the producers feel they can reach a wider audience if they include comedy, romance and sentiment to the mix. This may be true – who am I to argue with genius? I only wish that the producers maintained the intelligence and edge that captured my attention in the first place. Having said that, “Black Mirror” is still one of my favorite shows. Having a bad season for “Black Mirror” is equivalent to Michael Phelps having a bad swim – it may not be ground-breaking, but it’s still damn impressive.