“End fucking game!” So the sentiment of the very first episode, “USS Callister,” of Black Mirror season four indicates the collective desire to exit from the self-imposed technological prison we’ve created for the sake of entertainment. Yet how can we get ourselves off the tainted teat we’ve come to know, love and then rather hate? The commencing episode takes on an even more sinister tone when taking to account the ramifications of net neutrality repeal in the U.S., further allowing dweebish white guys who feel they’ve been slighted the opportunity for more power and control. The dweebish white guy in this case is Robert Daly (Matt Damon lookalike Jesse Plemons), a coder who co-owns a successful gaming company with more attractive (ish), more approachable James Walton (Jimmi Simpson, in something of a role reversal from one of his most memorable parts as an antagonistic college roommate in Loser).
When a new woman, Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), starts at the company, she is the first to ever acknowledge Robert’s brilliant mind, complimenting him on the beauty of the code responsible for creating the multiplayer online game that is Infinity. Knowing full well that she would never admire him in such a way as to get him a date, however, he does what he’s done to many before: extract some DNA for the purpose of making a copy of her in his private, offline version of Infinity. When she awakens to find herself on a spaceship inspired by Robert’s favorite old sci-fi TV show, Space Fleet (yes, it’s an homage to Star Trek–though some fans feel it’s a smearing), she is informed by the other members Robert has cloned from the office, including Walton, Shania (Michaela Coel), Dudani (Paul Raymond), Elena (Milanka Brooks) and Nate (Osy Ikhile), that this Robert is the “asshole god” running this universe, and there’s no way to escape it. One needn’t delve too deeply to see the comparison to real life politics here. For as anyone breathing can see, men who have gotten drunk on their power trip often make decisions that inflict a living hell quality to everyone else’s lives.
As for the implications of a certain type of male’s dependency on a virtual world, in one fake universe, he is a god. In another, he is nothing, spat upon for being pasty, balding and fat. So obviously he’s going to choose the simulated universe. It’s far more palatable. But what happens when a man starts confusing his game life with his real life can lead to the sort of rage and contempt that prompts mass shootings. With an uplifting–though some men quaking in their boots might call it misandrist–message that sheds a much needed spotlight on the positivity of female leadership, “USS Callister” is the most political episode of the season.
As the second episode, “Arkangel,” sharply points out, for as grounded in the future as Black Mirror tends to be, there’s something extremely analog–timeless, shall we say–about the issues and moral dilemmas facing each protagonist (or sometimes antagonist) of the episode. From murder to forbidden love, these are quandaries as old as the Bible. In the narrative of “Arkangel,” it is the age-old battle of parental control versus a child’s need for rebellion. After going through the panic of losing three-year-old Sara (later played by Brenna Harding) while getting distracted in the park, single mother Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) decides to participate in a free trial (there are a lot of those in season four) for a product called the Arkangel, a chip implanted into a child’s head that allows a parent to see right into their optical “feed” at all times, as well as blur out any images or stimuli that might cause undue trauma.
At first, the chip feels like a godsend, permitting Marie the creepy luxury of knowing what Sara is doing and where she is at all times. But it soon becomes apparent that there are issues with putting a literal filter on Sara’s life, which almost causes her grandfather to die when he starts to have a heart attack and all she can see before her is a giant blur. The blurring out also occurs when she passes her neighbor’s barking dog, sees violence or blood on screens or hears her peers talking about anything inappropriate. One of her fellow students, Trick (Owen Teague), mocks her for being a “chiphead,” which of course means the two are destined to fuck once they get out of the elementary school/junior high era. As Sara grows increasingly frustrated and angered by her censored life, Marie consents to turning off the device and ceasing to monitor her daughter’s life. That is, until Sara decides to come back home late one night after Marie realizes she’s lied about her whereabouts to meet with Trick and some other friends. Unfortunately, she chooses to dredge up the old Arkangel out of a box and tune in at the exact moment when Sara is losing her virginity and screaming, “Fuck me harder!” (women watching porn is another running motif in this season).
As Black Mirror often does, “Arkangel” warns of the type of technology we have available to us now going horribly awry over time. After all, the Arkangel system is basically the equivalent of a mother or father watching your Instagram story or closely monitoring any of your social media accounts. Give parents too much access to your life, and of course they’re going to take their protectiveness to a degree so umpteenth it will make their child want to kill them for the privacy violation. As the first episode of the series to showcase the importance of sonic choices, the credits of “Arkangel” conclude dramatically with The Pretenders’ “I’m A Mother.” No doubt Jodie Foster, who directed the episode, helped pick out that track. A mother herself, surely Foster can relate to the lyric, “I’m the vessel of life/I got the trauma here to prove it.” Except some mothers just don’t realize that their own trauma is causing their children even greater amounts of pain.
Music once again sets the tone of the narrative for “Crocodile,” indicating what year it is to us via the playing of Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine” as boyfriend and girlfriend Mia (Andrea Riseborough) and Rob (Andrew Gower) dance at a club before driving back in the early hours to the same song. As Rob deliberately misquotes the lyric to sing, “I’m in love with your sick machine,” the car hits an oncoming bicyclist. Mia, still a person of empathy and remorse at this early point in the episode, insists on calling the police, but Rob insists, “You’re not thinking clearly. We’ve been caning it all night.” Thus, he doesn’t want to go to jail, preferring to ditch the body and move on with life. Fifteen years later, Mia has done just that, getting paid to speak at conferences for her “pillar of the community” architect status. After completing one of said speeches, Mia assumes it’s going to be a quiet night at the hotel until Rob shows up looking disheveled, or, as he puts it, “like a pile of dog shite.” He tells her he has to confess, that the accident and its coverup has been eating away at him more than ever. So Mia makes a snap decision to protect herself and all she’s built up over the past. And it’s one that’s going to cost her as a result of a pedestrian getting hit by an automated pizza truck right as she chooses to close her curtains post-murder. It is as she’s doing so that a dentist across the street manages to snap a photo of another man he finds attractive, getting Mia in the shot. When the insurance claim investigator, Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar), pursues the case via “memory mining” so as to ascertain if the pedestrian can get a settlement from the company, she employs the Proustian method of giving those she’s interviewing about the case a bottle of hoppy beer to sniff (since the entire street the accident took place on reeks of hops from the brewing company) and then plays a song that the pedestrian said he heard on someone’s car radio before the accident: Irma Thomas’ “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand).” It’s almost intended to serve as the tongue-in-cheek justification for Mia’s escalating behavior throughout the episode. But no, as the viewer soon sees, there’s no justifying Mia’s descent into madness over protecting her long-harbored secret. So it is that we have the ageless themes of Telltale Heart syndrome (also present in season two of Search Party) meets the moral quandary of honesty as it applies to gray area circumstances.
These gray area circumstances with regard to the limitlessness of love also come into play in episode four, featuring The Smiths-inspired title “Hang the DJ.” The DJ being referred to, ultimately, is “the system” a, for all intents and purposes, dating app that seeks to pair you with your “ultimate other,” curating each person like a song in a playlist–except the concept feels a bit more ominous with armed guards lurking near the dinner table to prevent you from escaping from your date. Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are brand new to using “the system,” and the instantaneous foreknowledge of a relationship’s “expiry”–in their case, twelve hours, should make the entire encounter feel throwaway. Taken by a self-driving “carriage” to the cabin where they can either bang or not, Frank and Amy discuss how much of a challenge it must have been for people before “the system.” Having to figure out who’s the “right one,” only to perhaps have made the wrong decision. As Frank notes of the “old way,” it’s “option paralysis. So many choices, you end up not knowing which one you want.” Amy echoes, “Yeah, exactly, and if things seemed shitty, they’d have to figure out whether they wanted to break up with someone.” Just imagine. But as “Hang the DJ” quickly reveals, the benefit of making one’s own romantic decisions far outshines getting stuck with a frigid bitch or a self-involved pretty boy who makes satisfied sighing noises all the time.
After a few more flings in between a nine month relationship, Amy is paired again with Frank, causing them to wax about the validity of “the system.” Frank insists, “But it does put people with the one. It’s got a 99.8% success rate.” The meaning of this percentage will soon make itself known. Amy counters, “But how do you know they’re perfect matches? I mean what if all it’s doing is gradually wearing us down, putting us in one relationship after another for random durations in a random sequence? Each time you get a little more pliable, a little bit more broken, until eventually it coughs up the final offering and says that’s the one. And by that point, you are so defeated and so exhausted that you just accept it, you settle.” In short, things with or without “the system” aren’t much different in this regard.
Frank then continues, “So if it’s everything in your head, does it have thoughts?” Amy balks, “All right so now you’re gonna say: what if that’s us and we’re stuck in a simulation?” Foreshadowing! As one of the only episodes with a vaguely happy ending (apart from “USS Callister”), we soon realize that even real love isn’t real. Also a frequent problem in the present thanks to the mass peddling of pop culture’s false promises.
“Metalhead” is arguably the most tonally and visually disparate episode from all the others in season four. Not just for its black and white cinematography, but for the stripped down, at the mercy of nature plotline. Except within that nature is a relentless robotic dog in pursuit of our weary heroine, Bella (Maxine Peake), who incurs the compact metal beast’s wrath after breaking into a warehouse to procure a box containing items that won’t be revealed until the end. Once the shrapnel from the awakened beast plants Bella and her cohorts with a tracking device, it’s game over, with Bella the only one able to escape into the open woods alive. From there, it’s an age-old plight of man versus machine. Except in this world, man has very little chance of winning against something with a solar-powered battery, car driving capabilities and “hands” that can stab just as deftly as any human. Again, one can’t help but be hyper-attuned to the sonic choice of The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” at one key point in the story, pandering to that perfect blend of past meeting future to base it all in cartoonish realism. To that point, Charles Brooker’s inspiration for the episode came from the Boston Dynamics videos of very similar looking “dogs,” once again utilizing that Black Mirror tactic of warning us about where the technology of now can put us in just a short time.
That fearful prospect transfers over to the final episode, “Black Museum.” With the eponymous museum curated by Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), its lone patron for the day is Nish (Letitia Wright), who merely stops in after needing to charge her car. Just as it was in “Crocodile” and “Metalhead,” we’re given the dichotomy of an old song–Sandie Shaw’s “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me”–against the backdrop of the future. Upon being let into the museum by the eccentric and, as it soon becomes evident, sadistic Rolo, Nish is given a very intimate tour, informed that each neuro technologically-oriented piece in the museum has a sad backstory. Getting self-referential with its artifacts, Black Mirror also includes the Arkangel screen as one of the pieces on display. Serving as the flashback format episode, Rolo recounts some of the more gruesome stories behind pieces like an implant that allowed a doctor to feel his patients’ pain so he could effortlessly diagnose them and a stuffed monkey that, through an eventual series of events, houses the consciousness of a woman who was in a coma (it’s kind of like being in the “sunken place” in Get Out).
The main attraction, however, is technically dead convicted felon Clayton Lee (Babs Olusanmokun). A now flickering hologram version of himself, Clayton signed over the rights to his digital consciousness to Rolo after he was fired from the neuro research company he worked for. Pressed by Rolo to do so for the benefit of his family, he’s told that his wife and child can profit from it should he end up going to the chair (though how is there the chair in a society more progressed in time?) for a crime he didn’t commit–again, it’s both comforting and disillusioning to see that not much will change in the next few decades, especially with regard to the legal system.
As Black Mirror gives us its final twist of the season, it is once again iterated to the audience that these are the same human predicaments that have plagued our forebears for centuries: fighting against a patriarchal ruler, how to know how involved and controlling one should be as a parent, how to determine what justifies taking another human life (if there can be any such justification), how to know if we’re really in love and how invasive we should allow new technology to become. If we ever do make it as far into the future as Black Mirror seems to foretell we can, let us pray we’ve (or those who come after us) learned some valuable lessons from the show, unsettling though it may be.