Crawling Out of a Pit of Despair: A ‘Black Mirror’ Season Four Review
*Spoilers abound for all seasons*
Watching Charlie Brooker’s bleak anthology series is kind of like sadism by way of entertainment. Since its audacious debut in which the British Prime Minister boinked a pig live on air while onlookers gawped at various screens in disbelief, and the episode ended with a suicide and a plot twist that works like a literal jape on everyone involved, the show has gained a loyal audience. Following a deal with Netflix, in which the streaming empire paid $40 million for a show the home network, the British Channel 4, was planning on picking up again, Brooker’s nihilistic riff on the Twilight Zone has become a global smash hit and a mainstay in cultural conversation.
The show has always been determined to, in its creator’s words, ‘fling you into a pit of despair and then piss on you, cause people seem to like that.’ Indeed we do. We liked it when, in the second episode, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, dissenter Bing’s impassioned speech against a technocratic totalitarian society turns him into a shill and sell out. In probably the show’s most miserable howl at the state of the human condition, the third season’s ‘Shut Up and Dance’, we saw a put-upon porn-watcher unfairly filmed via his webcam, blackmailed into a series of trials and cruel games, forcibly made into a murderer, only to dump it on the audience that we were feeling sorry for a paedophile. This is the cruellest kind of filmmaking: make the audience sympathise with the character, only to pull the rug out from under us. It’s endings like these that make Black Mirror the best unbingeable series on a platform made for binge-watching.
In the show’s latest season, however, there are a number of episodes that break the mould and offer hope. Half the episodes have, dare I say it, happy endings. The hero beats the villain, the technology isn’t so evil after all, and you can happily click the next episode and binge your way through. Does this uptick in the show’s outlook cause it to feel just that little bit less original, less brave, less punkish than it was when it first got everyone’s attention? Have Brooker and co. gone soft on us?
This isn’t the first time
Plenty of shows have bleak outlooks and downer episodes. True Detective (2014), which took influence from the devastatingly miserable work of horror fiction writer Thomas Ligotti, preached nihilism and meaningless cruelty. The sheer act of its serial format, however, always meant that, maybe in the next episode or the one after that, things would be looking up (and, in the end, they were). Black Mirror’s anthological format means that, at its end, the episode’s world is left in darkness. Season four’s Scandinavian noir tale, ‘Crocodile’, in which a couple performs a hit and run, results in the woman leaving behind a trail of bodies in order to protect herself. At the episodes end, an initially well-adjusted character has become a mass murderer, child killer and, in the episode’s only positive note, she’s not going to get away with it.
Black Mirror’s biggest inspiration with regards to format, The Twilight Zone, was already doing this (albeit under stricter censorship laws) in 1959. The episode ‘Time Enough At Last’ saw a banker concerned only with getting some peace and quiet so he could read books. When he locks himself in the bank’s vault for some reading time, a bomb goes off outside and wipes everybody off the face of the earth. He stumbles around, lost, until he finds the local library with most of its books still intact. The serenity is immediately shattered when he breaks his big coke-bottle reading glasses. Alas, all the time in the world and no glasses to read with.
Trace it all the way back to Ancient Greece and the tragic plays of Sophocles (the good King Oedipus is left blind, wedded to his mother and having killed his father) and Euripides (Medea has hanged her children and is carted off in a golden chariot), and it’s clear that audiences have always craved the experience of being left weeping for the fate of humanity. Critiquing these tragedies, Aristotle discussed the complexities of the tragic plot, in which an ‘intermediate’ (neither good nor bad) character falls victim to bad fortune, evoking fear and pity in the audience. Tragedy engages the audience, challenges them, instead of pandering to their tastes.
Fast forward to 2017 and the first episode of the fourth season of Black Mirror sees a tyrannical king overthrown and left to a fate worse than death. This is ‘USS Callister’, easily the season’s best episode. Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) keeps digital copies of his co-workers aboard the USS Callister. A digital replica of a TV show set, the crew embark on kid-friendly adventures fighting aliens and discovering new worlds. At the end, Captain Daly is celebrated and gets to kiss the women in the crew. Of course, this being Black Mirror, the digital copies are as sentient as you or I, forced to exist forever in a fantasy of Daly’s making, all because they snubbed him at work, didn’t make him a coffee, or took credit for his work.
The episode is a grab bag of all those Black Mirror-y things: eternal suffering, AI, the ethics of digital sentience, as well as workplace bullying, male entitlement and the myth of the seemingly nice guy. However, where the show would normally dump this heap of existential dread on your lap, set it on fire and steal the extinguisher, we’re instead treated to a happy ending which sees the crew’s newcomer Nanette Cole (Cristin Milotti) outsmart Daly and captain the ship herself, free to explore the digital universe. As an opener to the new season, it’s simply amazing—partly because of its dramatic change in tone at the end.
Most of the remaining episodes don’t hold up. The dark, murderous path trod by Mia Nolan (Angela Riseborough) in ‘Crocodile’ simply isn’t believable for her character; the melodramatic plot of ‘Arkangel’ takes an intriguing piece of tech and tells a dull story with it, ramping up relationship drama instead of existential angst and in ‘Hang the DJ’, one of the season’s better episodes, the positive message runs counter to its helplessly claustrophobic setting.
Change is always good
Brooker, executive producer Annabel Jones and their writers and directors are experimenting with the show’s tone, while sticking to their guns with its format. Another full season of downers would’ve become repetitive. The tricky thing about happy endings, though, is that they’re harder to earn. It’s easier to just shock the audience by showing us the void and then shoving us into it headfirst. Despite its repeated appearances in art throughout history, the hopeless ending in mainstream entertainment is still unexpected. A memorable happy ending takes time to develop sympathetic characters, difficult situations, high stakes and an exciting ending sequence that has us begging for the characters to survive. ‘USS Callister’ had this in spades, while most of the other episodes, aside from the stellar anthology-within-an-anthology episode ‘Black Museum’, reached for it and never quite grasped it.
Black Mirror is still the most exciting and engaging contemporary entertainment today, filling the void of social commentary and bleak science fiction left by Hollywood’s play-it-safe-and-please-everybody blockbuster approach. If it takes a few mediocre episodes in pursuit of a more varied and experimental show, I’ll let Brooker and his team fling me whichever way they like.
Feature image via youtube