TV: Black Mirror (Season 4)

It’s fair to say Black Mirror has resurrected the SF anthology series, and while its fourth season doesn’t quite match the absolute peaks of previous years, it still carries itself with confidence, first-rate execution, and an inimitable mystique, continuing to prove itself as the gold standard in the genre.

This is sort of a deja vu season of Black Mirror, a phrase I would normally reserve for a series repeating itself or getting stale in its latter stages. But that’s not really the case here, for although the show does call back to previous themes and ideas, and even runs variations on already-used premises, it also does something interesting: ties the episodes together into something of a conceptual continuity metanarrative that suggests all the series’ disparate timelines exist in an intricate shared universe.

Arguably the season’s best episode is the first, the chilling but also rather funny “USS Callister.” Learning the hard-won lesson of season three—that a little upbeat goes a long way—this one revisits the uploaded consciousness premise examined in the middle chapter of the “White Christmas” episode. In this one, Jesse Plemons stars as misanthropic CTO of an online virtual gaming company who channels his real-life social anxieties into a standalone VR world of his own: a recreated version of his favorite retro sci-fi show, Space Fleet. But his method of doing so is rather callous: he steals the DNA of his coworkers to generate uploaded versions of them to serve as his fleetmates, enslaving them to his throwback vision of the future, in which he is the manly captain in charge. “USS Callister” is winning and wildly funny, despite the dire psychological circumstances of Plemons’ victims, which include a radiant Cristin Miliotti and a hilarious Jimmi Simpson. Plemons is perfection as the tongue-tied social misfit by day who channels his self-worth into a sick William Shatner impression. Like last season’s “Hated in the Nation,” this one could easily serve as the pilot for a wildly inventive series of its own, although that might risk the magic of this standalone gem.

“Arkangel” similarly riffs off the “White Christmas” episode, this time tackling the third-act conceit of implant technology that censors the real world in real time. In this one, an overprotective mother (Rosemarie Dewitt) subjects her daughter (Brenna Harding) to an invasive tracking device out of fear for her safety. But as the girl grows into a woman, the lure of the device’s powerful surveillance capabilities drive an inevitable wedge between them. Directed by Jodie Foster, this episode executes its premise adroitly, although its trajectory doesn’t really reward the build-up.

Stunning Icelandic scenery lends gorgeous, nordic ambience to the next episode, “Crocodile,” one of the season’s grimmer segments. The story involves a woman named Mia Nolan (Andrea Riseborough), who as a partying youngster lets herself become accomplice to a heinous crime. Later, when the perpetrator (Andrew Gower) resurfaces after years of guilt and threatens to confess, she panics and slides inexorably into desperate serial crime in an attempt to get out from under her past. The episode dovetails this disturbing downward trajectory nicely with the efforts of an earnest insurance investigator (the quite winning Kiran Sonia Sawar) to solve an unrelated crime, using memory-accessing technology that ultimately threatens to expose Mia’s crimes. “Crocodile” makes some unfortunate, brutal story decisions late in the game that mar the overall impact, but the worldbuilding escalation is masterful, and Riseborough hits her performance right out of the park to make this a thought-provoking, if flawed, hour.

I’ve read “Hang the DJ” described as season four’s attempt to recapture the magic of last season’s famous “San Junipero,” but I don’t entirely agree with that—although it certainly resonates with the romantic premise and hopeful message. This one takes place in a strange society where relationships are dictated by a rigid, scientific system that matches potential lovers, but determines the length of their relationships in advance. In their first relationship, Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) are matched for a mere twelve hours, but after their mandated break-up, their lives continue to intersect, leading them to crave a relationship despite the wishes of the system that controls them. I suspect many will see the twists of this one coming, but that didn’t quash the enjoyment for me. The leads share alluring chemistry, and the execution is spot-on, right up to a perfect final moment that introduces a subtle smidgen of doubt to its Hollywood ending.

“Metalhead,” alas, doesn’t fare as well as its peers—although I’ve got to give it style points. This grim dystopian vision, shot in stark black and white, is the tale of a woman named Bella (Maxine Peake) who attempts to rob an automated warehouse, only to run afoul of a terrifying, autonomous robot guard dog. Light on dialogue and heavy on action, “Metalhead” is a bleak, occasionally gripping survival tale that gets a lot of mileage out of its creepily executed canine Terminator. I was rather fond of its minimalist exposition and visual story-telling. In the end, though, it suffers from a thin plot and its final notes are underwhelming.

The season wraps with “Black Museum,” a slightly extended hour that proves to be a mini-anthology in itself. A young woman named Nish (Letitia Wright) stops in the desert at a derelict gas station to recharge her car. While she’s waiting, she decides to kill time at the Black Museum, a quirky-looking roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere. She meets Rolo (Douglas Hodge), proprietor of a strange gallery of artifacts of futuristic true crime. Rolo’s cheerful narrative describing the gruesome misfortune of others escalates from quirky dark humor to twisted sadism—but Nish turns out to be a more complex character than he expects, leading to an ending of bleak triumph. “Black Museum” rattles along entertainingly, with the help of Hodge’s used-car salesman narration. While the episode is something of a stitched-together kludge, it’s also littered with Black Mirror easter eggs that cleverly link the episodes together. As a thematic capstone, it would make for a fitting series finale, should (god forbid) the show not get picked up. But in my view, Black Mirror still just feels too vibrant, restless, and relevant to hit the shelf just yet, so I certainly hope Netflix picks it up for more deliciously inventive episodes.

 

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