After an eventful three years of technological advances and growing existential uncertainty for our species, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has returned with an ambitious third season.
The one downside I’d like to touch on before quickly brushing it under the carpet is that this time round the season is only available to subscribers of Netflix and those internet pirates who know where to look for these things.
Regardless, the Black Mirror format remains very much the same. Each episode exists in a self-contained universe and is handed over to a prominent director who is free to give their own stylistic touch. Given the diversity of time and place and the absence of continuity, this works well because each director can fine tune important details rather than concern themselves with an overarching narrative.
The only obvious difference with season three is that the new funding model and platform has encouraged a shift towards targeting an American audience. Many (but not all) of the stories are either based in America or they feature American protagonists. Fortunately this isn’t to the detriment of loyal British viewers who will still see some familiar faces along the way.
Through a digital glass darkly
The American influence is perhaps most apparent in the opening episode Nosedive which tackles society’s unhealthy obsession with climbing the anodyne social media ladder, no matter how we feel about it on the inside.
We learn that the protagonist, Lacie Pound, has a one-off chance to join the social media A-list by delivering an overly sentimental speech at her oldest friend’s high profile wedding. In return she’ll be rewarded with a clickfest of thumbs up from doting social media sheep.
But a series of mishaps and a chance encounter during the road trip make Lacie realise just how vapid her existence has become and how friendship has been redefined to mean ‘utter bollocks’.
This episode will strike a chord with many of us. Anyone familiar with social media will have observed how their peers have a tendency to market their lives as being one long foam party in a bid to boost their online popularity. In Nosedive the world has taken this curious behaviour to its natural conclusion. Society has created an environment whereby those with higher social media rankings are given preferential treatment with such things as healthcare right down to the quality of car you’re allowed to hire. Meanwhile those with lower social media rankings are left to beg for nuggets.
The Edward Hopper-esque ‘50s setting works well with this particular story. It serves as a reminder of the racial segregation of that era: on the surface our lives may appear sugar-coated, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a troubled society creating spurious hierarchies which, for many people, makes life unbearable.
Videogaming is the subject of the second episode Playtest. A slightly annoying but not particularly dislikeable American named Cooper lands in London after traveling around the world on the pretence of trying to find himself. One night at a bar he meets a potential love interest called Sonja. We soon learn all about Cooper’s troubled home life and what, exactly, he’s trying to escape from.
But after his bankcard is stolen and his account gets rinsed, Cooper finds himself in need of making a quick buck.
Sonja convinces him to apply for a job which is advertised on a mobile phone app that should’ve been called The Zombie Economy app. The role is taking part in a trial for a videogame which is experimenting with ground breaking technology. Cooper decides to go along with the idea and turns up to the gaming studio. After signing a waiver, a representative of the company inserts a chip into the back of Cooper’s neck. He then enters a virtual reality world which plays on his deepest fears.
If I didn’t know that Brooker is a fan of videogames then I would’ve tried reading between the lines in order to find a deeper meaning. However, this episode is really just every survival horror fan’s dream come true. In fact I’d hazard a guess that Playtest is an ode to the granddaddy of survival horror videogames Shinji Mikami and the excesses of The Evil Within; a videogame which takes violence and narrative to a whole new level.
Tough themes for tough times
Owing to the solid performances of Jerome Flynn and Alex Lawther, the third episode Shut Up and Dance is probably the strongest of the season. The key subject is internet shaming culture, a phenomenon previously highlighted by Jon Ronson whereby one moment’s stupidity can haunt otherwise decent people forever; not least because the internet serves as an unforgiving archive for everything we get up to—warts and all.
In this episode a gawky teenager’s laptop contracts a particularly intrusive virus which secretly records him masturbating. The hacker who’s responsible for engineering the virus then orders the teenager and some other victims to carry out increasingly dangerous tasks otherwise their darkest secrets will be leaked into the public domain.
The performances really are outstanding and the ending, sombrely played out to Radiohead’s Exit Music (for a Film) will force you to empathise with the victims because you know, deep down, you could quite easily have been caught up in some vindictive hacker’s idea of fun. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge others in the future…
Episode four, San Junipero, begins as a nostalgic time-warp back to the ’80s with lots of neon lights, retro arcade machines and synthesised pop hits. The story revolves around two women who meet in a club and strike up a surreal relationship. For a good while you’ll be scratching your head, wondering how this is even part of the Black Mirror series. But as the narrative opens up, everything begins to click into place. In the meantime I urge you to just enjoy the visuals.
Like all decent creative works worthy of a repeat, it’s impossible to give any more of San Junipero away without taking a shit on it for those folks who are yet to see it. All I will say is that out of all the episodes, this one feels distinctly Lynchian. Maybe it’s the vague similarity to Mulholland Drive and the way in which memory and identity are turned to putty. Either way it works incredibly well and has a noticeably great soundtrack. Not just the familiar ‘80s hits, but also the cinematic score which play during the tenderer scenes.
Yet it’s the penultimate episode, Men Against Fire, which undoubtedly carries the most profound, thought provoking message of the season. Given the overall strength of the episodes thus far, this is quite an achievement.
To the backdrop of highly trained American marines fighting a defenceless species referred to as ‘roaches’, we have a much-needed comment on the current trend of dehumanising those less fortunate than ourselves. Brooker teaches us that you can either get angry and call Katie Hopkins all the names under the sun or you can take the worst of her headline-grabbing shittery and turn it into a moving episode about the current refugee crisis and the lack of humanity shown by mainstream pundits.
“The government’s a cunt. We knew this already.”
The final episode, Hate on the Nation, is the longest in the season, running at an hour and a half. This is to be welcomed because one criticism I would level at the new season is that some of the episodes would’ve benefited from being a similar length.
Excluding White Christmas, previous episodes have straddled between 40 minutes and a full hour, and this seemed to work. But now the season has matured and you’re being asked to emotionally invest in many of the lead characters, this can only be taken so far when you’re given an hour to get to know somebody. At least half of the episodes felt like they needed to be longer; particularly San Junipero which would’ve made a fantastic feature length movie. Anyway; that’s the only grumble I have with the season and it’s really just a compliment with an attitude problem.
As it goes Hate on the Nation is a techno-thriller which is somewhere between the Japanese anime Death Note and Hitchcock’s The Birds. Kelly McDonald of Boardwalk Empire fame stars as a detective who, alongside her younger and naiver co-worker, gets caught up in a case whereby a hacktivist uses a weird breed of bees to assassinate internet hate figures. But just when the team of investigators think they’re about to put the nightmare to bed, they realise that the hacker has always been one step ahead of them.
And that brings us to the end of another fantastic season of Black Mirror. The obvious comparison which has already been made a million times before me is that Black Mirror is really just The Twilight Zone only marketed at the Twitter generation. I can’t really argue with this because the original Twilight Zone series captured something of the paranoid post-war climate which other series of its day failed to and, because of this, has stood the test of time. As we pass through the Digital Age, Black Mirror is on course for achieving similar heights.
I just hope some of the episodes don’t turn out to be as prophetic as The National Anthem because there really isn’t much left to look forward to. Except, perhaps, another season…