At long last the wait is over. It’s been three years, and we’ve finally been treated to a six episode strong season of Black Mirror, twice as long as the series’ of days gone by. Brooker’s brainchild continues to bring us the hair-raising twists and heart-stopping home truths we’ve come to know and love.
Nosedive (Chloe Kent) –
Launching the third instalment of Brooker’s dystopian epics, ‘Nosedive’ invites us into a pastel toned nightmare world, nearly but not quite recognisable as our own. In this hellish rosé swamp, every social interaction, from small talk with a barista to being listening to a best man speech at a wedding, is followed by the conversational participants rating one another out of five stars on, who’d have thought, their phones.
A person’s average score follows them wherever they go, a numerical representation of their individual worth as a person. If you reach 4.5 or over then the world is at your feet – but anything much below a 3.5 you’re a modern leper, banned from certain public services, even unable to enter certain buildings. Everyone dons a mask of pleasantry, holding any bile behind their back teeth for fear of the disastrous consequences of a low rating, how quickly one can slip from girl next door to second class citizen. The life of protagonist Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) centres almost exclusively around her rating, overjoyed when it rises and devastated when it falls – as inferred by the title, she experiences a rather spectacular fall from grace. It’s a surreal version of something the majority of us are guilty of these days, clamouring for social media approval, a slight twinge of embarrassment if an Instagram post doesn’t reach eleven likes, if a tweet goes unfavourited. As a callout of what right now feels like a reasonably harmless aspect of contemporary culture, it’s superbly portrayed, a vision of what could occur should our yearning for an objective, numerical record of approval spiral out of control.
But the episode is weakened by the simplistic nature of the plot – from the outset, every scene feels just a little predictable. The woman Lacie meets with a rating of 1.4 is, unsurprisingly, the most sympathetic character in the entire episode, while the high-4’s are all judgemental narcissists who are concerned only with how they appear in the eyes of others. Shocker. As quasi-romantic as the closing moments are, the saga ending on a note of hope, it feels clear from the get-go that Lacie’s happy ending won’t be achieved by increasing her sum total. It simply doesn’t contain the drastic, edge of your seat twists seen in seasons gone by, the ones that make Black Mirror what it is. In all though, it’s a strong kick-off for season three, a solid saccharine foundation to settle upon for the binge-watch to come.
Playtest (Emily Taylor) –
Horror games have always been an affair in masochism. When backpacking American, Cooper (Wyatt Russell), is bought in to test a hyper-realistic augmented reality game, you do feel the need to question him. Why are you doing this? But as an audience we continue watching, just as our protagonist continues playing with the sole intention of being scared.
The timing for this episode was spot on with Sony VR headset being released – the technology isn’t science fiction anymore. It feels only hours away. The whole episode revels in its survival horror aesthetic, combined with the haunting sci-fi elements that Black Mirror does so well. Its possibly the most ‘fun’ episode in the series, in a nightmarish kind of way. There are knowing references to horror clichés, from the setting of the haunted house to the jump scares and with an ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan blush. The horror grows from the Lovecraftian monstrosities to the monsters waiting at home. Despite all these very self-aware references, it still felt new, walking the line between old-fashioned horror and sci-fi.
That said, this episode is by no means perfect. The pacing was slightly off, with a long set up before they start the game which seemingly goes nowhere – time that might have been spent in the game itself to build up the scares. The lack of the more moralistic elements are both the episode’s strongest point and its failing. It makes the most of the B-movie horror fun, but it also feels more forgettable than Brooker’s other efforts. It’s more of a dark-humoured romp than a truly affecting piece of horror. But, if you learn anything from this episode, remember it can be dangerous to ignore your mother.
Shut Up and Dance (Georgia Owen) –
Black Mirror aficionados will be accustomed to skewed realities and dystopian futures. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ turns its back on these traditions, planting its feet firmly in the present day. Its plausibility is what will send shivers down your spine, make your fingers curl in to fists, and lead you to turn off the GPS on your phone. Because you see, life is about to be shaken up in the most unnerving way possible and all it takes is one click. One click changes everything. Kenny (Alex Lawther) is an unremarkable teenager: he works in a restaurant, he’s learning to drive, and he spends his evenings in front of the TV.
However, he has a secret. A secret that he must be willing to dance like a puppet on strings to protect. The somewhat innocent, austere beginnings of the episode, plagued by a lack of a coherent soundtrack and some questionable camera angles, were fully justified when the first text alert sounded, signalling the start of Kenny’s quest to keep his life intact. The plot escalates relentlessly, never allowing for comic relief and failing to grant the viewer a moment to take a breath. Despite the snowballing tension, writers Charlie Brooker and William Bridges seem to avoid tripping over their own feet – the conclusion does not disappoint and the twist was largely unforeseeable. Through all this, Lawther’s performance is outstanding; his panic becomes your own as the challenges set become increasingly more macabre and complex. He is able to blinker the viewer, making Kenny little more than a boy caught up in a world he’s too naive to be part of. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ proves that the creation of alternate universes isn’t entirely necessary to illustrate the dangers of technology – the real world is terrifying enough.
San Junipero (Martha Wright) –
Directed by Owen Harris, episode four of Black Mirror’s latest season, ‘San Junipero’ is built from startlingly beautiful cinematography, muted pastel tones and vast scenic shots. Protagonist Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) is a gawky tomboy who enters into a nostalgic 80s nightclub scene, wearing goofily large glasses and baggy khaki shorts. She fumbles her way round Tucker’s night club in a particularly awkward fashion, giving the impression that it’s been a while since she’s been out on her own. In fact, it’s just in fact just her first night in the party town of San Junipero. Forced into conversation with the cinderella of the episode, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) they exchange words to discover they are both ‘just visitors’ in this unfamiliar town. That is, until midnight strikes, when Kelly has ‘somewhere else to be’. The peculiar passing of time often jumps weeks in one go – a few odd conversations and Yorkie’s unquestioned instant outfit changes culminate in the unshakeable feeling that something isn’t quite right. Yet the first 30 minutes of San Junipero don’t come across as particularly dark or Black Mirror esque. However with a considerable amount of hints and foreshadowing the twist reveals itself much earlier in the episode than normally expected from the show. ‘San Junipero’ exhibits Charlie Brooker’s sweeter side with an honest portrayal of love, care, and affection. The episode has a surprisingly upbeat tone for Brooker, just two girls finding their way in San Junipero; the nondescript american party town that slowly builds around them.
Men Against Fire (Chloe Kent) –
As the season begins to wind down, ‘Men Against Fire’ takes a stern look at the human propensity for warfare. Set in the not-too-distant future, the world has fallen into disrepair, overrun by an infestation of humanoid creatures named roaches. Their faces flat and snarling, they carry a disease in their bloodstreams the military are charged with wiping out, by exterminating them where and whenever they can. Stripe (Malachi Kirby) is one of these soldiers, and on his first excursion takes down two of them, without hesitation or mercy, in a scene reminiscent of the sheltering of Jews during the second world war. One roach carries a device he’s never stumbled upon before, a small metal shaft resembling a torch with a cluster of green lights at one end – it emits a high pitched scream, which echoes in his head throughout the day, interrupting some sort of chip he has installed in his head, pixelating his vision.
So far it feels predictable. The device has, obviously done something to him. My guess was that Stripe was soon to morph into one of the creatures, learning how to empathise with them as he did so. Not so simple. Eventually, in true Black Mirror fashion, there’s an elaborate, sickening twist, where every heinous crime against humanity from the past century dragged into the limelight. The situation is not as it seemed from the outset at all, and the roaches are not the lurching, subhuman monsters we once thought. The soldier’s empathy has been systematically, technologically stripped – and most chilling of all, the civilians’ hasn’t, and yet they still don’t flinch at seeing the enemy slaughtered. We do not need a chip in our brain to dehumanise the Other, but are perfectly capable of doing so by ourselves.
But this twist comes very late in the episode, and until the truth is revealed the narrative is clunky and somewhat uninteresting, as grey as the overcast skies that hang over every scene. Once it’s all come together, it’s fascinating, poignant, and truly devastating – but it’s all a little too late to make a rewatchable episode.
Hated in the Nation (Izzy Moore) –
The finale of Black Mirror, directed by James Hawes, takes undeniable jabs at twitter and trolling, while straddling the line between realism and science fiction. Set in London, the near future, the episode follows the formula of a procedural drama as Karin Parke (Kelly MacDonald) and Blue (Faye Marshay) investigate the death of an unpopular journalist and its link to a twitter hashtag.
Overall, the episode maintains the stylistic quirks of Black Mirror, the quality of cinematography, the exploration of “big themes”. Here it is the culpability of those who use twitter for hate speech, specifically death threats. However the concept promises more than the episode can deliver. Tension is often broken by absurdity, notably the swarms of animatronic bees which move the episode more in the direction of Doctor Who. To Hawes’ credit, the episode still delivers shock and awe: the body-horror moments, the subversive ending. The benefits of Black Mirror’s move to Netflix (and suspected increased budget) are also demonstrated, particularly in a stunning sequence on location in the Canary Islands. Although this does feel out of place from the bulk of the episode which is set in urban London, it highlights the potential breadth the creator Charlie Booker now has to explore if only he did so to a greater extent. A further issue is the acting; MacDonald and Marshay are given limited moments to shine, causing drab performances, which is unfortunate as the more emotionally driven moments give a much needed intensity to the episode. Ultimately, the lack of subtlety prevents this closing chapter from being as engaging as it could be, and Booker fails to add a new spin on the social media conversation.