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Saturday, 30 December 2017

REVIEW: Black Mirror Season 4. Which is the best episode?



A brand new batch of Black Mirror episodes arrived on Netflix this past Friday and with their arrival came every type of genre imaginable. From dark and engrossing torture tales, to big-budget sci-fi spectaculars, Season 4 of the anthology series has something for everyone. If you’re debating whether or not to delve into the show’s artificial realities for a fourth time, or perhaps you’re asking yourself which episodes are worth viewing and which ones aren’t, then allow me to take you through the highs and lows of Black Mirror Season 4.
 
The first episode, ‘USS Callister’, launches us straight into a Star Trek-inspired reality and it’s immediately clear that Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker is making use of Netflix’s bigger budget. Our protagonist is Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the Chief Technical Officer of Callister Inc. In the real world, Daly is treated like garbage by his co-workers, but in his simulated reality, he is the captain of the USS Callister spacecraft. It’s a true homage to the original Star Trek series, but it also manages to stand on its own to two feet. Some great special effects and a letterboxed aspect ratio make ‘USS Callister’ the most cinematic Black Mirror episode to date, and a tight script and compelling storytelling also make it one of the series’ strongest outings yet. After ‘San Junipero’ won an Emmy last year, we knew that Brooker was going to have to keep the momentum going in Season 4 and this was the perfect way to start things off.
 

The highly anticipated Jodie Foster-directed ‘Arkangel’ follows ‘USS Callister’ and while it doesn’t live up to the sheer scale of its predecessor, it hits home all the same. After losing sight of her daughter Sara (Brenna Harding) during a park visit, Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) decides to accept a free trial for the Arkangel project. The idea behind the Arkangel project is that an implant is inserted into Sara’s brain so that Marie can monitor her daughter, thus preventing any future disappearances. It seems like a great idea at first, but things get complicated as Sara grows older. The Arkangel implant has its drawbacks — most notably, Marie uses it to limit what Sara can see, and as a result Sara grows up without learning some of life’s toughest lessons. It’s a new take on the age-old tale of the overprotective parent, and it becomes increasingly difficult for Marie to let go and allow Sara to grow up. While not the best Black Mirror episode, one could argue that its message is more relevant in today’s day and age than ever before.
If ‘USS Callister’ is a big-budget classic Hollywood extravaganza, then ‘Arkangel’ would be an Indie short, released in select theatres only.
 

The bigger budget is back in action in the third chapter of Black Mirror 4, which is aptly titled ‘Crocodile’. Set in a chilling Icelandic backdrop, we meet Mia Nolan (Andrea Riseborough) and her drunken boyfriend Rob (Andrew Gower). A hit-and-run lands the pair in hot water (or in this case, cool water) and, as time passes, it becomes clear that no matter how successful Mia becomes in her career, she just can’t shake the sinister events of that night.  Elsewhere, Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) tries to sort out an insurance claim for one of her clients using a device called a recaller, which essentially builds an image of events using a person’s memories or impressions. When the two storylines intertwine, things become serious for our two female protagonists.
Although the technology in Black Mirror is almost always invasive, I like how it’s used to create conflict for Mia in this episode. She does everything she can to hide the physical evidence of her crimes, but it’s the mental evidence that could be her undoing. In addition to the external conflict between her and Shazia, Mia is conflicted internally because of the things that she has done. She’s a really great character. Arguably the most heart-racing instalment of the season, ‘Crocodile’ has a neat little twist that I certainly didn’t see coming.
 

After the chilling ‘Crocodile’, the tone is lightened for ‘Hang the DJ’, which is undoubtedly the best episode of Season 4. Before we delve into this, I’m putting it out there: I loved this episode. Arguably this year’s equivalent of the Emmy-winning ‘San Junipero’ (albeit on a much smaller scale), we find ourselves in a world where young lovers must partake in a dating cycle (or ‘system’ as our protagonists call it) to find their perfect match. We meet Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) on their first date, but a despite the system awarding them a mere 24 hours together, it quickly becomes apparent that these two are made for each other. After being forced to endure a series of tiresome relationships with other people, Amy and Frank decide that they will do whatever it takes to beat the system and be together.
While we take everything in this twisted universe with a pinch of salt, one could argue that ‘Hang the DJ’ is almost a social commentary on the phenomenon of internet dating. While apps like Tinder may not limit the time spent with each date, ‘Hang the DJ’ certainly raises the question of how many times must we swipe left before we meet our perfect match? When does it become too much? In spite of all this, ‘Hang the DJ’ is full of hope and, as any Black Mirror fan will know, hope is a rarity in this bleak universe, which is what makes this episode a Season 4 standout.
 

We’re used to Black Mirror jumping from one genre to another, but ‘Metalhead’ is something quite different. The David Slade-directed instalment is told entirely in black and white, and stars Maxine Peake as Bella; a hardened survivor living in a dystopian future. Running at just over 40 minutes, ‘Metalhead’ is Black Mirror’s shortest episode yet and the change in tone is instantly noticeable, especially if you’re watching the series in chronological order. In previous episodes of Black Mirror, (such as Season 2’s ‘The Waldo Moment’ or Season 3’s ‘Nosedive’) our protagonists have a tenancy to babble on without taking a breath, but ‘Metalhead’ features little dialogue and it is completely unsettling for us as viewers. Slade’s direction is magnificent and, mixed with the spine-chilling score, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching an episode of Twin Peaks. Despite borrowing themes from every kind of dystopian adventure there is, ‘Metalhead’ is an entirely original, unpredictable instalment and a killer performance from Peake makes it unmissable. I will warn you though, if you’re still riding the positive wave of ‘Hang The DJ’, I’d recommend taking a break before heading into ‘Metalhead’.
 

I experienced many different kinds of emotions during Black Mirror 4, but disappointment was not one of them. Every episode had been enjoyable, but all in a completely different way. I was hoping that this winning streak would continue into the sixth and final instalment. While ‘Black Museum’ did round off Season 4 with a return to Black Mirror’s traditional form of unsettling horror, for me it is the weakest of the bunch. Much like ‘USS Callister’, ‘Black Museum’ runs a little over an hour. It also borrows the storytelling formula used in the 2014 Christmas special, whereby our two protagonists strike up a conversation, which leads to a series of flashbacks. Nish (Letitia Wright) stops at a gas station to charge her car. While waiting, she decides to check out the nearby Black Museum, which is run by an eccentric man named Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge). Haynes takes Nish on a tour of the museum and explains the origin of some of the creepy memorabilia on display. Cue the flashbacks. The seemingly disconnected storylines eventually come together, but the payoff isn’t as rewarding as it was in ‘White Christmas’. That’s not to say that ‘Black Museum’ is bad; I just felt that it fell a little flat after the two previous episodes. However, if you’re a fan of Black Mirror’s darker episodes, like ‘White Bear’ for example, then perhaps you’ll enjoy ‘Black Museum’ more than I did. The episode does feature some pretty scary stuff, as well as a few Black Mirror throwbacks and Easter Eggs, which is sure to excite the die-hard fans.
 
The fourth season of Black Mirror is arguably the strongest overall season because, truth be told, there isn’t a bad episode among the batch. Sure, ‘Black Museum’ could’ve been better, but it’s no ‘The Waldo Moment’ or ‘Playtest’. As for the best episode, I think I’ve already made my stance on that pretty clear. ‘Hang the DJ’ is everything good about the Black Mirror series all rolled up into one feel-good episode. ‘USS Callister’ is a close second, channelling all the magic of a ‘60s box-office hit. Whether you prefer the dark horrors of the Black Mirror universe, or the romantic happy-ever-afters, there is something for all of us in the fourth season. Present as always are the social messages about the dangers of too much reliance on technology, but Brooker cleverly weaves these messages into the show without making them glaringly obvious. These messages are hidden under layers of subtext and complex storylines.

What are you waiting for? Pick up your technological devices and immerse yourself in six more compelling stories about the dangers of too much technology. What could possibly go wrong?
 
Black Mirror Season 4 is now streaming on Netflix

Contributed by Stephen Patterson

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