The protagonist in “Playtest” is Cooper (Wyatt Russell), an American crossing the globe on some sort of extended gap year, nervily avoiding phone calls from his mother and hooking up with a tech writer, Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen), while he’s in London. In need of cash, he agrees to take part in an advanced series of tests for an augmented-reality game; for the first half hour of the episode, Brooker keeps the audience on its toes for whatever the shocking rug-pull is going to be. Is Cooper all that he seems? Is Sonja? Is this game company on the level, located in the outskirts of London, and plugging some sort of data-collecting device into Cooper’s brainstem?
The answer is perhaps disappointingly facile—look away, if you want to remain unspoiled. Cooper’s “game” plays out as an unfolding, metatextual horror movie; after some successful early tests, he’s dispatched to a creepy old mansion where he contends with a giant spider, an old school bully, and then a bizarre amalgamation of the two, a CGI spider with a stretched human face that looks, well, horrifying. Then, Cooper is hounded by Sonja, who claims she set him up before turning into a bloody Terminator-style robot; he’s told by the game testers that something has gone horribly wrong and they need to abort the entire program. Finally, there’s a showdown with his mother, revealed to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s, the real demon he’s been avoiding all along.
But it’s all in Cooper’s head—he in fact lasts only a fraction of a second before something in his brain pops because of interference from his cellphone signal. Brooker is obviously winking at the twisty reputation his show has acquired, overloading the episode with so many shocks and surprises before rendering them all meaningless. The technology that undoes Cooper is no more terrifying than signal interference; the lesson learned, if anything, is to listen to people when they tell you to turn your device off. Even if it’s an intentionally simple ending, it feels a little forced, blunting the tragedy of Cooper’s death.
The build-up, though, is quite something. Trachtenberg turns the haunted mansion into a wonderful playground for Cooper’s nightmares. He manages to joke about the conventions of horror cinema (Cooper loudly anticipates every jump scare around every corner) while still having the scares land, and Russell’s performance is equally goofy and sympathetic. When the jokey horror turns into the real thing, he makes the tonal shift feel subtle, and never loses grasp on his cheerful American fish-out-of-water vibe (he’s the son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, and certainly feels like Hollywood royalty).
What did you make of “Playtest,” Sophie? Its horrifying imagery (especially that darn man-spider) stuck with me even if its overall message didn’t. In a strange way, this feels part of a whole with the next installment, “Shut Up and Dance,” which also takes a simple premise and carries it through to a scary conclusion. Both are well-executed but feel a little hollow; Black Mirror’s third season surprisingly feels less focused on lecturing the audience of the evils of technology. The future shock, instead, feels almost taken for granted—we know these things are going to undo us somehow. It’s just a matter of what form the nightmare is going to take.
Read Sophie Gilbert’s review of the next episode, “Shut Up and Dance.”