Sophie Gilbert and David Sims will be discussing the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, considering alternate episodes. The reviews contain spoilers; don’t read further than you’ve watched. See all of their coverage here.
David, I loved “USS Callister”—it’s my favorite of all the new episodes. You’re smart to observe how it starts with this mopey cliché of a lonely coder, encouraging you to sympathize with him, and then flips it on its head, showing the darkness of his walled-in fantasy world. It’s also interesting how the technology in the episode appears to nod back to “White Christmas” and its cookies. Black Mirror seems as compelled by the idea of the carbon-copied soul as ever, but if it was surprisingly bullish about the concept in “San Junipero,” “USS Callister” reinforces the argument that humans are too frail to be trusted with such godlike powers—that they’re inevitably going to abuse them.
I was excited for “Arkangel,” which combines a potent premise—see what your kid is seeing!—with Jodie Foster, who directs, and Rosemarie DeWitt, who stars. But it feels like one of those lightbulb ideas of Charlie Brooker’s that sputters and dies in the execution, a bit like last season’s “Playtest.” The episode opens by illustrating every parent’s worst fear: Marie (DeWitt) gives birth to a baby, Sara, and for a few frantic seconds she believes the baby is dead, until she hears it start to cry. A few years later it happens again when Sara, now an adorable 3-year-old, disappears at the playground, sparking a neighborhood-wide search and an emotional meltdown from Marie until she’s found. The tension is excruciating in these moments, and the lo-fi, indie feel Foster gives the episode captures the terrible ordinariness of the situation.
After this playground panic, Marie elects to try “Arkangel,” a new kind of electronic chip wired painlessly into Sara’s brain that allows her mother to see what she’s seeing, to pinpoint her location at any time, and to blur out things that might elevate Sara’s cortisol levels, like a local dog who barks when she walks past. Again, the technology nods back to “White Christmas,” in which people can blur out other humans they don’t want to see, and where convicted criminals like Jon Hamm’s character appear with a bright red aura to signal their potential danger to the community. In “Arkangel,” Marie and the Arkangel installer repeatedly emphasize how safe the technology is, how it’s been tested, and that all it signifies is an increased sense of security.
But it’s obvious from the start that things can only go wrong. Brooker and his co-showrunner Annabel Jones excel at capturing the shiny, pristine allure of new products: the ritual unboxing of an unopened device, and the tiny endorphin kick that comes from sliding off the packaging and switching it on. The Arkangel comes with the requisite tablet and serene notification chimes, but it has other implications that aren’t so soothing. Sara’s bullied at school by friends who call her a “chiphead”; it’s implied that her device stunts her emotional growth, since anything stressful or harmful is blurred out of her field of vision, including her grandfather’s heart attack. And Marie gets too attached to her new omniscience, which leads a therapist to tell her to turn it off. But her maternal desire to keep tabs on her child is stimulated again when a teenage Sara (Brenna Harding) begins to sneak out.
From here, the moral of “Arkangel” becomes increasingly obvious, and fairly ponderous. Acting out is a normal part of human behavior, it preaches, and parents who deny their children the freedom to experiment will end up losing them. Far more interesting to me was the episode’s subtext about what kids already have access to. When young Sara’s chip is turned off, a kid in her class shows her hardcore porn and execution videos on his iPad with disturbing nonchalance. Later, in her first sexual encounter, Sara mimics the women she’s seen in pornography, horrifying her mother, who’s turned on the long-dormant Arkangel device to find out where her daughter is. The impact of this kind of instant access to adult imagery is as novel as the implant is, and as unclear. But the episode seems more concerned with lining up a tidy parable about helicopter parenting than peeking into the prospects of the nearer-present.
Stylistically, “Arkangel” is deliberately muted, set in a nondescript EveryTown USA rather than the shiny, isolated glass mansions of episodes like “The Entire History of You” and “Nosedive.” While other Black Mirror episodes have become Insta-friendly dystopias, situated in pastel-colored paradises with picture-perfect details, “Arkangel” is notable for its humdrum aesthetic, more like the hometown a soldier returns to in “Men Against Fire.” Teenage Sara wears bland, baggy clothes that feel like a throwback to a different era; her friends watch “vintage” films like The Breakfast Club for kicks. If Black Mirror is set in one distinct universe, as Seasons 3 and 4 seem to suggest, the cities of the future remain fairly removed from each other, visually. But their technology, at least, intersects. When Marie rewinds the footage from Sara’s optic feed, the scene resembles the way “grain” memories are replayed in “The Entire History of You.”
We’ll inevitably all disagree on which Black Mirror episode is the best, but the ones that seem to gratify fans the most tend to allow some goofiness into the premise. “USS Callister” was no less enthralling or psychologically rich for playing around with monsters and riffing on the ’60s format of the space series, and the joke buried at the end of “San Junipero” was a Belinda Carlisle song. But episodes like “White Bear” and “Shut Up and Dance” are unrelentingly bleak, and “Arkangel,” if less nightmarish, didn’t offer much in the way of consolation. What did you make of it, David? And how do you interpret the ways in which the Black Mirror universe has taken shape?