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.
While I didn’t love “Metalhead,” David, which felt like a 40-minute black-and-white episode of Black Mirror does The Hunger Games, I did think there was something almost unbearably haunting about the final twist. It seemed like the ultimate way to differentiate humans from robots, to have a group of adults essentially sacrifice their lives for something as useless but as emotionally resonant as a teddy bear for a sick child. Contrasted with the reflexive, merciless hunting of the dogs, I don’t know whether it was comforting or exactly the opposite. Either way, we’re definitely going to lose the robot wars.
So what to make of “Black Museum”? It started, like exactly 50 percent of this season’s episodes have started, with someone in a car, driving through a vast and empty landscape. (I’m not nitpicking, but there are other ways to introduce a story.) It was set up almost exactly like “White Christmas,” pulling three mini-stories into a larger arc. It was more stuffed full of Easter Eggs than a Walmart in March. It seemed to definitively tie the Black Mirror universe together, pulling crime memorabilia from episodes past into one grisly desert attraction. But it also left me feeling icky, for want of a better word. The triumphant final scene, which saw the Black Museum’s proprietor tortured and imprisoned in a keychain for all perpetuity, trafficked in the kind of eye-for-an-eye justice that Black Mirror loves to impose in its stories, like Robert Daly being trapped forever in a defunct version of his own universe in “USS Callister.” Is this really the world we want?
The real Black Museum is actually a collection of crime memorabilia housed in Scotland Yard, the headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police. It’s a trove of historical crime artifacts, including letters allegedly written by Jack the Ripper and the hangman’s noose from Britain’s last execution. Black Mirror’s Black Museum is similar in format: It’s a collection of items used in high-profile technological crimes, most of which have appeared in previous episodes of Black Mirror. I spotted the lollipop from “USS Callister,” the bathtub from “Crocodile,” the shattered iPad from “Arkangel,” a balaclava and gun from “White Bear,” and various other references to Victoria Skillane and “cloning without consent.”
If you’re a fan of the show (which presumably most people watching will be), this is tantalizing stuff. Way more interesting, in fact, than the three stories trotted out for a tourist, Nish (Letitia Wright), by Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), the Black Museum’s purveyor of dark history. In the first, supposedly inspired by a story devised by the magician Penn Jillette, a doctor gets a device implanted into his brain that allows him to feel his patients’ pain and pinpoint their symptoms. Naturally, he begins to misuse it for his own gratification and becomes addicted to pain, brutally stabbing a homeless man in one of the most gratuitously violent scenes Black Mirror has ever imagined.
In the second story, a woman in a coma has her consciousness digitally extracted from her vegetative body and implanted in her husband’s head, leaving her in a kind of sunken place where she can see what he sees and talk to him, but can exert no control (what could possibly go wrong). In the third, an accused killer sells his soul (literally) to Haynes, who revives him as Black Museum’s most popular exhibit—a Death Row inmate whom visitors can personally electrocute, over and over again. The episode, written by Charlie Brooker, indicts gawkers, ghouls, and the callously vengeful in much the same way “White Bear” did. It assumes the worst of human nature, implying that people are innately wired to prefer justice in vindictive form. In the wake of an episode like “Metalhead,” which argued the exact opposite, it’s a bitter, moralizing pill to swallow.
Wright, who stars in the upcoming Black Panther movie, is the most compelling part of “Black Museum,” but the twist—her act of revenge for the longterm abuse of the prisoner, who turns out to be her father—isn’t exactly a satisfying conclusion for this season. “Black Museum” is savvy enough to preach against the kinds of visitors who take pleasure in inflicting pain, the “loner, sadist, supremacist demographic” and the “race-hate rich guys with a hard-on for power,” as Haynes puts it, who become the Black Museum’s biggest visitor base. But the ending, like “USS Callister” and “White Christmas,” still leaves a human soul imprisoned in a void, subject to intolerable cruelty (whether you rate eternal agony over the Christmas music of Wizzard is, of course, a matter of personal preference).
Black Mirror has spent much of Season 4 pondering the ethics of the copy-pasted brain—so much so that Rolo Haynes even mentions offhand to Nish that the UN has since made it illegal to transfer human consciousness into “limited formats.” “Human rights for cookies,” he sputters. Whatever next? It’s a pretty glib way to summarize the ethical arguments the show has occupied itself with for the last six episodes, most of which involve the terrible things that can happen if we blithely wire our brains directly into the cloud. So is imprisoning a man (albeit a terrible one) in a state of permanent torture in a keychain, but that’s Black Mirror for you.