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.
Sophie, I agree on “Arkangel,” which I initially admired for its indie-movie approach, though it couldn’t follow through on the advantages of that form. For the episode to work, I needed to be invested in the mother-daughter relationship, which Jodie Foster’s direction tried to enhance—the story was very light on dramatics and pretty real. But then the technology kept those characters so separate (as part of the helicopter-parent metaphor) that the whole narrative became a bit of a chore for me, especially as Charlie Brooker’s script spent so much time working out the dark intricacies of the guardian chip.
Still, I didn’t hate “Arkangel”; I just felt there was untapped potential to its premise. But I don’t know if I’ve ever been as frustrated by an episode of Black Mirror as I was by “Crocodile,” a miserable hour that left me both emotionally and intellectually unfulfilled. I’d be willing to venture that my appetite for pure nihilism has diminished in recent years—partly because so many shows have explored that territory in the prestige-TV era, and partly because the real world has felt so bleak of late. But I don’t think that was my only problem with “Crocodile.” It is, undoubtedly, relentlessly depressing. And yet it also didn’t seem to have much of a deeper point.
There are two parallel storylines running in “Crocodile.” The first is a frightening psychological thriller with the atmosphere of a Nordic noir, following Mia (Andrea Riseborough), an architect who keeps finding herself in harrowing situations. First, in the episode’s prologue, she kills someone in a hit-and-run accident while driving down a snowy path with a man (Andrew Gower). They dispose of the body and forget about it, but as with any I Know What You Did Last Summer scenario, the guilt eventually catches up to them, or to him, at least: He tells her years later that he’s going to confess as an act of repentance. So Mia ends up killing him too, to protect herself.
Riseborough is a wonderful actress—she was so great as Billie Jean King’s girlfriend Marilyn Barnett in Battle of the Sexes this year—and she almost sold me on Mia’s abrupt descent into darkness early on in this episode. Covering up the hit-and-run death is an act of desperation, but the second murder is a more calculated piece of self-preservation. Riseborough excels at suggesting hidden depths to her characters, but even then I struggled to believe Mia would make this ghastly decision just to save her own skin. That’s a problem, because before the episode is over, she has to repeat that choice again—and again.
Any hint of lingering humanity is quickly erased as Mia turns into a rampaging monster. Soon, she’s only killing people to set up further plot points in an episode that turns into a strange sort of treatise on body cameras and crime surveillance. It all takes place in a cold, snowy world that only serves to make the mood even more grim. After dominating the first part of “Crocodile,” Mia disappears from the action until the final act, but her one-dimensional heartlessness looms over the whole thing.
The other storyline is far more engaging, almost by default, and much more focused on process in a way that many tech-centered Black Mirror episodes are. I’ve always liked Brooker’s skill with worldbuilding, and explaining how each episode’s fanciful technology works, be it the transactional universe of “Fifteen Million Merits” or the augmented reality of “Men Against Fire.” In “Crocodile,” the new tech is a sort of memory reader, a receiver that someone can pop onto your forehead to visualize what’s going on in your noggin on a dinky little television. It isn’t exact, and it involves triggering your recollections via specific sensations (like sounds or smells), but it’s a way to reconstruct a crime scene by consulting the viewpoints of every possible witness.
In “Crocodile,” the police aren’t trying to solve a murder; rather, an insurance agent, Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar), is trying to see whether a claim can pay out after an automated pizza truck runs someone over in the street. I did enjoy watching Shazia put things together, methodically but with empathy and care; her character was a fundamentally decent person despite having truly powerful technology at her disposal, which is a rarity in the world of Black Mirror.
Brooker often talks about how technology is never the villain in the series—it’s just empowering in a way that can be dangerous, as we’ve see in previous episodes this season. In “Crocodile,” though, that connection wasn’t as clear to me. Shazia’s insurance agent is using the “recaller” passively to try and help people, and only consults with Mia, one of the witnesses to the truck accident, because of that. But for Mia, the truck accident came right as she was committing her own brutal crime, and so her memories are entangled. Because of this, Shazia’s entire family has to die.
Mia’s killing spree is awful to watch, but there seemed to be no broader message to justify the horror. Yes, the memory-reading technology forces Mia’s hand in some way. She’s killing anyone who might have a memory of seeing her or hearing about her, including a baby, who, in an ironic Twilight Zone twist, turns out to have been blind and would have had no visual memories to mine. In an even goofier twist, Mia ends up getting caught when the police tap the memories of a hamster, but it’s hard to appreciate the whimsy when there’s a dead baby in the same scene.
Perhaps Brooker is trying to suggest that intense surveillance creates crime as much as it stops it. That’s an argument I’d be happy to hear more about, but it would need to be centered on a character whose pathology makes more sense than Mia’s. The lead of “Crocodile” is too nakedly evil, too lacking in redeeming features, to make that idea remotely compelling. Were you as disappointed and grumpy as I apparently am, Sophie?