The biggest accomplishment of the fourth season of Black Mirror, set to be released Friday on Netflix, is that for the first time the dystopian speculative anthology series takes its manifold anxieties about humanity’s future and smooshes them together into a single thematic tube. Past episodes have tackled vigilante justice and reality television, social-media shaming and pickup artistry, internet surveillance and war, all warped slightly by fictional, but plausible, technology. But tech itself isn’t Black Mirror’s Big Bad. We are: a species prone to grandiose dreams of easier lives, embracing dubious, untested ways to get there. The show is a series of disturbing parables about how ill-equipped we are to deal with the quick and thoughtless ways we’re changing the world.
There have been hints in the past that Black Mirror is more than just unconnected vignettes, and that the dramatically divergent worlds of the show somehow exist in the same universe. The fourth season, without spoiling it, makes this supposition absolute. The neon, authoritarian prison of “15 Million Merits” belongs in the same fictional milieu as the more naturalistic (but no less terrifying) “Shut Up and Dance.” The pastel-colored, dopamine-twitchy Insta-world of “Nosedive” is related to the brutal, revenge-fantasy theme park of “White Bear.” Charlie Brooker, the former video-game journalist and satirist who created Black Mirror, doesn’t suggest how these links might make sense, or why his slightly futuristic landscape doesn’t seem to be plagued by any of the other pressing issues humankind is currently wrestling with, like climate change or overpopulation or poverty. Black Mirror is a kind of simulation, a test environment to explore the many, many ways we could doom ourselves.
The six new episodes of the show have a unifying theme (with the exception of “Metalhead,” a tense, maddening thriller shot in black and white that’s the shortest episode of the bunch at 42 minutes). They’re concerned with digital consciousness—what it means to connect our brains directly to the cloud. “Crocodile” explores the ramifications of this in a similar fashion to the first-season episode “The Entire History of You.” “Arkangel” imagines a new technology that affords parents greater insight into what their kids are experiencing. Other episodes consider a phenomenon the show has mulled before: the ability to copy a human soul, turning cloned consciousnesses into digital slaves. Our Siris, our selves.
What can it mean, this sudden coalescence of disparate dystopian concerns into a single form? In execution, the fourth series is remarkably patchy, even with the abundance of resources and talent that arrived with Black Mirror’s move (after its second season) from the British network Channel 4 to Netflix. As a body of work it’s more interesting than satisfying, although “USS Callister,” the standout episode, is spectacular, while “Hang the DJ” has the kind of winning optimism that made Season 3’s Emmy-winning “San Junipero” such a hit. The cast and crew involved this time around range from Jodie Foster (who directed “Arkangel”) to Jesse Plemons to Andrea Riseborough to David Slade. But the problem now is the writing. Some episodes (“Crocodile”) sacrifice plausibility and character development for tenuous moralizing that ultimately makes no sense. Others (“Arkangel”) are predictable at best and sometimes tediously bleak.
It’s not uncommon for Black Mirror episodes to feel like they begin and end with a clever idea—something that starts as a neat trick or a devious twist but fails to go much further. Season 3’s “Playtest,” which used the generic framework of horror to imagine the potential disaster of an immersive video game, never found its way beyond anything more than a concept, ending with a clunky thud. “Black Museum,” the final episode of the new season, doesn’t disappoint in its conclusion, but it takes such a roundabout way of getting there that you wonder what it’s all been in the service of. Without giving too much away, the narrative is an excuse to revisit Black Mirror’s greatest hits, via a grisly museum in a rural southwestern corner of America. The exhibits are artifacts from notorious crimes of the recent past; most nod back to previous chapters of the show’s history.
The episode’s frame is a wink to audience members who love finding Easter eggs hidden in the show’s crevices (Season 3 employed hashtags and news items glimpsed on some characters’ devices to suggest that different episodes were coexisting on the same timeline). But it also feels like a missed opportunity. “Black Museum” is structured around three different stories told by a museum curator to a visiting tourist. As in the episode “White Christmas,” the different stories are all linked, and they converge at the end in surprising fashion. But it’s frustrating to see all these nods to previous stories when the show doesn’t ultimately dig into them. Why acknowledge that the Black Mirror universe exists at all if you’re not going to do anything with it to expand its cautionary vision?
The show’s confluence around the question of digital consciousness feels similarly futile. It’s fascinating to see all these threads come together, but it would be even more so if they formed something of substance. “Black Museum” feels akin to the series’s fascination with the song “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)”—a phenomenon to be noted, but not one that has an obvious interpretation. It’s a common feature rather than a statement. Otherwise, Black Mirror’s most reliable trait would be the assertion that everyone in the future lives in vast, glass-walled mansions in nondescript isolated locations.
When the show’s at its most ingenious, as “USS Callister” testifies, there’s not much that’s better. It can spark everything from subtle, shivery suspicions about inanimate devices to profound fear and despair about the reality that we’re already living in. And its worldbuilding is its biggest strength, which is why it would be so gratifying to see the show’s other ambitions expand. The locale of “Crocodile,” for example, is chilly, meticulous, and carefully constructed, making the episode’s weak characterization even more maddening. Black Mirror is equipped with extravagant imagination when it comes to the human race. How can it not have a better sense that the things we’re actually capable of doing are terrifying enough?