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December 7, 2017

‘Black Mirror’ Season 4 Is Consistently Challenging & Original [Review]

The first season (the first episode, to be more precise about it) of “Black Mirror” blew my mind. It was a display of risky, ambitious filmmaking the likes of which I hadn’t previously seen on television. “The National Anthem” remains one of my favorite TV episodes of all time, while other first season entries “Fifteen Million Merits” and “The Entire History of You” are brilliant in their own ways.

I was progressively less impressed by the show’s sophomore season, by its Christmas special, and by its most recent, original-to-Netflix, third season. The originality that had so hooked me in its first run of three episodes seemed to have dissipated; perhaps the impossibly high social-media expectations did the show no favors.

I’ll cut to the chase: season four is, if not consistently great, consistently challenging and original. Its highs come close to season one’s, and its lows are nowhere near the lows of season three. Let’s take this episode by episode.

“Black Museum”

Directed by Colm McCarthy, the filmmaker behind last year’s underseen “The Girl With All The Gifts,” “Black Museum” is a sort of three-for-one “Black Mirror” episode. The conceit is simple: A young woman, played by Letitia Wright, happens upon the mysteriously named Rolo Haynes’ Black Museum in the middle of the desert. She has a few hours to kill (her car is charging at a nearby car-charging station, very Black Mirror) so she ventures in. The museum’s only guest, she is shown around by Rolo Haynes himself (a scenery-chewing Douglas Hodge), who informs her that the Museum displays the worst stories of humanity. He proceeds to tell her three very “Black Mirror” stories, which are fully dramatized for us in succinct mini-episode form.

The first story is the simplest, and therefore best, of the three. It involves a doctor becoming addicted to the pain of his patients, and is visceral and horrifying in just the way you want a “Black Mirror” story to be visceral and horrifying. The second story has Aldis Hodge playing a man whose wife’s consciousness is implanted in his brain after she dies (there are multiple explicit shout-outs to last season’s “San Junipero” here). And the third story is about false convictions and the death sentence.

The stories, which become more and more ridiculous and broad as they play out, have one thing tying them together: Hodge’s Rolo Haynes, who is, in all three cases, the instigator of all the eventual misery. And Hodge’s performance is going to be the main takeaway from this episode for most people: it’s huge and loud and sweaty and fun. Hodge gets to do a lot of acting here, and he’s more than up for the task.

Wright is quite good in this as well, and although I don’t believe I’ve seen her in anything else, I was pleased to learn that she will be appearing in both “Ready Player One” and “Black Panther” next year. So, look out for that.

The “Black Museum” of the title could more accurately be described as a “Black Mirror Museum,” as many of the exhibits that Wright and Hodges pass over contain artifacts from “Black Mirror” episodes old and new. It’s an especially meaningful episode for longtime, committed “Black Mirror” fans. I’m looking forward to a more observant fan than I making an easter-egg video detailing all of the things that I missed.

It’s a solid episode, if one that feels more like an excuse for creator Charlie Brooker to make an anthology episode of his anthology series than an actual episode of TV. Luckily, Brooker had three good short stories to tell and hired a fantastic director to tell them. [B]

“Crocodile”

“Crocodile” is the least notable episode of the season, so I’ll keep this brief. The story is one we’ve seen so very many times before: a respectable person kills someone in a momentary lapse of violent rage, and goes to the deepest, darkest lengths to cover up their crime. Think “Fargo” season one, or this season of “Search Party,” or one of the many, many other examples of this trope in TV and film and literature and radio plays and all the other narrative art forms.

The twist in this episode centers around the existence of technology that can read and display people’s memories, making it much more difficult to get away with accidental murder. It’s not a very interesting twist, nor is it particularly well-executed.  

More so than the tritely shocking moments of blood and gore and violence in “Crocodile,” the one that most provoked an emotional reaction in me involve the invocation of a song showcased in “Fifteen Million Merits” — you know the one. For obvious reasons relating to the plot of that episode, hearing that song in the context of a “Black Mirror” episode is a chill-inducing experience. Bit of a cheat though, if your standalone episode relies on knowledge of a previous standalone episode to have emotional resonance. [C+]

“Hang the DJ”

This is the “San Junipero” of season four. At least, I’d like to think it is. I’ve already seen it three times and will likely revisit it often.

“Hang the DJ” is the online dating episode of “Black Mirror.” It posits a future where an A.I. system puts people in “relationships,” for specific periods of time, gathering data on the daters so as to ultimately pair everyone with their ultimate match. The system boasts a 98% success rate.

Our heroes are Amy and Frank, played by Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole, respectively. Frank and Amy are both new to The System, and are paired with each other for their first “relationship.” Amy is supermodel gorgeous and Frank a bumbling, lovable clown; naturally, they hit it off right away. They’re disappointed when their A.I. “Coach” informs them that they will only have twelve hours together before their relationship expires, but the pair decide to make the most of the time they do have. After their dinner date, a self-driving golf cart of sorts transports them to their living quarters, where people who are paired together by The System cohabitate.

The episode is helmed by Tim Van Patten, a go-to TV director who has been behind the camera of classic episodes of shows like “Deadwood” and “Boardwalk Empire.” “Hang The DJ” is beautifully shot throughout, but Van Patten’s best work comes  during Frank and Amy’s night together. He gets just a few scenes to convince us that these characters have fallen in love, and he does so successfully. Campbell and Cole have chemistry for days, but that alone would not be enough to sustain an episode that is fully dependent on us believing that these characters are meant to be together. Van Patten’s direction here is itself romantic, in love with the idea of these characters being in love, and is all-around lovely.

The episode has a couple developments that you’ll see coming a mile away, from Frank being paired with an exaggerated witch of a woman, to the absolutely inevitable third-act twist. But nothing can subtract from the fact that “Hang the DJ” successfully crafts an epic romance in under an hour — and its ending, while telegraphed pretty clearly, is still something different for “Black Mirror.” [A-]

“Metalhead”

Fuck yeah. “Metalhead.”

Directed by David Slade (“Hard Candy”), “Metalhead” is a wildly ambitious — and basically perfect — episode of “Black Mirror.” Presented entirely in black-and-white, it’s a dystopian chase film in the vein of Mad Max,” with a “single-protagonist-survival” element thrown in for good measure. The plot isn’t important. What’s important is this: the entirety of “Metalhead” has British actress Maxine Peake running from a tiny, four-legged robot known to the survivors of a recent, mysterious apocalypse as a “Dog.”

I’ve written and rewritten this next paragraph several times. I’m struggling with just how to convey to you the design genius that is the Dog. Here’s a robot that’s incredibly minimalist, small and unassuming, but scarier than anything in any horror film to come out this year. It’s a terrifying creation. There’s a shot, a very wide shot, from Peake’s perspective, of the Dog racing toward her across a nearby hill: the tiny object’s incredibly fast pace makes a truly singular, and unforgettable impression.

This episode alone should put Slade in the running for every major action movie property in development. Seriously, the guy should have his pick of the litter — it’s a directorial tour de force (Peake is really very good in this, but Slade is the star.)

Unfortunately, the episode’s final shot is bad. Very bad — treacly and moralizing and sentimental and gross. Bad enough that it retroactively softens some of the episode’s impact.

Luckily, the sheer bad-assness of everything that precedes it negates all that. “Metalhead” is an all-timer. [A]

“U.S.S. Callister”

Expect a LOT of Twitter chatter about this one. For “U.S.S. Callister” is not only a “Star Trek” homage episode, it’s also a conversation starter for hordes of tepid liberals to both champion and criticize for not going far enough.

The episode, which is ambitious and doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when you stop to think about it, has Jesse Plemons (phenomenal) playing Robert Daly, an under-appreciated tech company CTO. People at work think he’s weird; the women in the office whisper about him being stare-y, while his co-founder and CEO, played by Jimmi Simpson, treats him like he’s invisible. Plemons’ CTO grins and bears it.

But every night when he gets home, Daly delves into a video-game simulator of his own creation: a “Star Trek”-like spaceship where he is the captain and all of his subordinates are digital clones of his co-workers. The twist: the clones are sentient, conscious copies of real people, and as such have all the memories and emotions of the people they were copied from; Daly gets off from cruelly subjugating these sentient alt-versions of the people in his life that he resents.

When a new hire (Cristin Milioti) joins the office, Daly adds her to his game, not guessing that she might just be smart enough to free the enslaved space-crew from Daly’s tyrannical regime.

It’s convoluted in an “Inception” sort of way, raises far more hypothetical ethical questions than it answers, and has Milioti say exceptionally dumb shit like “he’s not a god, he’s a coder” and “stealing my pussy is a red fucking line.” And yet it’s a lot of fun, brilliantly assembled, featuring great performances all around — particularly from Milioti and Plemons, neither of whom has ever been less than great in anything. Simpson is delightful here too, providing much of the episode’s comic relief.

Again, its internal logic leaves a lot to be desired. Characters do and say stupid, out-of-character things every few seconds, and Daly becomes very, very inept the second that the script needs him to. Still, this is one of the best episodes of the season. Oh, and keep an ear out for a wonderful voice cameo at the very end of the episode. [B]

“Arkangel”

“Arkangel,” directed by Jodie Foster, has one of the coolest premises of the season. What if technology existed that allowed parents to not only track their child, but to see everything their child sees? And its first two acts really capitalize on that idea, with solid direction from Foster and genuine performances from Rosemarie DeWitt and Brenna Harding as mother and daughter, respectively.

It’s a shame that the episode goes to the overwrought, predictable places it does.

Not much else to say about this one. It has shades of “The Entire History of You,” but while that episode’s violent ending felt earned and meaningful, this episode’s violent ending feels intentionally shocking and manipulative. [C+]

Some final thoughts: Even the middling episodes of season four aren’t all bad, and the highlights —”Metalhead” and “Hang the DJ” in particular — shine brighter than anything since the show’s out-of-nowhere first season. I’m now much hotter on future seasons of “Black Mirror” than I expected to be. It seems Brooker hasn’t run out of ideas after all. [Season Grade: B+]

“Black Mirror” season four hits Netflix on December 29th.

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