Netflix's Black Mirror season 4 has gotten the Internet buzzing in a big way, thanks to six very affecting new episodes that use the concept of technological advancement to once again plumb the depths of the human soul. Of course, the visceral experience of seeing these Black Mirror episodes sometimes distracts from the larger themes or messages, but given how Black Mirror is the modern successor to The Twilight Zone, the messages behind the tales are almost as important as the tales themselves.
Here's the breakdown on the messages and themes in each of Black Mirror season 4's episodes:
1. USS Callister
There's been an increasing debate in geek/gamer culture in the last few years, about where the line between fandom and fetishization gets drawn when it comes to things like female superheroes, female gamers, cosplay, etc. The "USS Callister" episode of Black Mirror takes this debate to a new extreme, with a story that uses one of geekdom's biggest sacred cows (Star Trek) as the delivery system for an important statement.
If you didn't get it by the end, director Toby Haynes (Sherlock, Doctor Who) creates dark hope for where geek/gamer culture is headed. The story takes the object of Robert Daly's fetish (his tech-savvy co-worker Nanette Cole) and puts the powers of leadership, agency, and self-determination squarely in her hands. It's such a firm transition of cultural power that even the hateful words of a malicious male gamer (Aaron Paul in a special cameo) can't bring Nanette down. The future is female, indeed.
Methods of parenting change with time, and in the modern age the big debate has been about what is known as "helicopter parenting." If you're not familiar: the term comes from the observation that modern parents are too anxious about attending to their children's every need and want immediately, trying to create all kinds of "safe spaces" and bubbles around them to protect them from the harshness and/or disappointments of the world.
"Arkangel" takes on this concept pretty directly, with a story of how a mom has her daughter tagged with an experimental digital implant, in order to achieve invasive levels of observation and control, all in the name of safety. The implant allows the mom everything from knowing her daughter's location at all times, to censoring what the little girl sees. Things go sideways as the daughter reaches teenage maturity, as the controls the mother put into place to keep her daughter safe, are exactly what drive her away, into a dangerous life as a runaway. The message here is pretty clear: director Jodie Foster warns us that trying to keep too much control over a child is exactly what will end up driving them out of control. Playing god is not the same as parenting, even when technology blurs the difference.
Director John Hillcoat (The Road) takes us on a nightmare journey through one woman's descent into darkness. Mia (Andrea Riseborough) helps cover up an accidental death, but fifteen years later, that deed comes back to haunt her, leading Mia to the drastic decision to kill four more innocent people (including one baby) to protect her secrets. The motivation for these heinous acts comes from an insurance investigator (Kiran Sonia Sawar), who is using a device that reads memories to look into a different incident that indirectly implicates Mia.
The title of "Crocodile" refers to the limbic systems of crocodile brains, which support memory through things like smell. The episode returns us to a central theme of the entire Black Mirror series, which is that human relations would be much more savage if the full span of our private thoughts and/or memories were made public. Mia finds this out the hard way, when her campaign of murder and cover up is undone by the memories of her victims' pet guinea pig.
4. Hang the DJ
Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire director Timothy Van Patten taps into every human being's anxiety and/or memories of the horrors of dating, with an episode that imagines a future in which human copulation and relationships are orchestrated in a series of test scenarios. Within that system we get Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole), two people who have substantial chemistry, but are torn apart by the superficial bureaucracy of the contrived and controlled coupling process.
"Hang the DJ" is actually a rare positive-skewing episode of Black Mirror, ultimately conveying the point that true love connections between human beings are something that can't be quantified and measured - let alone arranged through statistical data amassed over a lot of wasted time. While it's a big middle finger to the digital dating industry, the episode also highlights what's beautiful in the random, often chaotic, process of coupling. The title refers to the notion of a DJ who keeps changing the song, when the listeners would rather let it play out in full.
Internet viral videos of companies building more and more advanced robots led to this dystopian nightmare from 30 Days of Night's David Slade. When wasteland survivor Bella (Maxine Peake) goes out on a scavenger mission, she and her team inadvertently awaken a "dog," one of the robots that has seemingly hunted humanity to near-extinction. Over the next day or so, Bella tries everything that human ingenuity and resolve can offer to get away from this mortal threat - but it doesn't matter, as the machine can anticipate and counter her every idea and tactic.
Over the course of the story, we see just how technological advancements in robotics that are wowing us right now, could become something more horrifying than our worst imagining. The "dog" can out-think and outlast anything a human being can do, and even in "death" the dog makes sure to achieve its goals. The message of "Metalhead" is clear: if robots advance far enough, humans will no longer be top dog on the food chain. The big Citizen Kane twist at the end adds that while efficient and durable, machines will always lack the empathic foundation that can inspire human beings to make the most noble of sacrifices (like risking it all to comfort a child).
6. Black Museum
This episode plays like a smaller anthology within the anthology series of Black Mirror, while also connecting the series in one shared universe. It's a story that sees a young woman named Nish (Letitia Wright) come to a remote roadside attraction: a museum that collects various Black Mirror series relics, displayed in a scene full of series Easter eggs (so keep your eyes open). The museum's curator, Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), tells Nish three separate stories based on the museum attractions:
"Black Museum" may seem like a variety showcase, but the individual short stories and their overarching tale all carry some pretty strong thematic implications. The medical story by Penn Jillette can be taken as condemnation of our schadenfreude culture; the story of shared consciousness in relationships has clear feminist themes; and the death row story has obvious overtones of racism and mass incarceration. Best of all, however, "Black Museum" ends with a statement about how some proverbial 'black girl magic' can be the force that changes these tides, as the young woman Nish exacts big revenge on Rolo Haynes when the situation gets personal.
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