It’s been a month since the fourth season of Black Mirror was released, and it seems that the latest episodes caused equal doses of thrill and rant among the audience and critics. Once again, Charlie Brooker treats us with six episodes set around futuristic tech. The depicted gadgets and practices, no matter how surreal, are at least symbolically related to our reality, meaning that the series has kept one of its core qualities. So, what went wrong and why all the rant?
It is difficult to point out at one flaw and proclaim “Yeah, this is why this season is worse than the others.” Read the synopsis of any episode and you’ll be promised original, ethically challenging ideas, as well as exciting narratives. All the basic ideas seem potent enough to keep us near our screens but watching the season doesn’t leave us shocked or shaken as the earlier ones.
One of the reasons might be the simplified approach. Focused on the human mind, the season reveals diverse mind-manipulating techniques possible through tech gadgets. In USS Callister, human conscience can be copied into a video game. In Arkangel, directed by Jodie Foster, a child’s mind can be monitored and driven away from undesired contents. Crocodile depicts a mind-reading tech bit that digs into people’s memories. Hang the DJ makes us face a hyperbolized dating app that messes with people’s minds to find out their dating match. Finally, Black Museum plays with the idea of copying people’s mental and physical sensations into other people, digital formats and objects. Despite the complex issues, the series fails to give us more than magical head implants that make almost any of the described practices possible. Given that human minds are so unexplored, the idea that anyone’s conscience can be so easily penetrated goes way beyond our credibility threshold. We could use some more mystery and complexity in the used tech, at least enough of it to prevent us from asking how is any of it so easy to use. Simple tech worked in some of the previous seasons (remember the episode with the star rating app) but that was before the series was directed towards the untouchable – the human brain.
There are other reasons for the season four being less catchy than the earlier seasons. For instance, Crocodile, a crime plot enriched by the spice of a memory reader gadget, is harmed by long, boring fillers. Arkangel is perhaps most tightly related to our present. Its title winks at us, alluding to Mattel Aristotle, kind of an Amazon Echo/Alexa learning toy and kids’ monitoring device but this episode unveils pretty predictably.
What about Metalhead? The fifth episode of the season seems as if it was borrowed from some other TV show. It differs both visually (it’s shot in black and white) and narratively from the rest of the series. Its trailer got us tricked into expecting a thrilling, action-packed episode. Yet, its dramatic post-apocalyptic vibe doesn’t allow us to know the nature of the apocalypse, and the action falls flat along with our empathy, as we are not sure what the protagonist is chasing. She also tries to escape combative robots, resembling BigDog robots made by Boston Dynamics, but we don’t know why they are even after her. Reduced to such a minimalistic plot, this episode reflects the very essence of the entire series, the harsh battle of humans and technology. Paradoxically, it just doesn’t seem to belong in the same folder with the rest of the episodes.
What’s with the good parts of the latest season? Well, SF fans embraced the first episode and its Star Trek-like imagery. Arkangel requires us to question our views and pick between children’s safety and privacy. Hang the DJ, if taken seriously, could really make some Tinder users drop their profiles, faced with the reshaped, uncannily digitalized love in this episode. Crocodile does make a good balance between the genre standards and tech hyperboles. Black Museum imposes incredible levels of inhumane behavior, confronting human instincts and ethics. Metalhead, as scanty as it is when it comes to the backstory, still manages to play with symbols and bring out emotional reactions. In the end, compensating for all the frustration caused by the ignorance throughout the episode. So, all those things we loved Black Mirror for: hyper-tech, morally challenging topics, questioning human nature – everything is there – somehow, poorly executed.