About 10,950 times this year we’ve read the news and thought: “oh shit, this is like a Black Mirror episode.” And now, at the end of 2017, when gifted a new season of our favorite dystopian Netflix show, we’re left wondering: can anything be darker than reality right now?
As it turns out, the answer is yes.
EPISODE 1: USS CALISTER
The first episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season stars Jesse Plemons as a schlubby, sexless white guy with an inferiority complex named Robert Daley who feels constantly slighted at his job; he’s the Chief Technology Officer at a company that creates highly immersive video games. He’s also a gamer himself, and a Star Trek—erm, sorry, “Space Fleet”—fan. Surprise! He’s also a gigantic asshole with an authoritarian bent.
What follows is a plot (almost) literally ripped from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Daley surreptitiously imports his coworkers’ DNA into a virtual world where they take on the form of Star Fleet crew members that exist purely for him to dominate and abuse. Daley’s computer program differs from Star Trek’s holodeck only in that the virtual crew are aware of their existence as abused virtual beings, and they’re pissed off about it.
The game-world/real-world dynamic is classic Black Mirror. It’s creepy (Plemons is a reliable villain at this point), it’s fun (although it inexplicably does away with the anachronistic film look that kicks off the episode midway through), and it’s slickly produced. Overall, very okay—it kind of hurt my feelings as a Star Trek fan, but I get it. It’s a fine commentary on the kinds of dorks who play nice at the office but harbor domineering male fantasies.
Given that Star Trek: Discovery and the Seth MacFarlane parody The Orwell both aired this year, “USS Calister” is also more evidence that Black Mirror episodes are conceived entirely by an algorithm trained on Google search trends.
EPISODE 2: ARKANGEL
From the time she gives birth, Marie (played by Rosemarie Dewitt) is an anxious mom. But when Sarah, probably somewhere around age four, gets lost from the playground, Marie takes extreme measures. She takes her to a clinical trial office called Arkangel, where a woman injects a chip into Sarah’s head, enabling Marie to literally see everything her daughter sees on an iPad-like device. She also has the ability to censor what her daughter sees IRL through parental controls.
We don’t have Arkangel yet (that I know of) but parents can already track their kids on GPS systems made for families. And Sarah’s inability to connect with basic emotions reminds me of the multiple studies that suggest kids are no longer able to detect emotions properly because of technological intervention—parental controls block out her mother’s sadness and her grandfather’s funeral.
Marie, with the guidance of a therapist, decides to stop monitoring her daughter’s every move, and removes parental controls. A kid named Trick exposes Sarah to all the things she’s been missing, like porn and chainsaw-wielding serial killer movies. Sarah grows up, it seems, relatively normally after that, with the surveillance tempered. But when one day she decides to be the teen that she is—sneaking out with a friend—Marie succumbs to the Arkangel program, and taps into what Sarah is doing at the moment: losing her virginity to Trick, saying, “Fuck me harder.” Think, for a second, if you mom could see and hear you having sex.
This starts the final unraveling: Marie finds out Trick is a drug dealer who lets Sarah try a line of coke, and then forbids him to see her. She crushes Emergency Contraception—like a souped-up Plan B—into one of Sarah’s smoothies. Sarah catches on and bludgeons her mom with the very same iPad-like device, the blood on her mom’s face blurred out by parental controls.
Arkangel is like that essay you read about how European parents are so much chiller than American parents, coupled with a dose of the surveillance state. And it’s one that makes those leashes that parents put on their kids look totally reasonable. Easy Black Mirror fodder, executed with expert level creepiness.
EPISODE 3: CROCODILE
This one starts with what’s best described as a Fargo-esque crime unfolding during the serene mountainous opening of 1979 Estonian sci-fi Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel. A young couple driving home after an all-night rave hits and kills a person with their car, and instead of turning themselves in or calling an ambulance, they dispose of the body.
The grim tone snowballs, growing more oppressive, when the man (unnamed) and woman (Mia) get together again years after the accident. He, now a recovering alcoholic, wants to send a letter to the wife of their victim. Mia, a successful architect, thinks the risk of being caught is too great. So Mia kills her ex and, repeating the past, disposes of the body.
Meanwhile, an insurance investigator who can see people’s memories with a special machine (a bit silly, but a passable conceit) slowly narrows in on the killing while piecing together an unrelated accident involving a self-driving pizza cart.
I really liked this episode. It feels “small” in all the right ways, a micro drama playing out inside a tangibly larger world that gives us just the right number of peeks into society outside the confines of the taught cat-and-mouse game. I think it’s the best Black Mirror episode since season one’s “Be Right Back.”