Humanism Barely Triumphs over Nihilism in Black Mirror Season 4

In life, and in TV, all good things must come to an end. No one would have thought three years ago that Black Mirror would have risen from the ashes and gets picked up by Netflix. Now in its fourth season, Black Mirror has survived a move from a traditional network to Netflix, a transition from the UK to North America and a meteoric rise in profile thanks to the busting success of its Netflix marketing campaign. And with the arrival of a new, hefty crop of episodes, it seems the one thing Black Mirror might not be able to weather is its own melodramatic sensibilities (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

Spoilers ahead for the new season of Black Mirror. If you still haven’t watched it then I recommend you prioritize it and put it ahead of your watchlist.

In the middle of Hang the DJ, Black Mirror’s season four ode to love in a digital age, Amy — a single woman who’s struggling with an AI soulmate-finder that has promised to match her with her perfect mate, but only if she follows some stringent instructions — essentially spoils the episode’s concluding twist by speculating over the nature of her existence.

Hang the DJ.

It’s a tidy way of lampshading the viewer’s expectations in a season that is otherwise characterized by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s tendency to place all his emotional bets on darkly ironic last-minute twists and reveals. Such plot turns are part of the show’s commitment to its nihilism — and one of the reasons Black Mirror is so beloved by fans.

But it’s telling that in Hang the DJ, as in season three’s Emmy-winning San Junipero, the twists, as well as the nihilism, ultimately give way to a simpler narrative and tried-and-true romantic optimism.

Brooker loves thought experiments that explore what makes us human, usually in the context of simulated life forms, quests to fully digitalize the human consciousness, and sophisticated artificial intelligence. You can see all of that in season four. He usually concludes with pessimistic declarations that little good comes from pairing human flaws with highly advanced technology.

Yet stories like Hang the DJ reveal Black Mirror’s occasional enthusiasm for how technological complications can empower us, as individuals and as a species, to be the best versions of ourselves. As a storyteller, Brooker is at his best when he allows his humanity to guide him and his audience toward places of hope — even if those moments are brutally short-lived in favor of his reliance on darkly ironic endings.

Black Mirror’s Fourth Season Thrives in Its Small Moments

It’s quintessentially Black Mirror that the best moment of season four occurs in the middle of its worst episode. Metalhead is a story-driven entirely by of Bella, a rebel on the run in a completely undefined post-apocalyptic Scotland; she’s being chased by an unstoppable robot dog-assassin that is set upon her after she and her allies break into a desolate warehouse.

Metalhead.

The details of the mission, the nature of the apocalypse, who owns the “dog,” and how Bella’s various relationships came to be are all kept deliberately vague in favor of focusing on the hunt between predator and prey.

When she breaks into a formerly upscale house, its owners long dead, she halts, suddenly struck by the sight of a well-endowed living room full of silent musical instruments. Music, in particular, has always functioned as Black Mirror’s reality check, its reminder to itself that there are human elements powering each of its technological dystopias. In Metalhead, it’s the moment of Bella’s break-in, when the absence of music serves as a stark reminder of what’s been lost, that serves to ground the audience in an episode where few things otherwise make sense.

Another striking example of this comes in Arkangel, through the popular actress and director Jodie Foster’s clever mirroring of two moments in the life of her tragic protagonist. Marie is a mother whose over-protectiveness is first enabled and then ultimately threatened by an implant that allows her to see her daughter’s whereabouts at any given moment.

Arkangel.

At the first turn of the story, her young daughter briefly goes missing, and Marie is left standing on the street calling frantically for her. By the episode’s end, the technology’s invasive nature has done its work, bring us to realize that her choices have ironically taken her on a circular path.

This reliance on individual dramatic moments is part of the power of anthology-style storytelling, but it’s also a drawback. For a single standalone episode, you can get away with suspending the audience’s disbelief in the ethics surrounding an evil robot dog or, say, a memory-reading technology with no precautions in place should read a memory that happens to involve a murder.

But you can only just get away with it, mainly by relying on skilled directors like Foster and phenomenal actors in Arkangel and Metalhead. And the more you attempt to build a satisfying narrative on a limited thought experiment, the more the cracks in the foundation show.

Likewise, the more Brooker allows himself to fall back on neat sleight-of-hand tricks, the less bandwidth he has for doing what Black Mirror does best, which is exploring the way that human nature responds to new technology.

One of Black Mirror’s Episodes Is a Searing and Surprising Indictment of Toxic Masculinity

If San Junipero was the Black Mirror Season 3 episode that everyone was talking about, its buzzworthy equivalent in Season 4 is certainly USS Callister. The installment already had high interest as it marked the first Black Mirror episode set in space, teasing some sort of Star Trek-esque homage. But in practice, “USS Callister” is much more than a Star Trek riff. It’s a wildly entertaining and surprisingly insightful sci-fi tale that also happens to be a searing indictment of toxic masculinity.

USS Callister.

What’s brilliant about USS Callister is how it serves up its head-fake in the first act. We think we’re about to see a story of a mild-mannered genius who gets no respect, and the episode uses our assumptions against us. We’ve seen that story time and again, where the quiet nice guy is the hero, but the story this episode tells is one that rings true to the world we live in today. “Toxic masculinity” is a topic that quite a few pieces of pop culture have tackled recently (including those regarding Star Wars: The Last Jedi), attempting to shine a light on how the striving towards what some believe are traditional male attributes leaves a trail of victims in its wake.

Black Mirror Excels at Exploring How Human Nature Might Adapt to the Future, but It’s Less Great at Building a Vision of That Future

Season four’s most successful episodes, Black Museum and Hang the DJ, work because they explore the ways in which technology can amplify, rather than change, our basic human impulses and instincts. It’s within such stories that Black Mirror finds its strongest emotions — and not necessarily thanks to the specific sci-fi tropes Brooker likes to play with.

Season one’s Fifteen Million Merits, for example, was hardly the first story to pair a rigid dystopia with a highly stylized reality show (see: everything from Running Man to The Hunger Games). What was new was the protagonist’s raw pain and desperation as he took both of them on. Episodes like Black Museum and Hang the DJ similarly derive their power from their compelling relationships — specifically the yearning for connection between a parent and a child, and between a pair of separated lovers — rather than the chilling implications of all the technology that permeates these characters’ worlds.

It’s the humanity of the stories rather than their heralded plots that makes them hit hard. As any fan of Black Mirror knows, Brooker loves an ironic ending, but the ones that succeed tend to succeed on the strength of their corresponding episode’s characterizations.

Season Four’s Most Quintessential Episode Also Typifies Black Mirror’s Nihilism and Ambivalence

Nowhere does Black Mirror’s fallible need to indulge in its own moral crises weigh more heavily on the fourth season than in Crocodile. Although you can watch the six episodes in any order, it’s probably significant that Crocodile appears halfway through the season; it will serve as the darkest point of any end-of-year marathon, as black and cynical as 2017 itself.

On an aesthetic level, Crocodile is fantastic. The episode is one of season four’s many sidesteps away from pure sci-fi into other genres, horror in particular; this time, it’s horror mixed with euro noir.

Crocodile.

The episode’s stunning, visually gray Icelandic landscape is everything fans of euro noir will have come to expect from the genre and its pathetic fallacies — bleak crimes playing out against even bleaker landscapes.

Mia is an antihero who covers up an accidental death with the help of a friend and then finds herself, years later, frantic to prevent the secret from unravelling. As is always the case with Black Mirror, the acting and effects in Crocodile are fabulous, and director John Hillcoat, known for navigating another gray wasteland in the 2009 film The Road, keeps the pace tight and full of suspense.

The problem is that Brooker tries to map a bizarre new technology onto an age-old morality play: that is, he wants to frame a straightforwardly escalating plot around a certain piece of technology — a technology that inadvertently becomes a driver of futuristic justice.

Crocodile contains numerous echoes of Fargo and A Simple Plan, similar morality tales set against similar desolate landscapes, and both stories of the totality of desperation and the futility of fate. But Brooker’s technological plot conceit falls apart the moment you think about it for more than a few seconds. The two sides of Crocodile don’t really adhere.

Still more crucially, by the end of the episode, he has returned to his love of dark ironic twists. We see these cruel conclusions elsewhere throughout season four, most notably in Arkangel, Metalhead, and the fascinating Black Museum.

Black Museum.

Season Four Mostly Serves as Window Dressing for Optimism, at the Expense of Viewers’ Expectations

Ultimately, Black Mirror, like so many kinds of similar entertainment, enjoys itself and its own cleverness too much to succeed as a serious morality tale. And its technological explorations are also frequently too incomplete to qualify as serious science fiction. Moving away from its home genre into other genres, as it does throughout season four, makes the flaws in its sci-fi storytelling even more apparent.

That’s why Black Mirror episodes like Hang the DJ are so enjoyable. That episode’s vision of the future is one in which technology has evolved and adapted to embrace human nature, while Crocodile posits a world where people appear to be improbably clueless about the implications of the things they create.

And, sure, Hang the DJ still poses the thought-provoking existential questions about identity, humanity, and existence we’ve come to expect from Black Mirror.

The episode also leans heavily on the show’s greatest insight: Facilitating human evolution, and the delicate process of learning to be human, is the most important thing technology can do for us. Letting that process play out is the best thing Black Mirror can do for its audience.

Overly optimistic? Possibly. But as Black Mirror is eager to remind us, the possibility of seeing humanism, not nihilism, succeed is why we keep tuning in. Anyone who knows what love is can understand.

 

 

Comments