Since debuting in 2011, the broadcast series Black Mirror has cultivated its reputation through incisive commentary. Each episode constructs a unique universe in which technology plays a central role in human life. In some instances, the resulting landscapes are nearly indistinguishable from the world in which we live; in others, the settings adopt elements of science fiction. Both work effectively to dissect the optimism of technology and global interconnection present in everyday life.
In this season, creator and writer Charlie Brooker builds up and tears down these worlds, looking largely at the realm of interpersonal relationships. The first episode, “Nosedive,” broadens mobile app rating systems into a social institution that defines access to everything from housing to employment. Those who benefit from the system enjoy a pastel-hued world that appears idyllic on the surface, but their broad smiles mask the constant threat of ratings retaliation for unpleasant interactions. The main character Lacie has played by these rules to advance socially and economically throughout her adult life; she receives an invitation from her childhood friend Naomi, a socialite with a high rating, to her extravagant wedding. Excited at the opportunity to boost her score, she learns the hard way that, as her brother says, “it’s easy to lose sight of what’s real––what matters” amid the search for social gain. Though Brooker is occasionally heavy-handed in delivery, he demonstrates how the growing pervasiveness of expecting ‘good customer service’ has the potential to change the nature of our friendships and familial ties.
However, not all episodes moralize so formatively. “Shut Up and Dance” follows teenager Kenny after he downloads a malware remover onto his computer, after which unknown figures blackmail him into completing tasks. As Kenny and fellow victim Hector (Jerome Flynn of Game of Thrones fame) comply and come to terms with their secrets, the line between internet trolling and vigilante justice blurs into a mess of violence. Brooker deftly subverts the notion of the digital "Social Justice Warrior" by having the episode hold individuals accountable in real life for their moral failings. Machines become the anonymous apparatus used to enforce penance. The results are frightening, and by the episode’s end one may even feel sympathy for those society deems deplorable.
This season also brings refreshing attention to two untouched issues: human mortality and the psychology of fear. “San Junipero” presents a love story between two women who face challenges reconciling their pasts with their potential future together and that future’s digitally-enhanced prospects. “Testplay” depicts a man travelling abroad who tests a new VR gaming technology confronting his fears of death, betrayal, and memory loss in a horror simulation. Both confront our urge to shelter ourselves from reality, whether that reality consist of moving on from the past, or accepting our physical decay. Their foundations lie in contrasting ideas of the mind’s relationship to the body, the former building off Cartesian dualism through mental preservation after bodily demise, the latter depicting them as fully tied to each other’s proper function. In spite of this, both episodes stunningly inspect our ability to overcome or be overcome by our loved one’s disabilities and these corporeal failings’ impact on our lives–– “San Junipero” in particular proving to be one of the most moving contemporary romances out there.
Nevertheless, the season is not without faults. Occasionally the heady concepts flounder into tropes. “Men Against Fire” explores technology’s impact on warfare and military performance. Infantry soldier Stripe and his fellow servicemen fight against a degenerative disease that has begun to turn humans into nonhuman ‘roaches.’ Neural implants amplify their strategic coordination and combat performance, but these improvements have other effects that, once disrupted, both overwhelm Stripe and fundamentally change his views on his mission. The episode rehashes the burdens of war explored ad nauseum in countless movies, and the technology in question is a stale choice since Hideo Kojima explores this topic exhaustively in his Metal Gear Solid video game series.
In “Hated in the Nation,” the defect is the sheer volume of topics incorporated. For almost ninety minutes, the episode attempts to tackle climate change, cyberbullying, social media groupthink, national security, and free speech in a modern crime investigation drama. The results feel clunky and lack the thought-provoking resolution provided by other episodes.
Yet this is itself a testimony to the narrative diversity Brooker has accomplished with Black Mirror. He can navigate romances, war dramas, thrillers, and psychological horror all with a touch of science fiction flair. The possibilities are endless, and the audience always leaves craving more.