Black Mirror: What’s all the fuss about?

László Szegedi reviews the third season of the ever-popular television anthology series.

Hailed by many as the new ‘Twilight Zone’, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has garnered a solid fanbase since its release in 2011. The title refers to the dark mirror image we see reflected in a computer screen when the power is off. As a metaphor to the dark side of modern technology, the anthology series tells stories about humans overpowered by the cyber world, with different characters, plots, and directors behind each
episode. The show’s third season premiered on Netflix the 21 October, and people haven’t stopped talking about it since. (Season 4’s release date will be announced early this year).
Our obsession with Black Mirror might have something to do with Netflix acquiring production rights from its original network, Channel 4, promising more episodes overall, with higher production values and diverse talent. The increase in budget is immediately evident. “Nosedive” and “Playtest” feature some of the best visuals of the series, while the sets in “San Junipero” and “Men Against Fire” fit their stories’ time zones particularly well. In this season, there is more popular talent on both sides of the camera, with directors Joe Wright (‘Atonement’), Dan Trachtenberg (‘10 Cloverfield Lane’), and Owen Harris (‘Kill Your Friends’) at the helm of some of the season’s most memorable episodes, and stars such as Bryce Dallas Howard (‘Jurassic World’), Jerome Flynn (‘Game of Thrones’), and Kelly Macdonald (‘Trainspotting’) taking on major roles.
The season’s main appeal lies in the stark, generic versatility of its episodes. While elements of comedy and horror are not unprecedented in the show, several of the writers and directors behind the stories are known for their mastery in particular genres, making the generic aspects more prominent than ever. The season’s first episode, “Nosedive,” follows Lacie on her quest to raise her “score” in a society where people evaluate each other through social media. Written by Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, a quirky comedy accompanies the episode’s haunting science fiction aspects. Lacie is so invested in what is best for her that she ignores anyone whom she hurts. Bryce Dallas Howard’s profound talent really comes to the surface when she plays highly unlikeable characters; Lacie and her devotion towards climbing the social ladder by gathering 5-star ratings is reminiscent of The Help’s Hilly Holbrook, the role for which Howard earned widespread recognition in 2011. Her determination and arrogance render her as both a funny and frightening caricature of the society in which she lives. While Jones and Schur manage to keep these aspects balanced for most of the episode, Lacie’s actions become so over-the-top by the end that her motivation becomes somewhat questionable. However, even in its less credible moments, “Nosedive” remains an enjoyable introduction to the new season with Howard giving one of the most captivating performances of her career.
The variation in tone and genre each episode certainly keeps us guessing; “Playtest” introduces horror elements and “Hated in the Nation” brings detective mystery to the show. “Playtest” follows the adventurous Cooper as he volunteers to test a Virtual Reality game – an experiment that, of course, ends horribly wrong. Exciting pop culture references fill the episode (gamers will appreciate the unmissable Bioshock quote) alongside an intriguing commentary on the narrowing line between reality and the virtual world. Director Dan Trachtenberg has had a great year; his first feature, 10 Cloverfield Lane, was the surprise sequel to 2008’s immensely successful Cloverfield and quickly became a critical and commercial success. The overwhelming sense of claustrophobia that works so well in that movie comes to the fore in “Playtest.” As Cooper enters the haunted house in virtual reality, the episode shifts into a terrifying fright-fest. While we have seen elements of the slasher subgenre in season two’s “White Bear,” horror has never been so prominent on Black Mirror. It is particularly pleasant to see Trachtenberg toy around with the trademark Brooker-esque twist ending Black Mirror is renowned for, and the closure to this thrill-ride is profoundly satisfying.
“Hated in the Nation,” the final episode of the season, stars Kelly Macdonald in a detective mystery revolving around a series of murders connected by a hashtag. As if often the case in Black Mirror, however, there is much more to this simple premise than initially appears, carrying a thought-provoking message about environmental protection. The story sometimes wavers when DCI Parke (Macdonald) unnecessarily questions her colleague Blue (Faye Marsay), despite her following of leads that steer the investigation in a sensible direction, but this does not prevent “Hated in the Nation” from standing out as one of the season’s best. Compared to the rest of the season, the third and fifth episodes seem somewhat lacklustre. “Shut Up and Dance” is in many ways similar to the series’ first episode, “The National Anthem.”
It is set in our world and does not introduce any high-tech machinery or dystopian settings. Instead, it makes a noble attempt to highlight what is wrong with technology today, in typical Black Mirror fashion, by focusing on a teenager who receives a series of threats after his computer is hacked through a free antivirus program. As the plot develops, the events become increasingly shocking, especially those leading up to the big final twist. However, this does not justify the script’s cheap excuse to make the audience relate to the characters solely for their victimhood; in fact, we do not learn much about any
of them. The shock of the final reveal wears off quickly as the ending fades into melodrama; Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” is a brilliant song by itself, but as part of a soundtrack it has been overused in dramatic finales, making this ending seem hollow and
The fifth episode, “Men Against Fire,” depicts an intriguing story about soldiers hunting down disfigured mutants who steal food from and bring fear to local communities. The episode’s pleasantly diverse cast of characters and its multiple exciting action sequences are unfortunately undermined by an issue of pacing. The story lingers on its first mystery for too long, and even though the final act brings a surprising revelation, it is quickly shuffled through. “Men Against Fire” would have benefitted from a longer runtime, as its plot has plenty of potential for a feature-length sci-fi adventure.
The season’s absolute highlight is “San Junipero,” the fourth episode directed Owen Harris. Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis plays Yorkie, a shy young woman who develops a powerful relationship with the outgoing Kelly, portrayed by Belle’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw. As a romantic spark sets off between the two in the fictional seaside town of San Junipero in 1987, it soon develops into a mind-bending love which connects the distant past with the future – not much more can be said without spoiling it. “San Junipero” stands out as one of the most beautifully photographed episodes of the entire series, with some of its long shots suffusing the story’s bittersweet feel perfectly; this beauty helps set Black Mirror apart from most other Netflix shows. It is also expertly written – Charlie Brooker’s script allows both Yorkie and Kelly to go through thorough character development and the great final twist is not necessarily a twist in the traditional Black Mirror sense but rather a beautiful, tear-jerking, resolution to a meditation on the timelessness of human emotion.
Overall, Black Mirror is a programme filled with exciting, thought-provoking episodes that are a memorable binge watch, and it certainly lives up to the hype as well as the high standards set by its predecessor seasons. The show is clearly evolving; cast and crew are expanding (Jodie Foster has signed on to direct an episode in the next season), and marketing continues to be all the more versatile, as fans can now try and rate themselves on the website, just like in the nightmarish rating app of “Nosedive.” Black Mirror’s Twitter account also reacts to real life events as their posts often point out the irony of how close reality is to the dark stories depicted in the show. As an example, the tweet released on Donald Trump’s election spoke on the worldwide surprise by noting: “This isn’t an episode. This isn’t marketing. This is reality.” With real-marketing like this and more output like season three, Black Mirror will surely go even further in fascinating and challenging it’s audience in the future.


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