Watching the new series of Black Mirror in one weekend is one really effective way of leaving your psyche in tatters by Sunday evening. However, it is also something really worth doing, even though series three was a bit hit and miss. As a huge fan of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror since the days of pig-fucking bonanzas (and who knew how that would turn out eh!), I had been waiting patiently for series three to drop on Netflix, and then promptly devoured it over last weekend.
How to describe Black Mirror. I’ll try and do a little better than my attempt to describe it to a non viewer friend last week (“it’s like, totally fucked up but in a good way? But actually in a very bad way..”). Black Mirror is a series of stand alone episodes which reflect some part of our current society back at us. It focuses on technology, society and humanity, and creates devastating situations which are relatable to any of us in the 21st century. It’s important to note that creator (and all round absolute genius) Charlie Brooker is a big fan of technology, and doesn’t see it as the ‘big evil’ that viewers might think that it is. He regularly states that Black Mirror is not about nightmare-ish technology, but about how we (as humans) have taken to it and twisted it to suit our own needs. The first two seasons were gritty, stomach churning and (to put it mildly) a bit upsetting. But, you know, in a good way.
Truthfully, there are pretty disappointing episodes. The international shift (as it is now aired on Netflix rather than Channel 4) seems to have softened some of the punches that show was originally famous for. It’s particularly apparent in the American-centric episodes (‘Nosedive’, ‘San Junipero’), where there seems to be moments of hope that were very absent in the first two seasons of Black Mirror. There are, however, some gut-wrenchingly good and also entirely messed up episodes – which is the kind of content I want to see. One of Brooker’s influences for Black Mirror is The Twilight Zone, which you can absolutely see in series three. It’s just a shame that all of the episodes didn’t quite hit the mark.
Due to the nature of the show (each episode having absolutely no relation to the episode before it), it’s pretty easy to rank the episodes. Which is, exactly what I am about to do now. In order of least favourite to most favourite – here we go!
Parks and Rec’s Mike Schur and Rashida Jones team up to co-script this All-American future dystopia, where ratings, likes and social media have completely taken over our lives. It’s a living nightmare, dressed up in pastel colours, where everyone smiles all the time. Swearing, anger and outbursts are gone as strangers and friends alike are constantly rating each other via their mobile phones. To live a rich and fulfilling life, one must achieve a rating of 4.5 or above, any less than a 3 rating leaves you as a second class citizen.
The episode felt oddly familiar to me, and then I remembered the Community episode, ‘App Development and Condiments’. An app, which lets you rate your friends in ‘MeowMeow Beanz’ sweeps through Greendale, and social segregation begins to take hold. The friendship group is split, and everyone becomes intent on retaining a 4 or above rating – otherwise their entire lives will be over.
In fact, Nosedive pretty much exactly the same, except Community pulled it off better. I hate to say this (as I am a massive Mike Schur fan, and a huge Black Mirror advocate), but ‘Nosedive’ had a great concept which was badly executed. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Lacie, an insecure office worker, who is attempting to pull her social status up in order to buy a new house. The plan she intends to buy it on is only available to 4.5’s or above, and so when her (highly rated) ex-best friend, Naomi, asks Lacie to be Maid of Honour at her wedding – it seems like the perfect opportunity to get likes/stars from Naomi’s highly rated friends.
It’s all fake, fake fake – totally representative of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc today. Sharing activities in one’s life for the sole purpose of hoping that other people will ‘like’ it, and push you upwards in the social rankings. Inevitably (and predictably) it all goes wrong for Lacie, and she ends up spiralling towards a 0 ranking.
As cringeworthy as it was to watch Lacie try and claw her way back up to social safety, the whole episode felt a bit unoriginal. I wanted to know more about the 1.4 truck driver, or the people who have to live their lives as 2.0’s. Lacie’s privilege and fall from grace was just a bit boring, and didn’t say anything about social media that we didn’t already know.
This was Charlie Brooker’s ‘haunted house’ episode. It is a slight departure from the traditional Black Mirror horror, which comes from people themselves. In ‘Playtest’, the jumps come from traditional horror movie scares.
Cooper, an American travelling around the world to get away from his not-so-happy home life, winds up in a testing facility for a new videogame – the ultimate in Virtual Reality. This episode (coincidentally) aired the same week as Sony announced its new VR headset, so this episode should really have hit the mark with audiences. Cooper is given an implant, in which his reality merges with augmented reality – all played out in a haunted house where Cooper’s fears are dreamt up by the game. Everything goes disastrously wrong (as we knew it would, from the minute he had to sign a non disclosure agreement for the medical procedure to have the chip implanted).
Just when things seem to be at the end for Cooper, a twist that would not have gone amiss in Inception is pulled, and suddenly we are not so sure what is the game, and what is real anymore. ‘Playtest’ may have benefited from less clever ‘game within a game’ mind-warps, and instead focused on making the narrative a little tighter. ‘Playtest’ tried to play games with the audience, but completely lost it after the first ‘twist’ – it became messy and convoluted.
Again, ‘Playtest’ (like ‘Nosedive’) is a great concept, but sloppily executed. It would have been a far greater ending to leave Cooper stranded in a possible game/possible real-life scenario, us and him not knowing which one is true. Instead, we are delivered the ending that most of us probably expected from the beginning – that Cooper was going to end up pretty dead, and the games company would take no responsibility for it. For a series which, in the past, has kept us guessing in terms of plot, ‘Playtest’ just felt a bit lazy.
It’s also a very long-winded warning to heed those ‘turn your mobile phone off’ warnings.
Men Against Fire
Following on from ‘Playtest’ and it’s ‘augmented reality’ storyline, ‘Men Against Fire’ takes the a military view on a very similar subject. In a nondescript country (the implication is Eastern Europe), we meet Koinange (or ‘Stripe’), a new recruit for the military. He is being put through his paces, and is sent out on his first mission. The goal? To kill ‘roaches’ – a subhuman species which ravage villages destroy bloodlines and are generally despised by all. Or so we are told. Stripe, like all of his comrades, has MASS implants – a device given to all of the soldiers – which assist with strategic operations. The implants also seem to be able to project lifelike dreams into the minds of the soldiers as they sleep.
Stripe’s implant is damaged on his first mission out, though he and his doctor fail to realise this. When Stripe returns to search out the remaining roaches, he becomes confused as to why his fellow soldiers are shooting at civilians. It is unclear at first (his friend Hunter seems particularly bloodthirsty) but then it all becomes far too clear. The MASS implants make the soldiers see the ‘roaches’ as creepy monsters, but they are actually human beings.
The first half of the episodes is pacy and engaging. We are unsure of what or who the roaches are, and the revelation truly stings. However, the second half of the episode is pretty much just exposition. From the ‘roach’ woman who Stripe rescues, and then is rescued by, to Stripe’s pseudo-therapist (the formidable Michael Kelly) – the entire plot is neatly explained both to Stripe and to us. It doesn’t make for compelling viewing.
The twist itself is clever, and really does reflect Western attitudes towards the ‘other’ – we can simply close our eyes and choose not to engage with the horrific treatment of refugees, minorities and other marginalised groups. Like Stripe, and the other soldiers, we are completely complicit in switching off and viewing marginalised groups through the way they are presented in the mainstream media. Tellingly, the villagers do see the ‘roaches’ as humans, but are completely convinced that their eradication is the right thing to do.
It’s an incredibly relevant episode, especially in the wake of the refugee crisis in Europe, but apart from the plot twist – it gives little else to the viewer. Instead of being left to figure it out for ourselves, we are told everything we need to know. It wasn’t that ‘Men Against Fire’ was a bad episode, it just relied far too heavily on Stripe (and therefore us) being told everything that was happening, rather than leaving it to the audience to figure it out.
The third episode, ‘San Junipero’ is probably the most un-Black Mirror episode in the series. Though it left me sobbing for a good twenty minutes after it ended, ‘San Junipero’ has by far the happiest ending to any episode of Black Mirror to date, and is even quite cheerful for the most part. It’s the naively optimistic, romance episode of season three – and it’s bloody brilliant.
Unlike the previous few episodes, ‘San Junipero’ leaves us to figure out the vast majority of the episode for ourselves. In an 80s nightclub, shy and introverted Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) meets cool, party girl Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the two girls begin a complicated romance. Surrounded by 80s music, bright decor and gawdy fashion – the nostalgia is thick in the air. The two instantly connect, but there is a constant question of time running out – they never have enough time.
‘San Junipero’s’ relatively slow pacing allows us to breathe in the beautiful camerawork and embrace the town of San Junipero itself. Whilst on the surface, this seems like a beautiful coastal town with young holiday-makers and residents everywhere, there is something off kilter. It’s indulgent, and people keep making weird comments about time. Kelly talks about how she was married ‘for a really long time’ – yet she doesn’t look a day older than 25… After the two girls spend the night together for the first time, Yorkie seems to run through various decades in the following weeks, trying to find Kelly who has disappeared. There are bizarre unexplainable glitches, in the too-good-to-be-true world of San Junipero.
That’s because it is too good to be true. San Junipero is a virtual database, designed for people to live (or rather, be stored in) when they ‘pass over’. Everyone who resides in San Junipero is dead, or visiting. Kelly and Yorkie are both visiting, and are only allowed to be there until midnight on Saturday (four hours). It’s all very Cinderella. It’s only when Kelly insists on visiting Yorkie back in the real world, that we begin to understand what has been going on.
Yorkie is, and has been since the age of 21, completely paralysed, unable to move or speak. She is ready to pass over, but needs someone to sign a consent form for her. Kelly is an elderly woman who recently lost her husband (he refused to transfer over to San Junipero, believing it be ‘cheating death’). The women meet in the ‘real world’, and they marry – allowing Kelly to give consent for Yorkie to pass over and live in San Junipero permanently. Despite the overwhelmingly sad situation, the episode ends on a happy note – with Kelly and Yorkie ready to start the next phase of their ‘lives’ together in the cloud.
Aside from ‘San Junipero’ featuring an openly gay/bisexual couple who have a HAPPY ENDING (this is a big deal), it’s also a really tight episode. It immerses you completely in what it attempts to you, and is completely believable. We already rely so much on cloud based backup systems already, so why not tackle our fears about the afterlife in the same way?
Shut Up and Dance
It truly is a tough choice between ‘Shut Up and Dance’ and ‘Hated in the Nation’ for my top pick for this season. ‘San Junipero’ is also up there with them, but the first two are so quintessentially Black Mirror that they just clinch the top two spots.
‘Shut Up and Dance’ is a traditional stomach churner episode. It’s up there with ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘White Christmas’ with just how repulsed you feel by the end of the episode. At the characters, at society, at Charlie Brooker and at yourself. It’s magic.
What almost begins as a warning of internet danger, ‘Shut Up and Dance’ throws us into a horrifying scenario when teenager, Kenny (Alex Lawther), is filmed by anonymous hackers whilst masturbating in front of his webcam. The hackers send threatening messages to Kenny, directing him to various locations and teaming him up with Hector (Jerome Flynn) in order to do their bidding. Kenny is terrified, naturally, as the hackers threaten to leak the video to all of his contacts. Kenny and Hector are left at the mercy of their mobile phones, following the hackers instructions – even when it involves a bank robbery.
Fast pacing, handheld camera and a natural style really drive the tension in this episode – I almost felt out of breath watching it. We have barely any time to take in what is happening before Kenny is on to the next location – dragged around by his virtual captors. Kenny’s video being leaked is a pretty upsetting idea, and we spend the vast majority of the episode feeling nothing but pity for him and anger at the hackers. How dare they expose him like that? The hackers are the enemy, the faceless void of the internet – where you can make anyone dance like a puppet on a string for your entertainment.
Except, it’s not for entertainment. As Kenny becomes more and more irate, we start to wonder why. Sure, the video is pretty nasty but every teenager masturbates right? It’s an invasion of privacy, but people will be on his side if it comes out. Then, another cyber victim asks Kenny the damning question: ‘how young?’ Suddenly, our worlds are turned upside down. Kenny’s a pedophile.
In a world where we so desperately want everything to be black or white, good or bad, right or wrong – we’ve been thrown down a rabbit hole of grey areas. The hackers are the ‘good guys’ and Kenny is the ‘bad guy’. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ uses the question of justice – who should swing the sword? It’s a fascinating experiment in human nature, and a really well put together episode. It’ll make you want to scrub yourself clean after watching.
Hated in the Nation
The final episode of Black Mirror, ‘Hated in the Nation’, is also the strongest. It’s an hour and a half in length, half an hour longer than any of the other episodes – which gives it a strong advantage.
‘Hated in the Nation’ predominantly focuses on online shaming (mostly via twitter) through two detectives investigating several murders. Reminiscent of ‘The X Files’ (which is very possibly why it’s my favourite episode), the episode plays out like most cop shows. There’s lots of frantic running, scratching heads and trying to get into the very depths of what is happening here. Karin Parke (Kelly MacDonald) and Blue (Faye Marsay) are a formidable team, only meeting for the first time at the beginning of the episode. Karin is a headstrong, no nonsense detective, but Blue’s tech savvy skills mean that she understands more about what is happening.
When a controversial and universally hated journalist (think Katie Hopkins) drops dead of apparent suicide, Blue and Karin begin a journey into the seedy underbelly of online shaming, government surveillance and mob mentality. They slowly discover a trending hashtag – #deathto – which seems to relate to those who are being bumped off. The name of the person who has been most tweeted with the #deathto hashtag, seems to be the person who will die (including a senior MP) But how?
Here is where ‘Hated in the Nation’ takes on a life of its own. Due to the rapid decline of the bee population, robotic bees (ADIs) now roam the UK – pollinating plants as they go. It turns out that someone has done the seemingly ‘impossible’ – hacked the drone bees and turned them into killers. See, there’s more than one reason why this episode reminds so many people of The X Files. The ADIs target whoever has been wished #deathto the most on twitter, then burrow into their brains – causing so much pain that the victim kills themselves in any way possible. It’s horrendous, but there’s still one more question for Blue and Karin. How is it that the ADIs are so efficient at tracking their target?
It’s quite simple really. The government (GCHQ), insisted on facial recognise technology being built into every single ADI. The ADIs are not only saving the environment (and consequently the human race), they are also the single most powerful surveillance system that the UK has ever seen. Something that was designed to save humanity has been twisted and turned so far out of recognition, that it might just kill humanity.
The climax of ‘Hated in the Nation’ is what solidified it for me as the best episode of the series. As Blue and Karin rush to figure out who is behind all of this, the real purpose actually becomes clear. A manifesto, written by the hacker, spews his hatred for mob mentality, online shaming and virtual death threats. The celebrities and journalists were a decoy, the twitter mob are the real targets. In an attempt to terminate the programme, the drones targets are reconfigured: anyone who has used the #deathto hashtag will be killed.
And they are. It’s a bitter ending that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It’s also the perfect way to end the series. The technology, fear and breakdown of society culminates in ‘Hated in the Nation’. It brings together our collective fears about surveillance and the lack of accountability on social media. It’s not simply a reprimand about how we shouldn’t say nasty things online. ‘Hated in the Nation’ touches on our need for group validation, how technology makes it easier to depersonalise and just how blurred the lines of morality are. It’s one rule for the Garrett Scholes (the drone hacker) and another for the police force and Government who utilise the surveillance drones for their own purposes.
Karin’s re-telling of the events at a court hearing bookends the episode. There seems to be some implication of allocating the blame, but who to? The message from ‘Hated in the Nation’ (and indeed all of Black Mirror) is that everyone is complicit. And if everyone is complicit, then no one is.
Also, I’m really rooting for a spin off show!