Black Mirror Season 4 Round-up

Season 4 of Black Mirror, the TV programme designed to crush whatever part of your soul may have survived the past year, has landed back on Netflix just in time for 2018. As with the last season, below I’ve rated each episode from worst to best (in my humble opinion). I have to admit that I wasn’t really digging Black Mirror this season. Since coming to Netflix, it seems to have lost of a bit of it’s punch and, particularly in this season, individual episodes often take an unexpected twist seemingly for the sake of having a twist, rather than making sense in the narrative.

Watching the first five episodes, I felt a bit cheated. Instead of being left with a feeling of utter despair and a new found fear of technology, I was left with a feeling of ‘so what?’. It was only on watching ‘Black Museum’ that I felt as if I was actually watching Black Mirror – the show which has previously left me reeling on my sofa.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t the shock factor that makes Black Mirror what it is. A sudden twist or a blind reveal do not a good episode make. No, the successful episodes of Black Mirror turn the tables on us, the viewer. They do not force an agenda, but aggressively encourage us to interrogate our own ideologies. They do not pull off cheap tricks, favouring in depth character study and study life-changing technology on a micro-scale. The greatest episodes (think ‘15 Million Merits’, ‘Be Right Back’ or ‘White Rabbit’) investigate the horror of living in a world so close to our own. In its worst moments, it merely asks us to fear dying – a much easier concept to grasp.

So, from worst to best (and I am fully aware that this may be the most contradictory list to any others out there, but hear me out)

Crocodile

(aka drink driving is bad)

Crocodile is odd, to say the least. Part scandi-noir, part anti drink-driving campaign, it details how one minor mistake can alter the rest of one’s life forever. Mia (Andrea Riseborough) and Rob (Andrew Gower) are driving through snow capped mountains, after a big night out partying (drugs included). After hitting a cyclist on a deserted road, Rob quickly decides he would rather not go to prison, and Mia reluctantly assists him with disposing of the cyclist into a nearby lake.

15 years later, Rob and Mia meet again. Mia is now a big time career woman in the architecture world, and Rob has shown up to her hotel bedroom whilst she is away at conference. He’s feeling guilty about what they did and tells Mia he is planning to turn himself in. Mia, who now has an established career and a family, is not down for this idea. She, in a predictable turn of events, kills Rob in the hotel room and disposes of his body in a building site of what we assume is going to be a building she has designed.

So far, so Scandi-noir thriller. Unfortunately for Mia, a determined insurance investigator by the name of Shazia is about to make things a lot harder for her. Shazia is on a mission to get compensation from a self driving pizza van company and is collecting the memories of everyone who was around Mia’s hotel that night. I say collecting because Shazia has a sort of memory machine where she can record the subjective memories of the person she is interviewing. This is bad news for Mia as the pizza van incident happened mere moments before she killed off Rob for good. So what is Mia to do?

I’ll give you a hint. It involves Mia evolving from accidental bystander in a drink-drive fatality to full blown child murderer.

‘Crocodile’ got a lot of good press (some people claiming it was the bleakest episode of Black Mirror ever) but for me, it was far too predictable. There’s very little that is interesting about a successful white woman going on a killing spree to stop her life from being destroyed, and Mia’s downward spiral was etched in stone from the moment she killed Rob. It was also disappointing to never get a clear idea of Shazia’s character before she was cheaply disposed of. The brutality she and her family endure (a mixed-race family vs a successful white woman) at the hands of Mia also feels cruel rather than nuanced in anyway. Brutality for the sake of brutality is never a good idea. The reveal? Also predictable, but has made me think that having a guinea pig might be quite useful in future…

Hang the DJ

(aka Tinder is bad)

It’s a shame that ‘Hang the DJ’ has landed second to last on this list as I enjoyed the vast majority of the episode. However, the twist at the end only serves to do two things; firstly it removes any kind of sincerity the episode had, and secondly it’s the technological equivalent to ‘they woke up and it was all a dream’. Let me explain.

‘Hang the DJ’ revolves around the world of app-dating. Couples meet in the same restaurant, check their expiry dates on their app and go from there. When Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are paired up, they get on pretty well but are only given 12 hours remaining for their relationship. Instead of having sex that night they innocently hold hands, a small gesture but one that solidifies their chemistry.  Over the next year or so, both of them are set up with other people that the system has chosen for them. Frank is in an incredibly unhappy relationship with a woman who seems to hate him for no reason other than the fact he was late on their first date, and Amy ends up discovering annoying ticks about the  man she is paired with. Eventually, after a series of short relationships, they are paired with each other again, but not for long. Frank, unable to stop himself from checking their expiry date though they had agreed not to, kickstarts their countdown clock which goes from five years to just several hours. Eventually, they both decide to try and escape the system, only for the audience to realise that the Amy and Frank we have been watching are merely a simulation occurring inside a dating app. The simulation has been run 1000 times, with 998 sims ending in the two of them choosing to reject the system to stay together.

Though Campbell and Cole are fantastic as the technology-crossed lovers, ‘Hang the DJ’ manages to completely undermine anything we felt for the characters with its final twist. We’ve become invested in these characters for the entire episode and to essentially erase them from existence to introduce the ‘real’ Amy and Frank left me with a feeling of ‘so what?’. It almost seemed like an entirely pointless exercise – though cynical of the system, the real Amy and Frank still choose to follow through on it.

Metalhead

(aka robot dogs are bad)

Episode 5, ‘Metalhead’ can be summed up as Maxine Peake running through various landscapes whilst being chased by K9’s evil alter-ego. It’s pacy, it’s racy and it doesn’t hold back. Two of the three characters in the entire episode are killed within the first five minutes, leaving only Peake’s Bella to try and survive her ordeal.

Peake does give a phenomenal performance (as is usual) as the isolated Bella running for her life. The stand-out scene in terms of tension comes when the robot dog traps Bella in a tree, revealing it’s only weakness: it can’t climb up the tree with it’s broken paw. Bella decides to wait it out and soon realises – with no verbal communication to convey this – that if she continually keeps it awake, it’s battery power will deplete. It works and Bella escapes, for the moment. Later, Bella comes across an abandoned house, home only to two dead bodies who appear to have committed suicide. Soon enough, the dog has tracked Bella down, and though she succeeds in destroying the machine, it leaves her with a final parting gift – a tracker lodged in her neck. Knowing that the tracker will lead even more dogs to the house, Bella makes the excruciating decision to end her own life rather than let the dogs at her.

Whilst ‘Metalhead’ is a fast and remarkably furious episode, it could do with a little more context. We gather snippets of information at the beginning – the pigs are all dead because of the dogs – and Bella speaks on the phone to various unknown people. In these moments, it’s hard to care much about the conversation because we have no idea who Bella is talking to. Are they other survivors? Is there a safe refuge? How many humans are left? Is someone controlling the dogs or have they risen up like a robo-rebellion? At the risk of ruining a bit of the mystery, ‘Metalhead’ is lost in a bit of a void.

I think ‘Metalhead’ would have made an incredible feature film. I am just not sure how I feel about it as part of the wider Black Mirror universe. Perhaps this is me being pedantic, but it makes little sense in the wider world – how does it fit in to the chronology of previous episodes? As a stand alone film, the lack of context would have been exciting and would have kept viewers wanting more, but in the middle of a series? It felt like something was missing.

Page 2 for the next three episodes!

Time of the Month: BART CURLISH & FARAH BLACK (DIRK GENTLY)

Since watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, I have decided I need a change of career. I want to be a holistic assassin, like Bart Curlish – one of the greatest characters in the Dirk Gently series. With that said, all of the characters in Dirk Gently are pretty bloody incredible. In fact, they are all so incredible that September’s Time of the Month brings you not one amazing character, but two! Bart Curlish (Fiona Dourif) and Farah Black (Jade Eshete). I agonised over which to write about before deciding that actually, this month you can have two for the price of one.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency tells the daft but charming story of Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), a ‘holistic detective’ who is investigating a crime. He enlists the help (or rather, pre-determines the help) of Todd (Elijah Wood) to assist him with solving the case. Cue bizarre plot twists, cute animals, unpalatable murders and a whole lot of time travel. ‘Dirk Gently’ is a mad, quirky hot mess and it’s absolutely brilliant because of it. It’s tonally terrific and though it makes almost no logical sense until the very last minute – it will keep you gripped the entire series through.

 

 A STORY OF THEIR OWN

Farah Black and Bart Curlish are two characters that have their own subplots, running alongside the main narrative. Bart is a self-titled holistic assassin who displays a lot of the same intuitive tendencies as Dirk, and coincidentally also believes it is her life mission to assassinate him. Bart is (putting it nicely) pretty unsocialised and a bit of a lone wolf. She has killed countless people and seems to have a knack for it, although she always affirms she doesn’t ever kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it.

Farah is a young security officer, working for the Spring estate, desperately trying to track down Lydia Spring, a young girl who is at the centre of the case Dirk is trying to solve.  Coincidentally, Patrick (Lydia’s deceased father) hired Dirk to track down his killers, a few weeks before he was murdered. Yeah – time travel features a lot in this show.  Farah, whose only prerogative is to return Lydia safely home, is swept along in the tidal wave of puzzles and clues trying to save Lydia and solve the case. Farah is fierce, determined and also ever so slightly neurotic.

What is apparent though, is Both Bart and Farah kick gender stereotyping to the curb. Their job titles (security officer and assassin) are traditionally assigned to men, neither of them are involved in a romantic narrative and they both have confidence and conviction in their individual skills.

Even better still, Bart and Farah, though caught up in the spiritual drama concerning Dirk and Todd, both have narrative arcs of their own. Which is another way to say that they don’t exist merely to support the two male protagonists. The difficulty with an ensemble cast, especially when female characters are in primarily supporting roles, is that they usually only exist in relation to the main male characters. More often than not there is little character development, and they seem to not exist in any way unless they are onscreen with the male character(s).

In our first introduction to her character, Bart’s existence (in her own words) is for the purpose of assassinating Dirk Gently. So how can we claim she exists as an entity unto herself, and not just in relation to Dirk? Well, even though Bart’s raison-d’etre is to kill Dirk, her narrative supersedes this. Bart grows, changes and develops throughout the series. She enjoys the backstreet boys. She learns what a shower is. She actually makes a friend, despite initially claiming that she doesn’t need anyone in her life. Bart’s edges become softer, but she doesn’t compromise who she is to get there, but in the process she becomes a little happier. Bart begins as the anti-Dirk – a character created solely to destroy Dirk – a trope employed in many superhero stories. In a wonderful twist, Bart’s story takes on it’s own life and direction.

STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS

It would be easy, and a complete cop out,  to claim that both Bart and Farah are ‘strong female characters’.

‘Strong female character’ is a term which is very liberally applied to any female character who displays any hints of strength, independence or determination. The problem with strong-female-characters is that they are usually portrayed as so “strong” that they are either pseudo-men or have no infallibility whatsoever. This doesn’t make for an interesting or authentic character, and certainly leaves no room for development.

Farah, as a WOC, could easily have fallen into the strong-sassy-black-woman stereotype. Sure, as we said earlier, her job does mean that she has to be somewhat strong and very brave. As a security officer, she does display strength, and she’s got the personality to match. However, Farah demonstrably struggles with weakness too. Farah is determined and clearly skilled at her job. But she also failed to get into the FBI academy, something which clearly still haunts her. When one of the minions pretends to be an FBI agent to try and fool Farah – we expect her to see straight through his act. We have an expectation that her physical strength transfers to her emotional strength and that she is infallible because of this. However, due to Farah’s own insecurities about not being ‘good’ enough for the FBI, she is hoodwinked. Farah isn’t a ‘strong’ person, she is insecure. This insecurity makes her relatable, and it makes her human.

Farah’s breakdown is a realistic response to the situation. Though brave and headstrong, she has little faith in her abilities because of rejection in the past. When faced with what she thinks is an authoritative figure, she crumbles – like many of us would.

Likewise, Bart’s entire life trajectory has been to eliminate Dirk Gently. When she finally comes face to face with him, she discovers that she simply can’t do it. The universe, or whatever it is, will not allow her to kill him. Bart has to come to terms with the idea that the thing she has been living for, is actually not going to happen. It’s almost a rejection from the universe. Bart seems to stumble through life relying only on intuition, but this time it has failed her. A girl who has lived as little more than a killing machine, finds that she really does have a moral compass.

Additionally, the revelation that Bart actually only kills people who kind of deserve it, completely changes our perception of her. We can actually identify with her, and start to like her as a person now we know that she doesn’t just kill at random. Or, she does but somehow she knows that her victims are all terrible people. Holistic assassin, you know?

Both Bart and Farah are vulnerable, lonely women, masquerading as strong fighters who don’t need anyone in their lives. Dirk Gently not only allows us to see behind their masks, but also gives them the opportunity to learn and grow as the series goes on. Instead of giving us stunted tropes, Dirk Gently has blessed us with two wonderful female characters who (I hope) will continue to shine throughout the second season too.

Now, if the writers could just orchestrate a Farah/Bart spin-off, I’d be very, very happy….

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015): Insanity At It’s Finest

Everyone has an opinion on Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s probably more written about its feminist message than there was about Fincher’s Gone Girl when that came out last year. And there was a LOT about Gone Girl. Continue reading “Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015): Insanity At It’s Finest”