Let’s hope that Charlie Brooker – the writer responsible for “Black Mirror” – is getting the best psychological and emotional support that money can buy. Judging by the six latest installments in the fourth season (which opened on Netflix December 29) of his dark and disturbing anthology of techno-nightmare dystopias, he clearly needs it.
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In Brooker’s near-future universe, which has been painstakingly built up over the 13 previous episodes of “Black Mirror,” technology is no longer a useful tool that has improved and enhanced the human condition. Rather, it has become capricious and dangerous and is destined to be misused. It bestows on humankind the godlike abilities of a deity who is, at best, uncaring and, at worst, evil.
Twisted technology is the canvas on which Brooker paints his six pictures, but the themes of each episode are very current: alienation, revenge, desperation and – in one episode – hope.
“USS Callister,” the “Star Trek”-inspired first episode, explores the duality of existence in “the real world” and a second, parallel world of artificial consciousness. In the real world, the protagonist, Robert Daly (played with admirable schizophrenia by Jesse Plemons), is a quiet, under-appreciated genius, meekly existing in a company founded on groundbreaking technology that he created – but where his contribution has long since been forgotten and he has become a figure of fun.
Unlike Walter Mitty, however, whose escapes to his fantasy world are harmless, Daly uses the virtual world he has created to act out his cruelest fantasies on the digitally produced, but fully sentient, clones of people he feels have wronged him in real life. Like the internet trolls who hide behind undecipherable usernames and VPNs, Daly vents his frustrations and fury in the virtual world he has created, taking sadistic pleasure in inflicting endless suffering on the clones he has created.
The second episode, “Arkangel,” which was directed by Jodie Foster, is a cautionary tale about the abuse and misuse of technology by even the most well-intentioned. After nearly losing her daughter at birth, a mother, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, invests in new technology that allows her to keep track of her child and to control what she sees. Filters blur out anything that might traumatize the young girl, with predictably destructive results.
“Crocodile,” the third episode of this season, is visually inspired by the “Scandinavian noir” genre of crime fiction, and Brooker uses it to return to the theme of justice. Fifteen years after being involved in the cover-up of a drug-fueled fatal traffic accident, a successful architect (Andrea Riseborough) finds herself on the verge of being uncovered. An insurance investigator, looking into an unrelated accident (involving a driverless pizza-delivery truck, so at least technology is good for something in Brooker’s future), is able to access the memories of witnesses. As she pieces together fragments of recall and is close to completing a picture of the incident, the investigator stumbles on the women’s long-repressed memories. Cornered, the architect goes from unwilling accomplice to brutal killer, before she is finally apprehended.
The fourth episode – “Hang the DJ” – is the only one with even a glimmer of hope. Directed by Tim Van Patten (whose credits include episodes of “Game of Thrones,” “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire”), it explores computer-aided compatibility apps like Tinder. Unlike Tinder, however, this app also tells you how long your relationship is going to last, and it uses participants’ responses to build a profile of their perfect partner.
The feel-good factor that briefly made an appearance in “Hang the DJ” disappeared without a trace in the fifth episode. “Metalhead,” shot in black-and-white and reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic world of “Blade Runner,” was directed David Slade, who cut his teeth on music videos before graduating to horror films (“30 Days of Night”) and vampire fantasy (“The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”).
In this episode, technology takes a back seat. Rather than examining the effects of technology-gone-mad (or humans driven mad by technology), “Metalhead” is a story of survival in an ambiguous world patrolled by robotic killer dogs. There’s no backstory in “Metalhead.” We don’t know what happened to the world to turn it into such a wasteland and we don’t know why the protagonists put their lives on the line; we are simply thrown into the storyline without a GPS narrative. We are taken along for the ride and we instinctively know that the final destination will be as harrowing as the journey.
The final episode, “Black Museum,” is the most meta of this season. Not only does it contain subplots which refer back to previous episodes of “Black Mirror,” it shows flashbacks to storylines that, in themselves, could have been stand-alone episodes. (For “Black Mirror” geeks, there are Easter eggs peppered throughout the fourth season. This is especially true in this final episode, where artefacts from previous episodes appear in the museum. Even the central character in “Crocodile” is called Bella, just like the heroine of the “Twilight” series.)
And, for the first time, we are afforded an insight into the mind of one of the people responsible for creating the technology which is so horribly abused in the “Black Mirror” universe – a morally bankrupt doctor for whom neuro-technology is a game without consequences.
“Black Mirror” is tough viewing. It’s as gory as any horror flick, as disturbing as any psychological thriller and as bleak as any post-apocalyptic movie. Watching it will make you want to delete your Facebook account and log off Tinder. You’ll look at your robotic vacuum cleaner in a new light.
Brooker may have an ominous vision for humankind in a technology-driven world, but he tempers it with occasional instances of heroism, humanity and blacker-than-black humor. His observations about relationships – between people, as well as between people and technology – are painfully accurate. The idea of allowing a comatose wife to live on in the mind of her surviving husband (one of the subplots in “Black Museum”) leads with almost comic inevitability to inescapable marital strife. In “USS Callister,” the digital clones finally find liberation in a vast virtual universe, only to find themselves subjected to exactly the same kind of online abuse that we all recognize from the internet’s most malodorous manifestations – Twitter and Facebook.
By handing over directorial duties to others, Brooker gives each episode a different style and delivery, while ensuring that his ominous vision remains central. From the schlock sci-fi of “USS Callister” to the neo-noir of “Crocodile,” each episode of “Black Mirror” stands alone. But they also contribute to and expand the Brooker canon, which is rapidly becoming to 21st-century techno-fiction what Phillip K. Dick was to science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s.