“Black Mirror” was originally developed for Great Britain’s Channel 4 network before the rights to the series were purchased by Netflix in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)
“Black Mirror” is a science-fiction anthology series created by Charlie Brooker back in 2011, with the newest season sponsored by Netflix. The series is similar in style to the 1959 series “The Twilight Zone” in that each episode is a standalone feature with an entirely different cast and setting. The show distinguishes itself from its predecessor, however, by building each of its stories about current technology and how, if handled poorly, that technology could spiral out of control. Considering the fractured nature of the series, we felt it would be best to review each individual episode separately as its own production, so expect some minor spoilers for the settings of each of the new episodes. For those who want to go in completely blind, know the “Black Mirror” is one of the best science-fiction shows on television right now, more than living up to the legacy of its inspirations and carving its own place in the genre in the process.
The new season begins with “Nosedive”, a road trip story directed by Joe Wright and starring Bryce Dallas Howard. The story of the episode centers around Lacie, a prominent businesswoman living in a world where a person’s standard of living is dependent on their popularity ranking on social media, and follows her on her journey to boost her current ranking by attending her best friend’s wedding. This episode serves as an excellent showcase for what makes “Black Mirror” such a captivating watch: its ability to create interesting, dystopian worlds with only the simplest of changes from our own. Admittedly, this episode has some pacing issues and gets a bit preachy about the dangers of social media at times, but it’s all held up thanks to a chillingly subdued art-style and an excellent performance from Bryce Dallas Howard. An absolutely solid episode to start off the new season.
The next episode up is “Playtest”, a horror story starring Wyatt Russell and directed by Dan Trachtenberg, who previously directed this year’s “Ten Cloverfield Lane”. The story follows Cooper, a 35-year-old drifter who signs up to be a play-tester for an experimental horror game so that he can pay for a plane ticket home to America, unaware that the game he’s testing may be more dangerous than a simple fright fest. This episode is interesting in that it’s simultaneously the most ambitious episode when it comes to special effects while being the least ambitious episode when it comes to an overall point. To be clear, the episode itself is perfectly fine and makes for an interesting haunted house story with some creepy twists and turns, but the story lacks the impact of other episodes due to how unrealistic the premise ultimately ends up being. It’s an entertaining thrill ride while it lasts, but like most haunted house rides, it won’t stick with you for very long after.
Next up is arguably the best episode of the season, “Shut Up and Dance”, a thriller starring Alex Lawther and directed by James Watkins. This episode follows Kenny, a London teenager who’s forced by a mysterious hacker to do a series of increasingly dangerous tasks in order to prevent an embarrassing video of himself from being posted online. This is by far the tensest and most terrifying episode of the season thanks to the team’s commitment to set the story entirely in the present day, going to great lengths to show how the hacker is able to get away with torturing Kenny without ever showing their face or betraying their ultimate goal until it’s too late for anyone involved. But what really pushes this episode from being good to great is a star-turning performance by Lawther, who does an amazing job selling Kenny’s slow deterioration from a decent kid that no one understands into something equal parts tragic and revolting. If you end up binge watching this show all at once, this is the kind of episode you’ll want to take a break after seeing.
Following up that rollercoaster of emotions is “San Junipero”, a love story starring Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and directed by Owen Harris. This episode goes back to 1987 and follows Yorkie, a young soon-to-be-married woman who, soon after moving to the small town of San Junipero, falls in love and tries to court a local party girl named Kelly. Considering this is a series about technology gone wrong, there’s obviously more than that going on behind the scenes, and without spoiling exactly what it is, it pulls off the feat of being both an interesting concept on its own and believably informing the personalities of those it affects. And even when the gloves do come off and the twist is finally revealed, the show never loses sight of the love story at the narrative’s center, which makes the plot even more poignant than it would normally be. Fans will be arguing about the ending of this story for a long time, and if that isn’t an indication of great television, nothing is. This episode is not one to miss.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the next episode, “Men Against Fire”, a military drama starring Malachi Kirby and directed by Jacob Verbruggen. This chapter follows Stripe, the newest recruit to a military organization tasked with eliminating “Roaches”, a group of humans who were tragically mutated into zombie-like creatures by a biological weapon. The problem with this episode, apart from the fact that the core theme it’s trying to explore has already been done better elsewhere, is that the audience is never given enough information about the world to get at all invested in it. None of the characters ever develop past being clichés and the story never capitalizes on the few unique ideas it does have. If there’s one episode this season that can be skipped, it’s this one.
Last up there’s “Hated in the Nation”, a mystery story starring Kelly Macdonald and directed by James Hawes. After a series of bizarre suicides, a pair of London detectives decide to investigate Granular, a company that produces millions of robotic bees to replace the bees that recently went extinct due to colony collapse disorder. Not only is the topic of the episode timely due to the it’s reference to colony collapse disorder (check out our article on the topic here), but it also attempts to tackle themes of online abuse, social media, and how far the government can go to keep their people under control if given the chance. The creators clearly had a lot of ambition with this episode, and while they do a decent job of covering each of these topics, they never give any of them enough room to develop. It feels as if there was another episode planned for this season that never saw production, but rather than scrap it entirely they incorporated it into a story that was already complete. It’s still worth watching, though it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity and a weak ending to an otherwise solid season.
All three seasons of “Black Mirror” are available exclusively on Netflix. If you want to read our impressions of the original two seasons, you can find them here.