Friday 13 January 2017

REVIEW: Black Mirror Season Three

A recent bout of sickness has led me to engage in a project known as "catching up with Netflix." One of the series I'd been looking forward to catching up with was Black Mirror, the third run of which was released exclusively on the site back in October. So, I was a couple of months behind, but blasted through it just after Christmas when the missus was away and now I've finally gotten round to recording my thoughts.

I'll look at the episodes individually, in the order that I first watched them rather than the set order (completely arbitrary in a series of this nature, in any case). Firstly though, general observations. This is, inarguably, an Americanised take on the series, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. To start with, it's not as if it has been stripped of its British identity entirely. Three of the episodes are set in the UK, British actors appear in both British roles and otherwise, and, partiularly in the episodes penned by Charlie Brooker himself, there's no getting away from the distinctly British flavour of cynicism that pervades the series. It still feels like Black Mirror. And making the series more marketable to American audiences is a necessary step in having Netflix create this third series, which has brought it to far wider critical and audience attention. It's also allowed a much higher budget than the previous runs, leading to twice as many episodes and a remarkable cast, which has further increased attention. This can only be a good thing. Another six episodes are due in the near future, and after the mix of material we had with season three, I'm very intrigued to see what directions they will go in.


The first episode of the series, and it's clear that this is where a lot of the casting budget went. Bryce Dallas Howard is the headline draw here, but there's also Alice Eve as the horrendously shallow Naomi. For me, though, the standout performance is Cherry Jones as "Who gives a shit?" Susan, although Daisy Haggard's staggeringly banal high flyer sticks in the mind too. 

A world where everyone's social interaction is recorded and rated on social media is disturbingly easy to imagine, and there has even been an attempt to market an app like this: Peeple, which thankfully had its more insidious elements removed after poor feedback and seems to have failed to catch on. This is the only episode of the third series that Brooker didn't write, although he did set out the storyline, which extrapolates the idea to its inevitable conclusion: a society in which the very economy is based on "likes." Rashida Jones and Michael Schur developed this into a fine script with an admiral lightness of touch, low on exposition but easily understandable. Howard manages to keep her character Lacey likeable, in spite of the fact that she's really quite a terrible person throughout, both when she's desperately clawing for ratings and when she's angrily over the whole system. 

The chain reaction of events that lead Lacey's points to crash and burn unfolds with agonising inevitability. It's a brilliantly structured tale, but the final scene, though cathartic, doesn't really work for me.


Watched next due to recommendation from my friend Nim, this was the best episode of The X-Files I've seen in years. One of the best casts out of the lot, with Kelly MacDonald and Faye Marsay sharing a gloriously uncomfortable sort of chemistry. Faye Marsay is blatantly one of the best new faces in television, and hopefully her recent appearances on Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and this is the beginning of many great roles. And then there's Benedict Wong as one seriously cynical agent. This episode, more than any, could kick off its own series. 

"Hated in the Nation" is an episode that goes further down the sci-fi adventure route than Black Mirror usually does. The great strength of this series has been the sheer variety of genres expressed across its half-dozen episodes. This is positioned as the finale, seemingly to justify its extended runtime, and it's an excellent mix of sf, police procedural, horror and political scrutiny. The use of robotic bees as a replacement for the real kind that we're currently wiping out is a fine central conceit as it is, but combining it with the episode's real subject - the seemingly unpoliceable trolling of social media - makes for an incredible mixture. 

The disturbing thing is that we can empathise with people using the #DeathTo tag, even more so once they know it actually has consequences. From the Katy Hopkins-like columnist who attacks the disabled, to paedophiliac former ministers, we can all identify with hating these people enough to wish them dead. Ultimately, though, everyone faces the consequences of their actions. No one gets away this time.


Watched next on the recommendation of just about everyone, this is by far and away the best episode of the series, and also the least typical. Unique amongst Black Mirror episodes in that it actually has a happy ending, "San Junipero" is best watched with as little introduction as possible, since a lot of the pleasure is working out just what is going on in this strange world of perpetual Friday nights. Then again, it's also wonderful to watch again, knowing the truth and noticing the little clues peppered throughout. It's achingly romantic; who'd have thought Charlie Brooker was such a softie underneath? I watched this alone first time round, and immediately wanted my girlfriend Suz to come back home from her New Years holiday so that we could watch it together.

What really makes it such an excellent piece of work is the combination of Brooker's script and the wonderful performances of Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The two have an astonishing chemistry, but while Mbatha-Raw is excellent throughout, it's Davis who truly shines, with a heartbreaking, awkward and hugely loveable performance as the oddly-named Yorkie. Added to which is an eighties soundtrack, a potent philosophical message and a timeless sf concept, making for a truly superb hour of television. It's another episode that could potentially spin a sequel, but that really seems like it could spoil it. It's so perfect as it is. I plan to write on this one again at length, but for now, I suggest you watch it if you already haven't. Probably the most beautiful hour of television I've ever seen.


I was a little disappointed with this episode. It's one hell of a slog, but that's the point, making the viewer experience the hell that Kenny is going through, step by arduous step. Alex Lawther is absoutely brilliant as Kenny, engendering real sympathy, while also being supremely aggravating in the patheticness of his plight. Finally, after he's been through an unrelenting series of humiliations, we find out that he's not the sympathetic character we originally thought. In this respect it forms a companion piece with "Hated in the Nation," putting us in the uncomfortable position of sympathising with the trolls rather than the vicitms of their attacks, be they nasty little paedos or just people who made a stupid mistake.

What sets this apart from every other episode is that it could happen now, with current technology, and involves now explicit science fiction elements at all. Indeed, it's not so different from something that has already happened, to some poor teenaged sap who thought he was talking to a hotty on the internet, only to have his pictures and Skype videos used as leverage in an attempt to blackmail him into paying money he didn't have. That young lad killed himself, something Kenny tries here, and thus this episode cuts close to the bone, while never really hitting greatness.


Black Mirror has had plenty of episodes with horror elements, but this is the first out-and-out horror episode and as such, it works very well. "Playtest" doesn't really have anything to say; it's purely terror in descending steps, each scenario of the virtual reality more harrowing than the last. And, to be fair, it does this very well, with a great central performance from Wyatt Russell. His character, Cooper, is a bit of a dick, but a likeable one, and the worst that can be said about him is that he doesn't call him mum often enough. This is unusual, in that most characters in Black Mirror suffer because they've done something that, arguably, means they deserve it. Cooper goes through hell because of a simple mechanical fault due to his flouting of the "no mobile phones" rule, which is rather excessively cruel even for this series. Still, this is in keeping with the genre of the episode; the victims in horror films are frequently innocents. On the other hand, "Playtest" could still be considered a warning against technology; the ever-more sophisticated nature of our entertainment and computer systems will take us into unexplored territories with unpredictable outcomes. All I know is that I would never, ever consent to having any system explore my subconscious fears. It's bad enough having them in the subconscious; bringing them to life is a monstrous idea.


Undoubtedly the simplest episode of the run, "Men Against Fire" is predictable and tells a well-worn story, but nonetheless an important one. There have been a number of productions with a similar premise, from episodes of The Outer Limits and Voyager to The 5th Wave last year (although that one I take on advisement, I haven't seen it). This is a simplistic tale about the dehumnaisation of the enemy, but it works well, and while it plays its hand early, it's predictable enough that this doesn't really matter. We know from the outset that the "roaches" will turn out to be ordinary humans, but there's still some original elements here. It's an interesting touch to have the dehumanised faction be white, eastern Europeans, while black and white westerners form the ranks of the army. It adds some complexity by revealing that Stripe (an impressive Malachi Kirby) voluntary signed away his memories to join this campaign of ethnic cleansing. It ends with him making a horribly difficult choice, one that reflects every time that we turn a blind eye to some cruelty or try to forget an injustice. One thing thing I'm certain of: if the American military could doctor their troops minds like this, they'd do it in a shot. 

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