It took nineteen episodes, but “Black Mirror” finally got its Willy Wonka. A warped purveyor of the technological curiosities of the past, Rolo Haynes isn’t just the narrator of “Black Museum,” he’s the pinnacle of the best and most frustrating aspects of the series, all at once. As the engine behind the sixth and final episode of “Black Mirror” Season 4, Haynes is the arbiter of philosophical quandaries and the physical link between a number of the series’ past installments.
Only this man didn’t live happily ever after once he suddenly got everything he wanted. Watching his demise and the building inferno as our heroine Nish (Letitia Wright) drives away to the soaring sounds of Dionne Warwick, there’s the overwhelming feeling that this is the logical ending point of the series, letting the past die while looking into the future.
“Black Museum” itself is a B-side collection on a deluxe album. There’s some intriguing demos (the stuffed animal sequence feels like an original version of “White Christmas” that got scrapped in favor of a slightly better idea), a nugget of a great idea that ultimately never got fleshed out enough (the digital electrocution ending third), and a song that makes you wonder why it wasn’t on the original release in the first place (the masterfully unsettling descent into sadism).
All within the confines of a physical tribute to the show’s past, this triptych feels like a creator making sure no idea goes untouched before finally pulling the plug. What made “Black Mirror” feel so fresh and exciting at its outset was the idea that one anthology could be guided by a number of fresh avenues into the connective theme without too much overlap. Feeding the demand for a dozen new episodes in the last two years alone, these chapters have remained distinct, but their individual quandaries have begun to bleed into each other.
So far, writer/creator Charlie Brooker has taken on politics, terrorism, sensory overload, video games, VR, policing, war, memory, and immortality. It’s not a comprehensive or exhaustive list, but at some point, the fundamental truths underneath these hypothetical scenarios will lose that unique flavor that used to make this show even more thrilling. It even comes down to the devices themselves: The third and fourth time you see a character stick a small disk behind their ear, the novelty wears off and it becomes an odd part of an episode-to-episode ritual.
Having a stand-in narrator is one of the last novel twists that “Black Mirror” could employ to ensure that this last Season 4 episode stood out. (For any Easter Egg-seeking anagram makers, the best I could come up with for “Rolo Haynes” is “Rash Looney.” Kinda fits.) Haynes (Douglas Hodge) is the bizarre stand-in for Brooker as the purveyor of warped delights, the audience as the demander of more horrific visions of the future to bask in, and Netflix itself as the collector of more curiosities to keep a bevy of paying customers coming back for more.
And all of those converge Haynes’ retelling of Dr. Dawson’s horrifying downward spiral so indicative. What a perfect analogy to the show overall: finding addictive entertainment value in the plight of removed dystopias. “Black Mirror” is a noteworthy and admirable fixture in the TV landscape, but this section feels like Brooker’s strongest response to an inability to have a show like this in the current climate.
The longer you spend in this world, trying to riff on a coming apocalypse, you end up driving yourself crazy. Filtering everyone’s anxieties into a TV show has to on some level be a kind of burden. If this is when and how Brooker checks out of this universe, no one would blame him. That’s what happens when there’s nothing left to shock people anymore.
(Full disclosure: I never have tangible adverse reactions to TV shows, but Dawson drilling straight into the homeless man’s brain, followed in rapid succession by his self-inflicted molar removal is the first time a piece of television has ever made me feel physically ill. Just typing those words made my stomach lurch.)
As mentioned before, the twin consciousness section of “Black Museum” isn’t precisely a new addition to the show’s repertoire. But there’s a simplicity and terror to “Monkey needs a hug” that is the best example of what “Black Mirror” does best. No elaborate gadgets, no world-envisioning tech, just a simple four-word phrase and a harmless everyday object to subvert the banal and make it a nightmare.
“Black Mirror” has swung for the philosophical fences many times before, but what better parting shot than to consider the weight and nature of a soul? Where it rests inside your head, if you can keep a memento of one in your pocket, who decides when one can exist. Never bogged down by logistics, it revisits the trapped-forever horrors of “White Christmas” with a new layer of family, making that dread a communal one rather than restricted to a single person.
Like Liz Shannon Miller pointed out in her Season 4 review, on a rewatch Nish’s end goal becomes less a surprise than an inevitability. But when she does release her father from an eternal digital prison, it’s an act of mercy. Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that Brooker is doing the same for this show’s devoted fanbase, but for a story in such proximity to the dangers of constantly needing more, setting someone free from a technological jail cell built on repetition and anguish is a pretty stark metaphor. Brooker is essentially saying “Turn off the TV and go play outside,” so now it’s our turn to wait and see how many people in living rooms and board rooms will listen.
It’s telling that the Black Museum doesn’t go up in a triumphant mushroom cloud explosion. Like the car in that Angela Bassett GIF from “Waiting to Exhale,” it’s almost more cathartic for the revenge-seeking characters involved knowing that the flames will consume it slowly over time. It’s a literal slow-burn ending, lingering just enough for anyone watching to wonder if this is really it. Like the reveal at the end of “Metalhead,” the ultimate fate at the close of “Playtest,” or the final choice in “Be Right Back,” there’s that extra beat or two to soak in the full scope of things before the credits roll. In a season that de-emphasized surprises, to have it end here would be the biggest, most satisfying twist of them all. It may not be as perfect an ending as floating off into the clouds with Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe, but it’s pretty darn close.
“Black Mirror” Seasons 1-4 are now available to stream on Netflix