[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for every episode of “Black Mirror” Season 4.]
Happy “Black Mirror” Day! The release of Season 4 means that all the secrets of Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s always compelling sci-fi anthology series have spilled forth, and viewers are deciding just what they think of each individual installment.
The use of the word individual is key there, because while it’s easy to discuss “Black Mirror” in the abstract — “the ‘Star Trek’ episode is great” or “I didn’t really like the one with the metal dogs” — when you get into the particulars of each installment, both the benefits and the flaws of the anthology approach stand out.
Thanks to the creators treating each installment like, in “Arkangel” director Jodie Foster’s words, “a true anthology,” it’s impossible to avoid a range in quality. Some directors simply make better episodes, and not every cast is created equal. And sure, as a writer or co-writer, Brooker’s own achievements have a certain level of range. But while consistency has never been the show’s hallmark, this season continues the trend of Brooker and his collaborators continuing to push the concept of what a “Black Mirror” episode actually is, and the broadening of genres and approaches means that more than ever, personal taste will be a major factor in determining which installment you might consider to be the “best.”
(In fact, every critic I’ve talked to about the new season can easily select their two favorite episodes — but not once have I received an identical answer to the question.)
Thus, this season might be harder to evaluate critically than ever before, given the disparity that exists. There is, however, one unifying element: However you might feel about each episode, there’s no denying that the first time you watch it is very different from the second time. In fact, when reviewing “Black Mirror,” it’s at times downright essential to watch each episode more than once.
For it’s rare for an episode of “Black Mirror” to not, at the very least, be interesting upon first viewing. No matter how bleak the tone or convoluted the premise, the magic of the show gives each episode a roller coaster feel, a ride that you want to see through to the end — if only to understand what the point of it all was.
Meanwhile, it’s the second viewing where the real quality of a “Black Mirror” episode becomes clear. It’s when the twist alone can’t drive our interest, and instead all the other elements — the cast, the production elements, the overall execution — are what help define it as potentially great or potentially flawed.
Ranking the twists of Season 4 and how well they play upon second viewing, from worst to best, isn’t hard:
6. “Arkangel”: No points for guessing that ultra-advanced technology that enables helicopter parenting will have a negative effect on a mother/daughter relationship.
5. “Metalhead”: The twist is… there is no twist! Though it’s the most anti-technology-skewing episode to date, it’s also a pretty surprising stance for a show that’s always emphasized the evils of humanity over machines.
4. “Crocodile”: It’s a murder tale as old as time, and each life Mia (Andrea Riseborough) takes is disturbing but not shocking. However, the reveal of the guinea pig was one I didn’t see coming, and since it was pretty clear, even the first time watching, what was going to happen to Mia, all that knowing did was allow for a new appreciation of Riseborough’s performance.
3. “Hang the DJ”: Planting the essential hints at what’s really going on, but relying on tropes familiar from other dystopian tales, means that the build-up to the real twist is genuinely mind-blowing on first viewing. But the second time through, it proves hard to think about anything else.
2. “Black Museum”: The second time through, Nish’s (Letitia Wright) true mission is pretty obvious, but the way it plays out is still a nice subtle build.
1. “USS Callister”: No points for the opening reveal that it’s a video game, but by pushing down through the various layers of reality, really highlighting Robert’s dysfunction, and giving the unfolding story a nihilistic edge, the ultimate twist ended up being the optimism of the final minutes.
The concept of the twist, one which has defined so many “Black Mirror” episodes, is one the show seems quite conscious of in Season 4, especially in “Black Museum.” The ostensible season finale packages three quintessential “Mirror” stories into an anthology-within-an-anthology, which features a framing device deliberately commenting on the sort of turn we’ve seen in so many past episodes. “There’s got to be a ‘but,'” Nish tells museum proprietor Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge). “He’s having a great time, but…”
We’ve gotten so used to looking for that “but…” that in Season 4, the one episode that perhaps stands out as the most unique to “Black Mirror” is “Metalhead,” simply because (as mentioned above) it actively rejects the notion of a major plot twist — in fact, it actively rejects much in the way of any plot.
Instead, it’s a purely atmospheric exercise, providing only the most minimal details necessary to understand what kind of terrifying world our solitary heroine (Maxine Peake) is trying to survive. Brooker told Entertainment Weekly that he deliberately stripped things down: “The inspiration for this episode was I was trying to set myself a challenge of how pared back can I get?” It might be one of the season’s most polarizing episodes — except that there’s no denying David Slade’s stellar direction and the haunting black-and-white cinematography.
Meanwhile, “Hang the DJ” stands out because the ultimate reveal comes so incredibly late into the episode — after working so hard to sell the viewer on its central star-crossed lovers, we discover that Frank (Joe Cole) was right all the long, and it was actually a simulation meant to guide two strangers towards finding their soulmates.
While technically the happiest ending of the season, a second time through it’s hard to think about anything else but the truth, which almost cheapens the central romance. And that’s a shame, because the love story between Frank and Amy (Georgina Campbell) was one of “Black Mirror’s” best to date, with sterling chemistry between the actors and some great character touches that made their connection pop off the screen.
When it comes to twists, “Metalhead” and “Hang the DJ” represent the most extreme ends of the “Black Mirror” spectrum, but that spectrum just gets larger and larger with each season, and the fact that many episodes thrive even after the reveal of the “But…” speaks a great deal to the future potential of the series.
It’s the sort of evolution that’s exciting to witness with any series, honestly. That sort of ongoing imagination is necessary to sustain a franchise that could last years. There’s no guarantee of that, of course, but “Black Mirror” Season 4 proved that there’s gas in the tank, should the show continue to drive forward.
“Black Mirror” is streaming now on Netflix.