Everybody seems to have caught on to creator Charlie Brooker’s universe of techno paranoias, especially with the success of season 3 and how its most popular episode, “San Junipero,” got everyone singing an '80s anthem again. The darn bandwagon is truly alive.
It’s as if the series predicted its own success (we should have a term for this now, like how deja vu is The Matrix getting meta hacked) with attendant double-edged sword. Now, with season 4 released in late 2017, Brooker’s commentaries on confronting ourselves and our creations have become more refined and less schlocky—well, except for one weird episode.
The dark screens of our tech lives, our smartphones, tablets, TVs and laptops, grow ever darker. And Brooker’s little dystopias are revealed to be more interconnected within their shared universe.
Here’s a NO SPOILER guide to all 6 episodes, the highlights and synopses you can expect from the glooms of the looking-glass.
Episode One: "USS Callister"
Hey it’s a darn full-length premier episode! We call this the “How I Met Your Mother on Mass Effect/Homeworld/or insert any MMORPG of your choice here.”
Nominally it’s about an aging, nerdy, and socially awkward Star Trek fan named Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons). Except the beloved vintage space drama series here is called Star Fleet and the homages to Trek aren’t exactly on point, more like off-kilter and, with the twist, quite horrifyingly disturbing that makes you glad Trek fans are, uh, more level-headed than the villain here.
The highlight here is how Daly is played to doofus, nerdy, half-creepy, half-bullied, might-be/could-be sociopathic perfection by Jesse Plemons.
His put upon corpo-CTO Daly is still sympathetic at first. Why, he just might be any of the old nerds back in the day, tormented for simply being different, even by the employees of his own company. Why, they shouldn’t they be falling on their knees in gratitude for building the code foundations of their immersive, AR gaming platform “Infinity”?
Except today the nerds have won and being socially awkward doesn’t justify how Daly is stealing his co-workers real DNA and the turning them into fully-functional simulacra of their personalities inside his own version of the “Infinity” platform, modded to vintage perfection into, you guessed it, his fave TV series Star Fleet, aboard the flagship USS Callister—punishment not really fitting the crime and all.
The latest DNA theft turns his new programming hire Cristin Milioti (of HIMYM fame) and she joins Daly’s little ship of slaves with much trauma and confusion. Do digital human beings have rights and privileges? How will the crew even execute a mutiny and escape their prison when Daly is literally all-powerful god in the simulacra?
It's the longest and most thought-provoking of the 6 episodes of the new season that’s really less about being Black Mirror’s Star Trek episode than you think it’d be. Let’s see if you can predict how this one ends. Also be on the lookout for cameos by Plemon’s celebrity friends from his other TV series, like Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and Kirsten Dunst (Fargo).
Episode Two: “Arkangel”
What if you were not just a bad parent, but also a bad parent who had life-changing tech at her noob disposal?
That’s the premise behind this episode, where the fingerprints of director Jodie Foster can be seen all over this tight and tense mother-daughter relationship that revolves around a sophisticated surveillance tool called Arkangel.
Like any parent, single mother Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) is worried about the safety of her 10-year-old Alicia (Brenna Harding). After quite a harrowing scare, where Alicia fell down a ditch, her nerves are frayed and her assistance-seeking leads her to the Arkangel company, where a particularly invasive kind of tracking tech lets you locate your child.
But the full features of the implant are more than just a GPS and this is the episode’s conundrum that it riffs on. How much safety does a kid need when it impedes on her privacy, especially as she reaches those awkward adolescent years? How does she learn the fine gradations between, risky, hazardous, and dangerous if the tech in her head is constantly coming between her and the learning opportunity. When will she—dammit—come of age?
Props to Foster for directing this slow burn episode with both sympathy and an unflinching eye, more like a paean to generation gaps and the importance of experience vs innocence, with tech as tools to either wean your child into adulthood or keep them in a perpetual state of dumbed down purity. After this, you’ll look back at your helicopter parents or tiger parents with different eyes.
Episode Three: "Crocodile"
Filmed in Iceland, that country’s desolate landscapes fittingly emphasize the escalating dehumanization of the main protagonist.
The premise of this one is: What if insurance agencies had memory tech at their disposal for claims?” How would the memories of bystanders and witnesses impact the small legalities and impinge upon other, more monumental, crimes?
For one-time Hellraiser and now reputable architect Mia (Andrea Riseborough), her past comes back to haunt her at a speaking engagement, where former boyfriend Rob pays her a visit and recalls how, back in the day, they had accidentally struck and killed a man on his bike with their car, then proceed to cover it up (to Mia’s loud protest, for the record) by throwing his body into a nearby icy lake.
Mia ends up killing Rob in that hotel room and also covering it up. You can tell this Euro Noir is escalating the body count fast and the episode proceeds accordingly.
As Mia tries to put another death behind her, insurance agent Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) struggles to piece together her client’s claims on a vehicular run over accident just outside Mia’s hotel on the same night that Mia murdered Rob. She’s using the Recaller tech, where various witnesses’ memories eventually prove the claimant’s payout.
Soon enough, Shazia is led to Mia’s doorstep, seeing that Mia was looking out her hotel window and just happens to witness the accident, too. What happens if Shazia sees the memory of the murders? What will keep Mia from spiraling down into becoming a serial killer and, worse, a heartless sadist?
Episode Four "Hang the DJ"
This one is really best experienced with the least amount of information. Just dive in and know that, in this world, meet-cutes and length of relationships are pre-determined by The System—an app that's like Tinder on Matrix-style steroids. It’s got a huge and high success rate in paring individuals for their best possible match of eternal love.
We follow the shy, rakish, and phlegmatic Frank (Joe Cole) and the upbeat and gorgeous Amy (Georgina Campbell) as they get paired by The System, whom they aptly refer to as “coach,” for the first time and then go through the gamut of the process, paired with a dizzying array of prospective partners. It's a heady and head-on look at the future of dating.
As the love story of this season, comparisons will be made to season 3’s “San Junipero,” but episode director Tim Van Patten (Game of Thrones) has made sure to make it all his own.
Episode Five: “Metalhead”
What's not to love about the post-apocalypse conceit of dangerous security tech going amok?
As a straight up thriller, and an eye-opening dystopic look at Terminator/Robocop style guard dogs of the near future, we’re given precious little info about a trio of ragged-looking survivors breaking into a warehouse to steal “something” and accidentally waking up one of the robot security guard dogs—the titular metalhead.
Her two companions fall, but Bella (Maxine Peake) escapes, and the rest of the episode is about how she manages to continually evade her relentless pursuer. Let's all welcome our robotic doggo deathbot pets!
Episode Six: “Black Museum”
Like last season’s “White Christmas.” this one is a compendium episode, with three stories contained in one, with varying successes tying all those metaphors and building up to the main denouement.
This episode asks again: do digital personalities dream of death and electric sleep? Further exploring the idea and tech of virtual AI, it riffs on how justice can be granted to things that were never alive in the first place, but who do claim a kind self-awareness (and thus consciousness).
It begins innocently enough with a young woman named Nish (Letitia Wright), who’s electric car needs to charge for a few hours, so she enters a building near the gas station. It’s called The Black Museum, one of those carny U.S. roadside attractions.
This one is a facility that’s dedicated to displaying high-tech crimes and the tour guide, Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), is quick to narrate the juicy, gritty, and fetishistic stories behind each of the objects in his collection. If you can spot them, there are Easter eggs of the previous episodes here, including a drone bee from season 3’s “Hated in the Nation” episode.
While the mini stories are compelling enough, they’re not really given time to blossom or explored in much depth. Each one can spin off a BM episode by itself. What’s great about this one is that despite all the waving loose threads, there's satisfaction at the end of the main storyline and the way its revelation is handled (which is, of course, in signature Brooker-style gut-punch tastiness).
Black Mirror season 4 is now streaming on Netflix.