The lead-up to a new season of Black Mirror presents a particular challenge to TV critics. Namely: A show this dependent on twists and turns, in a format that traditionally thrives on an atmosphere of secrecy, is no fun to discuss if the person on the other end of the conversation hasn’t seen the damn thing yet. On top of that, it makes little sense to render an overarching opinion on the latest round of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology because there’s so little “overarching” to actually grab on to and articulate in the first place. (Not that I haven’t tried before.) So, with the show’s fourth season finally receiving a premiere date—December 29 on Netflix—let’s try something different: A little review, a little preview, all in anticipation of a global TV phenomenon that started out with a humble narrative about a government leader fucking a pig on national television. Turns out there was a modicum of truth in Black Mirror’s inaugural speculative effort; by way of providing his own fourth-season preview earlier this year, Brooker said that if any of the fictions in “USS Callister,” “Metalhead,” “Hang The DJ,” “Black Museum,” “Arkangel,” or “Crocodile” become fact, “the world is really fucked.” Having seen the complete fourth season, I’m inclined to agree—but at least it’ll be a world where there are six new Black Mirrors to watch.
The sight of an unhinged Texan thrill killer and a former mystery mother in kitschy outer-space gear has already caught a lot of attention, and for good reason: “USS Callister” is head of the class among these new Black Mirror recruits. The episode captures the swashbuckling, retro sci-fi spirit implied by those first images of the eponymous spacecraft’s crew (with big help from Doctor Who and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell director Toby Haynes), all the while grounding that action in Black Mirror’s tech-run-amok sandbox. The homage to vintage Star Trek is a loving one, though not without the acknowledgment that Gene Roddenberry’s bold vision of the future couldn’t entirely divorce itself from the attitudes and hang-ups of the era in which it was created. “USS Callister” is a feature-length episode that, unlike last season’s super-sized “Hated In The Nation,” doesn’t overstay its welcome, buoyed by the lead performances/unofficial Fargo reunion at its center. (Far-fetched fan theory: The UFO in Fargo’s second season is actually the USS Callister.)
The picture is completely desaturated, there are long stretches without any dialogue (save for a stray cuss word), and “Metalhead” is all the tenser for it. In the grayscale shades of Night Of The Living Dead or the original Twilight Zone (with a little Terminator thrown in for good measure), “Metalhead” depicts one woman’s (Maxine Peake) attempt at survival in the face of an unrelenting, ever-increasing threat. It’s pulse-quickening stuff that’ll make you all too aware of the inescapable fragility of all the things responsible for that pulse and that awareness.
The bleakest installment of season four is a pocket-sized Nordic noir set against the snowy peaks and tastefully modernist architecture of Iceland. It’s a desolate setting where only a small handful of people are around to bear witness to a crime, but everyone of them can be an eyewitness, thanks to advances in the science of memory conveyance. If it weren’t for all the stomach-churning brutality, “Crocodile” would be quite lovely to look at—would it surprise you to learn it’s helmed by the director of The Road?
“Hang The DJ” revolves around a dating service that seems to ask the questions “What if the beats of a traditional romantic comedy were rigidly enforced by chirping disks in the protagonists pockets?” Even with that unease creeping beneath the surface, the episode spins a winsome love story for Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole, playing a couple who use a matchmaking “system” intended to lead its participants to their one true pairing. Like the Galaxy Quest-style goofs in “USS Callister” or the intimate mother-daughter drama of “Arkangel,” it’s evidence of the wide array of story types that work as Black Mirror stories, and proof that the episodes that transcend their genre trappings do so because they have more than a killer app.
Unnerved by the “grain” from “The Entire History Of You”? Curious about the deeper implications of the blocking technology from “White Christmas,” or the digitized consciousnesses of “San Junipero”? Apparently, so is Charlie Brooker. “Hang The DJ” is the only episode of the fourth season that passes by without some character clamping a gleaming doodad to their temple, or being injected with some sort of microchip, or, in the most primitive case glimpsed in “Black Museum,” submitting to the surgical insertion of a sizable metal plug to the skull. Now that the advantages and disadvantages of a plugged-in world are on constant display in our real lives—whether its Twitter failing to protect its users from emboldened hate mongers, or your personal data getting leaked by a smart fridge—Black Mirror is moving on to fret about what we might be willing (or in the most harrowing instances, unwilling) to plug ourselves into. The aforementioned “Black Museum” makes a three-course meal of this subject matter, in an omnibus episode that would slot in comfortably with the morose morality plays of Tales From The Crypt.
As ever, there’s no real connective tissue between these episodes of Black Mirror, beyond the occasional Easter egg or callback to earlier in the series. But there is some thematic overlap, particularly in the area of control: Some characters lack it, others abuse it, still others seek it out by ethically questionable, electronically enhanced means. The drama of “USS Callister” and “Hang The DJ” hinges on the protagonists wanting more say in where life takes them; through it eventually lapses into predictability, “Arkangel” takes root in a mother’s desire for a safer, more secure existence for her daughter. And at the the tail end of a year when the world seemed perpetually poised to spin right off its axis, these motifs pack plenty of resonance.
Like the Belinda Carlisle anthem that closes out “San Junipero,” the Dionne Warwick recording of this Burt Bacharach and Hal David standard gains new life and new significance thanks to Black Mirror. When it turns up on the fourth season’s soundtrack, make sure there’s something there to remind you of it later on.