Saving the worst for last, then. “Black Museum” is the closest Black Mirror has come to self-parody, and there’s an argument to be made that this was the intent. Rollo Haynes (a terrifically sleazy Douglas Hodge) narrates his way through three mean-spirited stories about people making bad choices which lead to unsurprisingly awful outcomes. Squint enough, and you could mark Haynes as a satiric version of Charlie Brooker himself; or at least, a version of the writer the show’s most vehement critics often conjure up. Here is, after all, a storyteller with no sympathy for his victims, and a keen interest in exploiting human vulnerability under the guise of “helpful” technology. And he runs the Black Museum to boot.
There’s also an audience on hand to urge him onward, pointing out things the at-home audience has been trained to expect after years of watching folks get owned by their own poor judgement. The “But?” factor, which finds the poison inside the fantasy. The best defense of the episode is to view it as a way to poke fun at Black Mirror’s most hidebound conventions before brutally punishing the “writer” for his crimes. At the very least, the potential meta aspect offers the possibility that everyone involved was in on the joke.
But even keeping that in mind, this one is rough going, a series of obvious setups that fail to deliver on surprise or insight. Things start well enough, with a woman arriving at a roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere, only to be greeted by a gregarious proprietor more than willing to show her around. But once Rolo starts explaining the objects in his collection, and once it becomes evident just how uninspired those explanations are going to be, hope wears off in a hurry.
What if a sensory device that let you feel the physical sensations of others without having to endure the consequences made you a bad person? What if keeping the consciousness of a loved one inside your own mind was actually, I dunno, kind of bad? Neither of these short tales offers much in the way of insight, and while it’s a relief that neither are expected to anchor an entire episode, it would’ve been a better idea just to dump the concepts entirely if this was the result.
I’m not sure which sketch is the worst. Dr. Peter Dawson’s descent into sadism has some cringe-inducing gore effects, but the character remains a cipher throughout, and Rolo’s snickering commentary (including a boner joke at the end) makes it impossible to see the character as anything but a putz. Carrie-in-the-monkey at least offers a disturbing conclusion, with a coma patient’s mind still locked inside a stuffed animal, but the journey to get to that point is arguably more painful to watch. The fights between Carrie and Jack after Carrie gets stuck inside of Jack’s brain are agonizing, offering neither character much more than token humanity.
That’s part of the point, of course. The stories are presented through Rolo’s narration, and Rolo doesn’t have much room for humanity in his vision. He presents himself as a kind of ambulatory monkey’s paw, popping into people’s lives to offer them what they think they want, then standing on the sidelines grinning as everything goes wrong. Which, again, plays into the idea of him as an self-flagellating (and self-mocking) author surrogate. One of the biggest rants against Black Mirror is that the show just parrots the same “anti-technology” message over and over. Well, here’s an episode which, for most of its running time, seems to confirm all of the series’ most dismissive criticism.
Then the tables get turned, and we discover that what we’ve suspected all along—that Rolo is the true villain—is, in fact, the case, and his “audience” is actually a young woman on a mission of mercy and vengeance. This is where the third story comes in, the tale of a man falsely accused of murder who signs over his “digital rights” to Rolo. (He then uses those rights to create a copy that people can pay to electrocute.) If there was any ambiguity in the earlier stories (and there wasn’t, really), it’s lost here. The convict is innocent, Rolo is a sadistic monster, but thanks to Nish (Letitia Wright), he gets what’s coming to him. Nish wipes out the digital copy, kills Rolo and traps a copy of his consciousness in perpetual agony, and burns down the museum. In case that wasn’t enough, we find out that her mother (the convict’s wife, who killed herself after she found out what Rolo was doing to her husband’s “ghost”) has been copied into Nish’s brain, which is… heartwarming? I guess?
Given Rolo’s venality, this all plays out like a happy ending—a bit dark, to be sure, but evil still gets what’s coming to it. Yet aside from a certain pleasure in seeing a jerk get zapped, there’s nothing really going on here; no lingering sense of unease, no deeper understanding of people, no fears about our own culpability. Maybe Brooker intended this a campy send-off, maybe I’m just reading too much into nothing at all, but whatever the intent, what we get is a disappointingly flat hour and change of squandered potential.
- Black Mirror’s fourth season was pretty good overall. The show has lost a lot of its capacity to surprise, but then, that was always going to happen; hell, it’s been happening since the second season. Of the six episodes we get, only two are legitimately bad, and at least “Crocodile” is watchable, if deeply inessential. It’s a pity to go out on such a downer note.