There is something merciless in Black Mirror’s compassion. It spends time introducing us to its characters, and then slowly, patiently, it allows them to pick up however much rope they need to hang themselves. Occasionally there’s dark humor in the karmic punishment, but generally the perspective is removed, almost cold, but largely stripped of judgment. There’s always a point by the end, and that point is rarely subtle, but the nightmares people find themselves in are often as inevitable as they do tragic—less a statement about individual failures, and more a perspective on the pressures of human nature which ultimately doom us all.

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So that’s fun. “Arkangel” is not a particularly fun hour of television, and the high concept (an implant in a child’s mind that can track her, monitor her insides, and even block out stressful experiences) isn’t one of the show’s more mind boggling creations. Yet it is the sort of innovation that’s close enough to current trends that it’s not hard at all to accept it as a potential reality. That plausibility is crucial. The episode’s emotional crux rests on a mother-daughter relationship destroyed by the mother’s inability to allow her child to live her own life. It’s a common theme in stories about parenting, and it’s played to devastating effect here, but that effect wouldn’t work if we spent too much time questioning the technology.

It also helps to have Rosemarie DeWitt in the lead role. As the mother, DeWitt is given the difficult task of walking the thin line between sympathetic and monstrous. It’s a line many actors on the show have had to walk before (including this season), and DeWitt handles it well, especially given he heavy lifting that’s required of her. Out of the entire (small) cast of characters, Mom makes the most questionable decisions, and at least two of those decisions are so obviously bad that it takes special effort on the part of the actress to keep the character from turning into a onenote villain.

DeWitt isn’t the only one making an impression. Jodie Foster’s direction captures the show’s clinical, mournful feel, but manages a necessary level of intimacy that keeps the story from being overly schematic. In early scenes, she works to make sure DeWitt’s fears for her child’s safety (an idea that’s introduced in the first few minutes when, after a difficult birth, doctors briefly ignore DeWitt’s questions about the health of her baby; it’s only for a moment, but it immediately establishes both the mother’s intense fear and the world that doesn’t exactly go out of its way to reassure her) register as something specific and irresistable, just as in later scenes she works to put us in her daughter Sarah’s (played by Brenna Harding as a teen) head.

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That balance is crucial to making this more than just the story of a bad mom, or a rebellious teen. And while little of the narratives arc is all that surprising in broad strokes (it turns out that spying on your child and giving them a stealth abortion doesn’t make them like you), the specifics make it compelling throughout. Both characters are developed enough so that when the final confrontation arrives, it’s more upsetting that just watching an irresistible force meet an unmovable object.

But. (There’s always a “But.”) As much as the direction and performances work to find the emotional honesty in all of this, the script’s single-minded march towards destruction hold it back. This is why the show’s occasional happy endings are so often exceptional—more than anything, they’re a relief. From the moment Mom decides to install the ArkAngel in her daughter, the conclusion is clear. And while there’s a certain integrity in showing that conclusion without flinching, it also robs the episode of freshness or surprise.

Well, okay, Mom’s decision to give her daughter a secret “morning after” pill is definitely a shock. But it’s the details that shock, not the arc of the decision itself. While DeWitt’s performance and Foster’s direction work to build empathy for the character, the script is simply building a case. The scenes designed to establish her point of view also serve as a prison from which she’s never allowed to escape. That’s the definition of tragedy, and there’s nothing inherently wrong about tragic narratives. But there’s something exhausting about watching roughly the same tragedy over and over again, and Black Mirror has done the “technology allows us to indulge our worst impulses” riff many times before.

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There are moment of grace here. At one point, Mom’s father has a heart attack while watching Sarah, and because Mom has Sarah’s parental controls running, the kid just sees the whole thing as a blur. But the father doesn’t actually die because of his granddaughter’s confusion, which is a small but palpable blessing, and the fact that Mom is willing to put the implant’s control device (basically a dedicated iPad) away for a while at least approaches recognizable human behavior. I’m not a parent, and I’d be curious to hear a parent’s take on this, but the episode does manage to show how easily and horribly parental love and concern can transform into something abusive. It also keeps Sarah’s behavior on that thin line between rebellion and catastrophe, ensuring that the audience at least understands why Mom panics even if we don’t condone the results of her behavior.

But if “Arkangel” never fails the challenges it sets for itself, it also never transcends them. The moral story is hard to argue with, but it’s also not really unexpected. Black Mirror works best when it’s less about lecturing humanity for its flaws, and more about finding empathy in weakness. This episode leans a little too much to the former to be great, but still finds time enough to grieve.

Stray observations

  • Another nice touch: we eventually learn that the Arkangel implants have been outlawed (though Sarah’s implant can’t be removed), so even if Mom can’t learn from her mistakes, the world has.
  • It’s also smart the way Sarah’s childhood inability to see stressful situations shapes her personality. The episode seems to briefly flirt with the idea of making her a monster before settling into something more mundane but effective: she’s just like most other teenagers, except a little bit more willing to break things.
  • That final fight, which climaxes with Sarah beating the shit out of her mother while being unable to see her, is hard to quibble with as a metaphor.

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