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In Black Mirror season 4, humanism triumphs over nihilism — but only barely

The Netflix series is at its best when it eschews dark twists for rare moments of warmth.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In the middle of “Hang the DJ,” Black Mirror’s season four ode to love in a digital age, Amy (Georgina Campbell) — a singleton who’s struggling with an AI soulmate-finder that has promised to match her with her perfect mate, but only if she follows some stringent instructions — essentially spoils the episode’s concluding twist by speculating over the nature of her existence.

It’s a tidy way of lampshading the viewer’s expectations in a season that is otherwise characterized by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s tendency to place all his emotional bets on darkly ironic last-minute twists and reveals. Such plot turns are part of the show’s commitment to its nihilism — and one of the reasons Black Mirror is so beloved by fans.

But it’s telling that in “Hang the DJ,” as in season three’s Emmy-winning “San Junipero,” the twists as well as the nihilism ultimately give way to a simpler narrative and tried-and-true romantic optimism.

Brooker loves thought experiments that explore what makes us human, usually in the context of simulated life forms, quests to fully digitalize the human consciousness, and sophisticated artificial intelligence. He usually concludes with pessimistic declarations that little good comes of pairing human flaws with highly advanced technology.

Yet stories like “Hang the DJ” reveal Black Mirror’s occasional enthusiasm for how technological complications can empower us, as individuals and as a species, to be the best versions of ourselves. As a storyteller, Brooker is at his best when he allows his humanity to guide him and his audience toward places of hope — even if those moments are brutally short-lived in favor of his reliance on darkly ironic endings.

Black Mirror’s fourth season thrives in its small moments

It’s quintessentially Black Mirror that the best moment of season four occurs in the middle of its worst episode. “Metalhead” is a story driven entirely by the superb work of Maxine Peake, who plays a rebel on the run in a completely undefined post-apocalyptic Scotland; she’s being chased by an unstoppable robot dog-assassin that is set upon her after she and her allies break into a desolate warehouse.

The details of the mission, the nature of the apocalypse, who owns the “dog,” and how Peake’s various relationships came to be are all kept deliberately vague in favor of focusing on the hunt between predator and prey.

It’s a frustrating episode, both because the final twist remains obtuse and because the attention devoted to the dog doesn’t always pay off: Sure, I can buy the built-in infrared tracking device and shrapnel shot from its forehead, but by the time it’s modifying one of its amputated limbs into a slice-and-dicer, it comes off as more than a little over-the-top.

While this canine Terminator is distracting us with Black Mirror’s patented dark promises of technical wizardry, Peake is fleeing for her life, her fear and desperation palpable in every scene. But when she breaks into a formerly upscale house, its owners long dead, she halts, suddenly struck by the sight of an opulent living room full of silent musical instruments.

Music, and one leitmotif in particular, has always functioned as Black Mirror’s reality check, its reminder to itself that there are human elements powering each of its technological dystopias. In “Metalhead,” it’s the moment of Peake’s break-in, when the absence of music serves as a stark reminder of what’s been lost, that serves to ground the audience in an episode where few things otherwise make sense.

But at this stage in its life, Black Mirror is less interested in making sense than it is in laying the groundwork for these kinds of dramatically and emotionally resonant moments, when our unbridled embrace of technology collides with our humanity, for better and worse. This is good drama, and it’s one of the things that Black Mirror, buoyed by its fantastic acting choices, does best.

Another striking example of this comes in “Arkangel,” through director Jodie Foster’s deft mirroring of two moments in the life of her tragic protagonist. Rosemarie DeWitt plays a mother whose over-protectiveness is first enabled and then ultimately threatened by an implant that allows her to see her daughter’s whereabouts at any given moment.

At the first turn of the story, her young daughter briefly goes missing, and DeWitt is left standing on the street calling frantically for her. By the episode’s end, the technology’s invasive nature has done its work, bring us to realize that her choices have ironically taken her on a circular path.

This reliance on individual dramatic moments is part of the power of anthology-style storytelling, but it’s also a drawback. For a single standalone episode, you can get away with suspending the audience’s disbelief in the ethics surrounding an evil robot dog or, say, a memory-reading technology with no precautions in place should said technology read a memory that happens to involve a murder.

But you can only just get away with it, mainly by relying on skilled directors like Foster and phenomenal actors like Peake and DeWitt. And the more you attempt to build a satisfying narrative on a limited thought experiment, the more the cracks in the foundation show.

Likewise, the more Brooker allows himself to fall back on neat sleight-of-hand tricks, the less bandwidth he has for doing what Black Mirror does best, which is exploring the way that human nature responds to new technology.

Black Mirror excels at exploring how human nature might adapt to the future — but it’s less great at building a vision of that future

Black Mirror is most effective when it attempts to map old human behavior onto new technologies. It’s much less effective when it tries to map new technologies onto old stories.

Season four’s most successful episodes, “Arkangel” and “Hang the DJ,” work because they explore the ways in which technology can amplify, rather than change, our basic human impulses and instincts. It’s within such stories that Black Mirror finds its strongest emotions — and not necessarily thanks to the specific sci-fi tropes Brooker likes to play with.

Season one’s “Fifteen Million Merits,” for example, was hardly the first story to pair a rigid dystopia with a highly stylized reality show (see: everything from Running Man to The Hunger Games). What was new was Daniel Kaluuya’s raw pain and desperation as he took both of them on. Episodes like “Arkangel” and “Hang the DJ” similarly derive their power from their compelling relationships — specifically the yearning for connection between a mother and a daughter, and between a pair of separated lovers — rather than the chilling implications of all the technology that permeates these characters’ worlds.

It’s the humanity of the stories rather than their heralded plots that makes them hit hard. As any fan of Black Mirror knows, Brooker loves an ironic ending, but the ones that succeed tend to succeed on the strength of their corresponding episode’s characterizations.

This rule holds especially true for the season four episodes that more overtly borrow from genre tropes. Black Mirror has never been so explicitly a horror story, not even in its famous Christmas episode, as it is in “Metalhead,” when it incarnates technology as the aforementioned evil robot dog. But that trick, even when sharpened through a curiously mottled black-and-white filter, feels empty, because there’s so little presentation of the context we’re in, and consequently little opportunity to build a deeper understanding of the larger stakes at play for the characters and the wider world.

Meanwhile, the season four opener, “USS Callister,” is a splashy, colorful riff off classic Star Trek, but it’s even more prominently a story about geek male entitlement and “nice guy” misogyny. It succeeds primarily because of the performances of its two leads, Jesse Plemons as an unassuming coder with a secret dark side, and Cristin Milioti as his coworker who finds herself caught up in his deeply bizarre game of cat and mouse.

It succeeds a little too well: “Retro Star Trek through the eyes of a narcissistic Gamergater” can’t help but be a fun, if occasionally horrifying, time for the audience. “USS Callister” makes the case that we’d all be better off without toxic male geek culture, but it fails to convincingly argue that we’d be better off without the extravagantly spooky — but also really cool — technology at the plot’s center.

In other words, even when Black Mirror is moralistic about its fictional conceits, it can’t help but find glee in them — often at its own expense.

Season four’s most quintessential episode also typifies Black Mirror’s nihilism and ambivalence

Nowhere does Black Mirror’s fallible need to indulge in its own moral crises weigh more heavily on the fourth season than in “Crocodile.” Although you can watch the six episodes in any order, it’s probably significant that “Crocodile” appears halfway through the season; it will serve as the darkest point of any end-of-year marathon, as black and cynical as 2017 itself.

On an aesthetic level, “Crocodile” is fantastic. The episode is one of season four’s many sidesteps away from pure sci-fi into other genres, horror in particular; this time, it’s horror mixed with euro noir.

The episode’s stunning, visually gray Icelandic landscape is everything fans of euro noir will have come to expect from the genre and its pathetic fallacies — bleak crimes playing out against even bleaker landscapes.

Andrea Riseborough stars as an antihero who covers up an accidental death with the help of a friend and then finds herself, years later, frantic to prevent the secret from unraveling. As is always the case with Black Mirror, the acting and effects in “Crocodile” are fabulous, and director John Hillcoat, known for navigating another gray wasteland in the 2009 film The Road, keeps the pace taut and full of suspense.

The problem is that Brooker tries to map a bizarre new technology onto an age-old morality play: that is, he wants to frame a straightforwardly escalating plot around a certain piece of technology — a technology that inadvertently becomes a driver of futuristic justice.

“Crocodile” contains numerous echoes of Fargo and A Simple Plan, similar morality tales set against similar desolate landscapes, and both stories of the totality of desperation and the futility of fate. But Brooker’s technological plot conceit falls apart the moment you think about it for more than a few seconds. The two sides of “Crocodile” don’t really adhere.

Still more crucially, by the end of the episode he has returned to his love of dark ironic twists. We see these cruel conclusions elsewhere throughout season four, most notably in “Arkangel,” “Metalhead,” and the lackluster “Black Museum.”

While the other episodes’ concluding statements range from messy ambivalence to well-earned character karma, it’s the ending of “Crocodile” that cracks open Black Mirror’s true intentions. It’s an attempt to say Important Things about our technological future, but mostly serves as window dressing for nihilism, at the expense of viewers’ common sense — and perhaps even our common decency.

Black Mirror has often tried to pass off its ironic twists as satirical, but too often, they’re neither satirical nor deeply meaningful — twists for twists’ sake. The show’s reveals frequently function as titillating sadism for the audience, even when its narrative themes explicitly warn us about the dangers of titillating the audience with doses of sadism. When these twists seem to exist purely for cleverness, they’re at their most alienating.

Ultimately, Black Mirror, like so many kinds of similar entertainment, enjoys itself and its own cleverness too much to succeed as a serious morality tale. And its technological explorations are also frequently too incomplete to qualify as serious science fiction. Moving away from its home genre into other genres, as it does throughout season four, makes the flaws in its sci-fi storytelling even more apparent.

That’s why Black Mirror episodes like “Hang the DJ” are so enjoyable. That episode’s vision of the future is one in which technology has evolved and adapted to embrace human nature, while “Crocodile” posits a world where people appear to be improbably clueless about the implications of the things they create.

And, sure, “Hang the DJ” still poses the thought-provoking existential questions about identity, humanity, and existence we’ve come to expect from Black Mirror.

The episode also leans heavily on the show’s greatest insight: Facilitating human evolution, and the delicate process of learning to be human, is the most important thing technology can do for us. Letting that process play out is the best thing Black Mirror can do for its audience.

Overly optimistic? Possibly. But as Black Mirror is eager to remind us, the possibility of seeing humanism, not nihilism, succeed is why we keep tuning in. Anyone who knows what love is can understand.

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