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Black Mirror’s “Arkangel” takes parental surveillance to its darkest, most obvious extreme

Directed by Jodie Foster, the episode makes a living nightmare out of parental controls.

Netflix

This article is a recap of Black Mirror’s season four episode “Arkangel.” It contains spoilers and discussion regarding the episode's plot.

Some Black Mirror episodes take place in a world so far-flung from our own that they’re much easier to digest as science fiction fantasies. Other times, they feel more adjacent to reality, delivering dire warnings of technology run amok in fallible hands.

“Arkangel” belongs more in the latter camp, telling a contained story about a small family that slowly disintegrates. Its Black Mirror “twist” hinges on an advanced chip technology that, when inserted into a child’s brain, can provide anxious parents with everything from their vitals to their fear levels to their literal vision. Any parent who chooses to use this “Arkangel” chip can monitor everything their child is feeling, and even put parental controls on what she’s seeing, with a casual swipe on their designated tablet.

In the hands of a nervous single mom (Rosemarie DeWitt), Arkangel becomes a digital umbilical cord she refuses to release for fear of losing her daughter forever. Using Arkangel becomes like reading a diary, but instead, she’s reading her daughter.

Not many details about “Arkangel” would have to change in order to make it work outside the sci-fi faux realities Black Mirror creates. While most every Black Mirror episode takes care to extrapolate technological nightmares based on developments firmly rooted in reality, “Arkangel” leans on a conceit that’s so close to our existing world that it’s about as low-key as Black Mirror can get without being … well, our existing world.

Much of what the Arkangel chip entails essentially makes it a smartphone that someone figured out how to shrink and insert into a human body. With its GPS tracker and vital sign scanning, it’s a shortcut for parents who don’t know how to hack their kids’ phones but totally would if they could.

In this respect, so much of “Arkangel” plays out like it is, in fact, just a story of a protective mom hacking her daughter’s phone with increasingly disastrous consequences. We see how Arkangel affects both mother and daughter as Sarah grows from a wide-eyed toddler to a curious child to a restless teenager trying to make up for lost time. Jodie Foster’s direction is generally stark and matter-of-fact, only asserting itself when Sarah or her mother is in a particular state of panic, the camera switching to handheld in order to capture their confused and rapidly fracturing relationship to each other and the world around them.

While Arkangel at first seems like a boon to the family, it quickly becomes an easy way for Sarah’s mother to jump to the worst conclusions. It doesn’t soothe her nerves; it spikes them.

This surveillance side of the story is not, unfortunately, all that riveting. But there is one aspect of the Arkangel chip that is genuinely fascinating — so much so that the episode might have been better off focusing on it alone instead of muddling it together with everything else Arkangel can do.

Arkangel’s “parental control” is its most layered and ultimately disturbing feature

The most overtly science fiction innovation of the Arkangel chip is that it allows users to turn on a “parental control” feature that activates any time it senses a spike in the child’s fear levels. When activated, a friendly Arkangel nurse tells Sarah’s mother toward the beginning of the episode, the child’s vision will automatically blur out the upsetting image in question.

The nurse demonstrates this by showing Sarah a violent scene in a movie, which Sarah’s vision quickly contorts, rendering the image of a soldier emptying her machine gun as a benign series of geometric patterns. When they go home, Sarah and her mom walk by the hyperactive German shepherd who used to scare them every day, but this time, he becomes that weird blob of shapes, undulating pleasantly as they pass.

But as Sarah grows up, this feature becomes not just a bug but a danger to both her and the people she loves: When her grandfather collapses while they’re painting together, Arkangel blurs his broken body so that Sarah can finish her painting in peace.

As she gets older, Sarah’s childhood of constant surveillance and hardships smoothed out into pleasant nothings catches up with her, making her an object of curiosity on a playground full of kids who grew up discovering their messy world at the click of a button. Sarah is safe, but she’s also a benign zombie who needs the concept of blood explained to her (“like juice, but thicker”). Frustrated and confused, she stabs herself with a pencil, trying desperately to see the blood that keeps blurring before her eyes.

At this point, Sarah’s mother decides to shut off Arkangel, terrified of where it could go. In one of the episode’s most memorable sequences, Foster keeps the camera trained on a shot of Sarah passing that German shepherd, over and over again, getting older and more confident with every pass.

But Sarah’s Arkangel-less life only lasts until she becomes a teenager and starts indulging classic teenage pastimes like lying, drinking, and sneaking around to see the charismatic bad boy who once told her what blood is. When she fails to come home by curfew one night, her mother frantically plugs Arkangel back in to find out where she could’ve gone — and ends up recoiling in horror as she sees her daughter losing her virginity from Sarah’s own perspective.

From there, things quickly and irrevocably devolve. By the episode’s end, a furious and confused Sarah has smashed the Arkangel tablet over her mother’s head, over and over again. As the tablet breaks and Sarah’s rage grows, her mother’s bloodied head goes in and out of focus, as if neither Sarah nor the chip in her head can decide whether she should see it. Soon enough, the tablet is broken beyond repair — and her mother might be too, once she realizes that Sarah’s made a break for it with a packed duffel bag, to go discover the world by herself for the first time in her heavily controlled life.

The moments when Sarah tries desperately to understand a world that’s been long shielded from her, as her mother tries desperately to let her without panicking, are the moments when “Arkangel” hits hardest. The question of how much children can — or should — see of a world that is available with an instantaneous Google search is one that parents grapple with every day, without any sort of conclusive answer. What “Arkangel” suggests is that shielding them entirely from the truth is nothing but a temporary salve, keeping right in line with Black Mirror’s overall ethos that pretty much everything we try in the name of protecting ourselves and each other will eventually, inevitably backfire.