Binge Watch: Black Mirror Season 3

Beware bee bots.

This past Friday saw the Season 3 drop of Charlie Brooker’s techno-horror anthology Black Mirror on Netflix.

I’ll admit upfront: Netflix’s acquisition of what was a particular British gem has given me many reservations since I first heard about it. With the first two seasons (plus one special) Charlie Brooker created seven episodes over a span of three years. Under Netflix, he would essentially be matching that output in one single dump. I like Brooker, but that’s a lot to do, creatively speaking. Already the first two seasons had distinct quality variances. That’s not surprising coming from an anthology format, of course, but it is a fact. Both of those seasons basically amount to one stellar episode, one ‘middling’ episode, and then the eponymous not-so-great episode. So I’ve harbored concerns with how this quality ratio would shift now that six episodes (with bigger budgets, longer possible runtimes, etc…) would be dropping all at once.

Well I binged all of Season 3 over the weekend so I could answer that very question!

And my short answer? The ratio sinks a little worse, all things considered. Most of the episodes I find ‘ok,’ with only one that I consider straight up terrible. And then one of the stories is so stellar that I’m willing to put it in there with the absolute tippy-top best of Black Mirror.

In case you’re curious, and would like a preliminary indication as to how I prefer my Black Mirror episodes (and thus a better context as to how to interpret my opinions) here would be my ranking system of the Season 1 & Season 2 episodes (including the special):

Be Right Back (s2.e1)

White Christmas (winter special)

Fifteen Million Merits (s1.e2)

Entire History of You (s1.e3)

White Bear (s2.e2)

The National Anthem (s1.e1)

The Waldo Moment (s2.e3)

And as far as the new episodes… I’m going to talk fairly informally about each one of them in turn (with their reveals and all, so be warned), and then we’ll see how it all shakes out for me ranking-wise at the end.

Remember: SPOILERS FOLLOW HEREAFTER!

 

Nosedive

Directed by Joe Wright (and written by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur), “Nosedive” presents a world where everyone is essentially star rated by everyone else. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Lacie — a young woman obsessed with her score.

The ratings, you see, serve various social purposes — they can act as tips for service people, and a person’s aggregate score determines what they have access to or don’t, and to what level of comfort they can enjoy it. In some respects the score can act like a social media credit rating, determining if people qualify for special programs in special housing developments.

Analytics experts exist who can help someone break down their scorings and figure out how a respectable/average 4.2 (like Lacie herself) can break through on up to the 4.8 level “prime influencers” (like Lacie’s childhood friend Naomie). The pro-tip? Not bothering with interactions with quite so many “low to mid scale folk” (like service people).

Naomie is getting married (to another 4.8 of course), and asks Lacie to be her maid of honor. Since the wedding will be brimming with many prime influencers who can bump her score higher, Lacie agrees eagerly.

From there on out, however, Lacie’s ranking begins to nosedive (ha ha) as the culture and system turn against her.

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In a lot of ways this episode reads like a wannabe spiritual sister to “Fifteen Million Merits,” where there is a very specific way a world is presented, as well as the characters’ relation to said world’s context. Except unlike that Season 1 episode which put a small human focus on characters as they struggled inside their world, “Nosedive” posits Lacie as a much more complicit facet, subsumed by her environment. Overall it feels more world forward and focused… in a kind of cantankerous way. Did you guys know we are transforming into nothing but vapid, human shaped shells that care only for upvotes???

Part of that problem is that this episode feels a bit too long. I like Cherry Jones, but was the wisdom-dispensing truck driver truly necessary? Did those scenes ultimately add anything?  They certainly didn’t develop Lacie as person, nor did they particularly motivate her into any further actions.  It felt like nothing much than a moralizing mouthpiece shoehorned into the plot. Did you know all the upvotes in the world can’t stop cancer?? Thank you, Moralizing Truck Driver, you truly have opened my eyes.

Wow. I felt crankier about that than I thought I did…

Anyway! Joe Wright’s dreamy pastel palette for this is beautiful and eery and delicate, and at least makes the episode visually different. And I definitely think one of the only other reasons this episode works as well as it does is because of Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance. She imbues Lacie with enough fragility, loneliness, and desperation that she convincingly sells a woman who is such a damaged product of a specific society.

 

Playtest

Ok. This one is… odd.

So Cooper is a young man whose father has just died from Alzheimer’s. Cooper is feeling adrift, so he leaves his mother and home and goes backpacking across the world. While stopping over in Britain on his way home he realizes there are fraudulent charges on his credit card which prevent him from getting a plane ticket back to the USA. Since he’s still too emotionally fraught to call and ask his mom for help, he decides to take an odd job from an app/site offering playtesting for a major video game developer.

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This episode culminates in a twist that I think is a few too many steps removed. It’s comprised of too many ‘pull-backs’ that feel too obvious (probably because it also about 10 minutes too long).

Successive events lead Cooper through different levels of the play-testing. Most of the episode is him surviving inside “the most personal horror game” ever made. But by the end, the repeated  fake-outs of ‘what’s real’ and what’s not pull out even further, revealing that none of what we watched most of the episode happened at all — the real playtest didn’t even fully start. It lasted only 0.4 seconds due to an equipment malfunction (caused by Cooper’s cell phone that was not properly powered off). Oh, and it also fried his brain and he’s dead.

By the time we’ve reached that true end, everything the episode explored previously is, in essence, rendered moot. Any commentary about the lengths video game developers go to, prompted and prodded by a public whose demands push them in dangerous directions? Nope. Just a whomp whomp cells phones can fuck with shit.

Really??

It feels like there was ultimately a severe disconnect between what was intended to be said vs. the execution and structure that undercut much of it.

 

Shut Up and Dance 

Ok so I desperately *want* to call this one a garbage episode… but that seems vaguely hyperbolic.

But wow is this a garbage episode.

We are given a straightforward, current ‘world state.’ Nothing about the technology is particularly advanced or different than our world now. We meet young Kenny. He gets a virus on his computer that allows shady stranger(s)   to record him through the camera. And in Kenny’s case, that means recording him masturbating. After that, he begins getting text messages demanding he do things or else the mysterious texter will send the recording to everyone.

The Texter teams Kenny up briefly with shitty Hector. I spend the whole episode basically wanting to punch Hector in the face (despite the fact that he’s played by the terrific Jerome Flynn who I really wish had a better episode to work in). You see, Hector was hiring a prostitute and wanting to cheat on his wife. So that’s his blackmail.

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The Texter forces Kenny and Hector to rob a bank together, and then take the money to a creepy woodsy location in the middle of nowhere. They split up, Hector is released, and Kenny is confronted by another blackmailed man (child pornography) who sets loose a helicopter bot. The helicopter bot, by the way, is meant to watch them fight to the death. Seriously. But oh — it doesn’t matter who wins because The Texter releases all of the blackmail victims’ secrets anyway.

What was the point of this episode supposed to be? Some kind of exploration of righteous vigilante punishments in a the Internet age? The fact that the Internet enables people to hire prositiutes, look at child pornography, and send racist e-mails (as was the case for another blackmailed woman in the episode)? Umm… those things are not strictly on equal footing…

This one doesn’t seem to understand its own purpose, and has no real perspective.

 

San Junipero 

In the town of San Junipero, gangly, awkward in her own body Yorkie (the wonderful Mackenzie Davis) meets stunning, effervescent party girl Kelly (the always fabulous Gugu Mbatha-Raw). And so begins a complex romance.

The rate at which the information is dealt out and revealed in this episode is very well done. Much like “White Christmas,” it’s patient with how it puts pieces in place. It’s the only episode where I think the length serves it well. It takes some time for what’s happening to 100% click over, but once it does? It’s great. And profoundly lovely.

After spending a night together Kelly seemingly disappears. Yorkie searches for her week after week… where ‘week after week’ turns into Yorkie searching for her in the same club seemingly decade after decade. By the time Yorkie finds Kelly again, she is “hiding” in the 2000s. “How is this your era??” a frustrated Yorkie asks her.

They finally talk to one another on a deeper level, and slowly the world details begin dropping into context.

black-mirror-san-junipero-3

It’s revealed that San Junipero is a program for the elderly. “Immersive nostalgia therapy” (as it’s termed) in which the mind is uploaded into a cloud program. Utilized by assisted living facilities and caregivers, people can “visit” for allotted times. And when it comes time for someone to “passover” (i.e. die), they can opt to be uploaded permanently, and live forever in San Junipero (as you want, in any era you want).

Yorkie, as it turns out, has been quadriplegic since she was in her 20s (due to a car crash following a fight with her parents who were not happy with the whole lesbian thing), and she wants to voluntarily passover to be in San Junipero full time. And Kelly, we learn, is a widow who was married to a man for 49 years. Both Kelly and her husband outlived their own daughter, and when Kelly’s husband did die, he chose not to pass into San Junipero.

Despite their bond and obvious love for one another, each has her very good reasons for wanting what they want out of San Junipero. For Yorkie it’s passing over and remaining forever in San Junipero because it is everything she could never be or have when she was alive… vs. Kelly resisting the idea because she already had many things in her life, and neither her husband nor daughter can ever exist in San Junipero.

Both actresses deliver their own various griefs and vulnerabilities very powerfully — you can believe and empathize with their conflict.

It’s almost startling that this is the only Black Mirror narrative that has a rather optimistic point of view. Despite the drawbacks to San Junipero as a concept, the episode legitimately explores what might be accomplished by more “helpful” technological developments, and how humans might interact and relate once a technology shifts how they perceive their existential anxieties. For once, it’s an episode that isn’t technocynicism.

Also: lady & lady relationships are awesome.

 

Men Against Fire 

Stripe is a solider in a near-future war area where the military is steadily eradicating monstrous, Voldemort-looking “roaches” that are everywhere.

Except that it turns out all the soldiers are given implants that control what they see (and smell and hear and even dream). And, in order to allow soldiers to kill easier, the implant makes the people they’re “supposed to eradicate” look like Voldemort monsters.

blackmirror_men_against_fire

So I presumed it would be something like this because in the very first conversation inside the house between Medina and the loner man suspected of hiding roaches looked very much like it was straight out of that first Hans Landa scene of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds — and then I specifically noted how heavily Medina’s rhetoric was in vague Nazi-esque terminology.

Almost everything is exposited in one of the last scenes — it’s one giant expository dump about what exactly was going on. And that feels like an odd, slightly weak choice. However, credit goes to Michael Kelly (playing Arquette, the military psychologist… or some such) for selling the calm callousness of Arquette’s position well. When Stripe confronts him with “they’re people,” Arquette basically shrugs and goes, “Of course they are.” That’s some cold shit right there. All of his rationale is eery and gross, and one of the more believable human perspectives — especially considering his concession that the only reason the program is really necessary is because ultimately humans truly are inclined towards not murdering one another.

Ultimately I wanted more to come out of the end. Part of the weakness here is also that for the entire episodes’ length we never do know Stripe as a person. Instead, this episode revolves wholly around the fucked-up military program idea more than the main character through which it’s revealed.

 

Hated in the Nation

Detective Karin (a sublime Kelly McDonald) and her new shadow Blue (Faye Marsay) investigate bizarre deaths with a seeming linked to social media hate mobs. Benedict Wong shows up to help later. Oh, and there are mechanical drone bee bots that exist because, ya know, environmental disaster.

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This is basically the one that could be subtitled “Twitter is Evil.” It essentially boils down to the fact that a mysterious someone was using Twitter to source balloted executions of people, and using fancy bee bots to execute them. Yes, you read that correctly. Whoever was Twitter’s most hated person on a given day (based on how many users tweeted a photo of said person with a #DeathTo) would die. But lo and behold it was the 300,000+ people who participated in the “game” / used the hashtag were the accumulated names for target.

The weakest point about “Hated in the Nation” (other than the fact that it — again — an episode that seemed longer than was truly necessary) is that its central thesis is almost laughably cantankerousness  –> Twitter is Evil! And social media mobs are THE WORST! You shouldn’t be mean on social media, guys! Lest the bees crawl into your brain…

Thankfully, enough about the moody style and performances overcome this to an extent. The idea of hacked bee bot drones coming to murder you for being terrible is ludicrous, but there’s something rather gleefully batshit about it. I still watched half of this episode half under a blanket (because murder robot bees!), and overall had fun. But that’s about it.

 

So what would my final episode rankings be with all episodes, all seasons considered?

Be Right Back (s2.e1)

San Junipero (s3.e4)

White Christmas (winter special)

Fifteen Million Merits (s1.e2)

Entire History of You (s1.e3)

Hated in the Nation (s3.e6)

White Bear (s2.e2)

Men Against Fire (s3.e5)

Nosedive (s3.e1)

Playtest (s3.e2)

The National Anthem (s1.e1)

The Waldo Moment (s2.e3)

Shut Up and Dance (s3.e3)

Overall, it’s nice that Black Mirror has bigger budgets to work within. But that may be a double-edged sword for them (because it also means other things). In most instances the runtimes are just a tad too long for the stories actually being told, and I think the ‘availability’ of the Netflix scope doesn’t encourage Brooker to edit or be as particular with his stories as he once had to be out of more necessity. Bigger playgrounds don’t necessarily equate to better playgrounds.

I was afraid that the particular way Netflix manages its shows would distort what once made Black Mirror what it was. At the end of the season I think I was mostly right — I think the Netflix model has distorted it (and encouraged some frustrating inclinations), but in spite of that it’s proven that it is still capable of turning in something wonderful and/or entertaining.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go rewatch “San Junipero.”