An online corporation undermines traditional entertainment mediums to change viewing habits, and to promote binge-watching to inpatient audience. Not the premise of an episode of Black Mirror, but a description of Netflix, the new home of Charlie Brookers anthology series. Last seen on Channel 4 with White Christmas in 2014, the show has been revived with a bigger budget and a longer series. And just in time for Halloween! Here’s our rundown of the episodes – please be warned that whilst I won’t be giving away any of the major plot twists, there may be some minor spoilers to follow.
The first episode is the one that most clearly benefits from the increased production values. Nosedive portrays a world where everyone is given a rating out of 5, with benefits given to those at the top and social isolation to those at the bottom. The story follows one such aspiring social climber and how she interacts with those around her. This is the most straight-forward of the episodes, featuring with story developments that will come as no surprise to anyone who paid enough attention to the title of the episode… yet it’s difficult not to be impressed by the visual elements. The pastel coloured saccharine blandness of the dystopian niceness, the forced smiles, the instagram photos taken with calculated precision to push ratings up a point… The episode isn’t making a subtle point, but it’s showing something that should be familiar to a lot of people. And if we’re rating everything from hotels to taxi rides on a scale of one to five (the day after watching this episode, I was asked to rate an A&E department…), then how long before we’re asked to rate people?
As stated above, this is the episode with the most straight-forward storyline, and it’s not surprising to see it pushed to the first episode as the most accessible. Featuring Bryce Dallas Howard and Alice Eve (unlikely to have appeared on the Channel 4 budget!) and directed by Joe Wright, this is a good introductory episode for people not yet used to the world of Black Mirror. And one that I’m not giving a rating to out of principle.
If you want to watch one episode for Halloween, make it this one. Whilst all episodes are of differing genres, this is the one that ventures into outright horror. Telling the story of a young American backpacker who agrees to test out a new survival horror experience. By plugging a chip into the back of your head, the game personalises the experience by forcing you to face your deepest darkest fears. And what is our young hero running from…
This is another visually impressive episode, taking place in a sinister mansion and making effective use of horror movie tropes. The soundtrack is oppressive and unnerving, and the jumpscares are initially effective. The storyline is a good one as well – moving away from the overarching theme of warnings against technological misuse, the story is much more of a personal journey for the protaganist. However, this doesn’t hide the obvious question – who would play this game?? As much as I enjoy the likes of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, I enjoy the creepy atmosphere of what someone else has put on screen – I wouldn’t want to be trapped in my own private hell of a crashing plane with an empty wine cellar, simulated or otherwise!
Shut Up & Dance
Remember the White Bear episode from a previous series? This episode could probably be viewed as a companion piece to that one, in terms of the claustrophobic atmosphere the lead character finds themselves in. This episode plays as a thriller, following 19 year old Kenny – a lonely and withdrawn kid who accidentally downloads a piece of malware onto his laptop which allows bad people to view and record his webcam. Not a problem unless you do anything incriminating… unfortunately Kenny is a 19 year old kid with a laptop. Forced to follow a series of increasingly sinister instructions received by mobile phone, he teams up with Hector to try and keep the hackers happy.
This will be one of the episodes that divides people, much as White Bear was. Personally, I think the stripped back nature of the story and the cast benefits the story, but I can see how people could be put off by this. However, the cast is excellent, both Alex Lawther as the out of his depth Kenny and Jerome Flynn as the desperate and pragmatic Hector worthy of praise. Notable as one of the few Black Mirror episodes that doesn’t rely on any technological advance to take place, this is one that will linger in the mind well after the credits roll.
Charlie Brooker writing a love story? Cats chase dogs, hamburgers eat people… this just doesn’t make sense! Particularly not in a series as relentlessly cynical and misanthropic as Black Mirror! And yet not only does San Junipero work, but to my mind it’s the highlight of the series. Telling the story between Yorkie and Kelly as they start a relationship in California in 1987. And whilst the bulk of the story takes place here, they chase each other across different time periods as all isn’t as it seems…
Whilst I’d love to go into further details about this episode, and could wax lyrical about the storyline for hours, it’s hard to do so without ruining the details of the plot. Suffice to say it’s an engaging drama with fantastic performances from Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The settings are realised perfectly with brilliant direction, and each scene further unravelling the mystery at the centre. A must watch.
Men Against Fire
Black Mirror does conspiracy thriller! The army are called in to take down the monstrous and mutated Roaches, aided by augmented contact lenses, but when a private is captured he discovers that he may have more in common than he thought…
First point – there are some nice ideas here. The lead characters in the army are well thought out, the army system of rewarding combat kills is a good one and there’s an emphasis on the evils or prejudice and propaganda. But sadly the story is about as subtle as a brick – for Roaches read refugees and the endless scare stories of right wing tabloid newspapers (it is of course a moment of huge coincidence that this episode is released around the same time as the Gary Lineker comments and subsequent tabloid demonisation). And yet whilst there is social commentary that could (and indeed should) be made about this subject, it just feels a little too clumsily done in this story. Maybe it’s a come down after the superb San Junipero, maybe it’s weariness after seeing the same headlines about the same subject in The Sun and The Mail. But sadly this one just didn’t work for me, and is the weakest of the series.
Hated In The Nation
The series ends with a feature length episode – a police procedural drama that actually works as a companion piece to Nosedive. Whilst the earlier episode looks at the fakeness and over the top niceties of social media, Hated In The Nation looks at the darker side of Twitter – the trolling and the online hate mobs. When a deliberately provocative newspaper columnist (who may as well have been called Shmatie Shmopkins) is found dead after writing a controversial article, police are stumped – before noticing that she had been the recipient of a tweetstorm, with a particular hashtag showing up…
Again, the acting is fantastic in this episode – Kelly MacDonald stands out amongst a strong cast as the lead detective. Is the extra half hour needed? Maybe, maybe not, but the episode doesn’t feel too drawn out or overlong. There’s a couple of scenes that could have been trimmed or removed altogether, but it doesn’t distract from the piece. The various reveals range from ‘saw it coming’ to ‘wow, where’d that come from’ and whilst some feel forced, most of them flow nicely into the plot. But it’s the aftermath that Hated In The Nation shines – the episode stays with you for a good while after and would be rewatchable to see if you can pick up the clues the first time round. A good end to a strong season.