‘Black Mirror’ Season 4 Review: ‘USS Callister’ and ‘Arkangel’
The critically acclaimed anthology series Black Mirror is back for a fourth season and it’s better than ever, which for a show of this calibre – it’s actually quite difficult to continue topping its own success like this. Let’s get into it.
Episode 1: USS Callister
“It’s a bubble universe, ruled by an asshole god”
An homage to Star Trek, USS Callister concerns a crew aboard the spaceship of the same name, and under the leadership of the fearless and charismatic Captain Daly they fight to destroy archenemy Valdack, or so it seems.
In reality, Robert Daly is the CTO of Callister Inc, the company behind an online augmented reality game called Infinity. A version of which Daly has taken offline and modded to include his co-workers as his crewmates – Daly uses this version of the game to displace his anger and stress from said co-workers in real life on to their cloned video game counterparts through emotional abuse, torture, and sexual assault. Daly is a socially awkward nerd who, despite his assumed superiority and role at Callister Inc, has very little authority.
The extent at which a seemingly harmless, almost therapeutic activity escalates is edge-of-your-seat exhilarating stuff. USS Callister is also one of the very few Black Mirror episodes that is funny, not the typical Black Mirror humour, which is along the lines of this-is-so-dark-and-disturbing-i-have-to-laugh-or-else-i-will-cry, but with one-liners and visual gags. It’s a pleasant departure, though of course in perfectly Black Mirror fashion it goes left-field slowly and disturbingly.
USS Callister begins with an obliviously kind and driven young woman who joins Callister Inc because of how impressed she is with Daly’s code; she heaps praise on the ‘procedural algorithm’ as some ‘beautiful code’ and inadvertently gives Daly a reason to stare at her and obsess for uncomfortable lengths of time. Initially met with awkward pauses and an insecure smile, Daly began his quiet obsession with the new girl, Nanette Cole.
Beyond that, and this will probably be said many-times over, this episode is particularly timely and relevant given the news and pop-culture landscape in recent years. From the Gamergate harassment campaign that brought much of 4Chan/Reddit and Twitter trolls into the light to political trolls emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and continued under his presidency. The only thing in common with this rise in co-ordinated online trolling is the white male rage that is embodied by Robert Daly. Daly represents the journey of the insecure bullied victim who becomes the bully as his only resolve; A sense of entitled rage underpinned by deeply personal insecurities. In fact, I would not be surprised if Charlie Brooker was directly inspired by Gamergate to write this episode. In 2014, he wrote a column for The Guardian titled: ‘Gamergate: the internet is the toughest game in town – if you’re playing as a woman’.
Everything in this episode works flawlessly, from the writing to the casting of Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, and Michaela Coel, to the vibrant and colourful set design of the spaceship. It felt like a feature length movie more than an episode of a tv show. That Netflix money can be seen and heard.
There is a very unexpected and brilliant cameo in USS Callister that completes a surprisingly uplifting ending to the episode. As bizarre and wacky as Black Mirror gets, there is a moral and ethical question underlying every episode. For example: Is it unethical to blackmail yourself with your own comprising iCloud photos? Black Mirror continues to make us question our technological existence, and the kind of future that we may be sleep-tweeting into.
“We would cease to exist, that’s true. But we’d be free. We’d be… free.”
Episode 2: Arkangel
A spiritual successor to season one’s ‘The Entire History of You’, ‘Arkangel’ takes the neural implant one step further. The ‘Arkangel’ chip now allows you to watch a live-stream of everything the subject is looking at through a tablet, monitor their vitals, and it even includes a safety filter. The filter effectively pixelates any images that may spike the subject’s cortisol levels or cause them distress. I know what you’re thinking, that sounds insanely invasive, and you’d be right. Brooker uses this set-up to explore another relationship, this time, between a single mother and her daughter.
It begins with Marie’s daughter Sara playing at the park and going missing. Marie spends the day desperately searching for her and she is ultimately found near the train tracks. This incident convinces Marie to sign up for a trial of ‘Arkangel’ which, among other things, will allow Marie to track her daughter’s every move.
It’s worth pointing out that isolating this narrative and piece of technology to tell one family’s story was definitely the right thing to do. It only works because of the trust established between a mother and her daughter that allows Sara to overlook the fact that with this implant, she is always subject to her mother’s whim and invasion of privacy.
Black Mirror employs the expertise of director Jodie Foster to tell this mother-daughter narrative and it shows that she is the first woman to direct an episode of Black Mirror. There is an intimacy and trust established between the duo that allows the extreme passage of time – Sara grows from a toddler to a fifteen-year-old – to feel personal and intimate.
We go from Sara nervously asking her mother, ‘And you won’t see me?’ when she decides to turn off the tablet for good, to the disturbed realisation that her mother ‘watched [her]’.
However, despite isolating the plot and simplifying the side-effects of ‘Arkangel’, there is a noticeable lack of characterisation of every character in the episode. Everyone other than the mother and the daughter serve a specific plot function and beyond their relationship with each other and Arkangel, Marie and Sara feel like empty personalities whose actions are reliant on their role as the mother or daughter rather than individuals. Ultimately, it weakens the inevitable revelation because we see it coming from a mile away. It certainly doesn’t help that Marie is a very unlikeable and cold mother with a ‘can I speak to your manager’ like persona. Marie exudes an overprotective persona even when they’re both at home and perfectly safe to let their guard down, for some reason Marie never does and it feels inauthentic.
However Arkangel raises an interesting question: How developmentally stunted could a child be if they were suddenly placed in a physical and emotional safe space throughout their childhood?