Anyone who appreciates cynicism and speculative science fiction (which lets face it are cousins, if not synonyms) has a special place in their shrivelled little heart for Black Mirror.
The brainchild of bitter British genius Charlie Brooker (a long time comedic TV personality and columnist), Black Mirror has struck a deep cultural chord with a certain type of nerd as the Twilight Zone of a technology obsessed/addicted generation. It started as a cult British TV series that made waves across the pond for a certain brilliant episode involving a pig and a prime minister. Then Netflix got it’s paws all over Brooker’s twisted opus last year and the show took off everywhere with an internet connection and paranoia. Now it’s back, just in time to ensure that the end of your holiday season comes laced with dark dreams of a disturbing future.
As a self-proclaimed Black Mirror obsessive (years ago I reviewed the Christmas special for this very site even though it wasn’t legally available in North America at the time because I care about sharing bleakly beautiful entertainment with all you fine folks), I’ll admit that I awaited the new series of Black Mirror like few other cultural events of 2017. When Netflix kept holding back the release date, I kept getting more and more impatient. So when we found ourselves sent advanced links to the new episode, my excitement was equal to opening up the latest bit of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bullshit on Christmas morn as a child. Now, I’ve seen all of Charlie Brooker’s latest bitter little pills and am pleased to say that the show continues to be one of the best things available on any streaming service. The guy hasn’t lost even a half step over the years.
So to give all y’all a handy dandy guide to the new season before you start streaming, we thought we’d do something a little different and rank the episodes. Since Netflix and Brooker are justifiably wary of giving anything away about the series before it drops, I’ll be as vague as possible in my descriptions. But this should at least give you a sense of which episodes truly stand out amongst the pack. Consider this a viewing order if you want to build up to the best of the series. None of the episodes are outright stinkers. Some are just more bitterly brilliant than others. So without further ado, let’s get down to discussing what makes the latest crop of Black Mirror so great while hopefully keeping all the secrets that you don’t want to know away from your precious little eyeholes.
We start out with the closest thing to a sweet and positive episode in the new season of Black Mirror. Think of it as this crop’s San Junipero, only not quite as surprising simply because there’s actually been a positive Black Mirror before. Once again, love is the subject of Brooker’s gentlest offering. This one isn’t quite as hopelessly romantic though. It’s a sharp take on the current dating landscape that will wring true to anyone who has ever wasted time on the dark void of heartless human interaction that is online dating. There are plenty of amusing insights into the emotionally exhaustive nature of dating as a whole and will likely spark cringes of recognition in anyone who has dared to open their heart up long enough for it to be trampled on. Sadly, the ultimate twist of the episode feels a bit cheap compared to all that came before, but it’s still nice to have even a single episode of the new Black Mirror season that doesn’t leave you curled up in a ball debating how you’ll ever find the strength to face another day. That’s always a good thing.
Last year’s Playtest introduced pure horror genre theatrics to Black Mirror for the first time and now in Metalhead Brooker proves that he’s committed to spooking the crap out of his audiences and even adds a little action to the mix. The plot for this one is quite simple by the standards of the series. It’s essentially an episode-long chase sequence filled with suspense and a single technological horror that’s frighteningly possible. Directing duties fell to underrated British genre vet David Slade who was responsible for Hard Candy, 30 Days Of Night, Hannibal, and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (we’ll forgive him for the last one thanks to the quality of the rest). He shoots in gorgeously moody black and white and essentially uses the episode as a means of flexing his muscles for suspense, dread, scares, action, and atmosphere. Metalhead is certainly beautifully made and will get the heart-pumping, it just lacks the conceptual depth of the best Black Mirror episodes. Granted, that’s kind of the point. This is designed to be different and it works wonderfully for what it is. This is just also one of the few episodes in the entire series where the finale feels anticlimactic.
Black Museum is one of the two episodes of this season of Black Mirror that stretches out long enough it could easily have been a feature film. It’s another anthology episode like the Christmas special, weaving together three separate sci-fi headtrip tales into a single story with a wraparound plot connecting them all. The entire peace is a rather stinging statement on the nature of exploitation as entertainment that’s quite clever and disturbing. However, this ep is somewhat harmed by the fact that the first story of the anthology is easily the best, probably the nastiest and most unsettling segment in the entire season that’s guaranteed to sear uncomfortable ideas and images in your brain that will never go away. Black Museum peaks early with that segment and never quite recovers, yet it’s still a wild and thoughtful ride well worth taking.
Now we get into the finest half of the current season of Black Mirror, all of which rank amongst the best eps of the entire series. Arkangel is a nightmare for parents, serving up an intriguingly troubled piece of technology that’s both an incredible help and horrible moral quandary for any parent who would considering using it. Directed with sensitivity and care by Jodi Foster and featuring a remarkable central performance from the perpetually underrated Rosemarie Dewitt, Arkangel is a dark story executed with impressive heart and humanity. It’s painful because everything that goes wrong comes from a place of love and it’s hard to hate anyone when the story blows up in their face. Definitely one of the highlights of the season, but one that parents should only watch if they are prepared to question every decision they’ve ever made to shield their children from the horrors of the world. The story might be specific, but the message is surprisingly universal.
Whew! This is a rough one. It’s no accident that Charlie Brooker hired misery specialist John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road, Red Dead Redemption) to direct Crocodile. For once, the bit of sci-fi tech at the center of the episode isn’t actually responsible for the horrors within it. Nope, this one is all about just how brutal and horrible humans can become when forced to protect themselves. Watching Crocodile is like watching a car crash play out in slow motion. You know its going horrible places, yet you can’t turn away. Hinged on an extraordinarily controlled performance by Andrea Riseborough, Crocodile will tear your guts out and leave you in a dark headspace that’s almost impossible to shake. In other words, this is a damn fine bit of Black Mirror-ing.
Finally, we come to the absolute peak of the new series of Black Mirror, an episode so layered, unsettling, funny, and intelligent that it instantly ranks amongst the very best of the entire series. This feature length episode easily could have been released as a standalone movie and had that happened, it likely would have been critically acclaimed and endlessly discussed in every corner of the internet. If you’ve seen the trailers, this is the Star Trek-ish episode. That’s all you know and it’s all you should know. Obviously, it’s not merely a space adventure with a gang of plucky explorers (although given the way the ep ends, there is a way in which this could be spun off into a series like that, if that interests Brooker at all). In fact, there’s a whole other side of the episode that’s been carefully kept secret in ways that make this a harsh and welcome commentary on fandom and fantasy that deserves deeper discussion. I wouldn’t dare say anything more, except to buckle up and prepare yourself for a wild and unsettling ride. USS Callister is an absolutely amazing Black Mirror episode that will likely be the subject of quite a bit of fan analysis, debate, and hopefully even a little self-reflection. It’s also the funniest episode of the season, even if those laughs come with quite a bit of discomfort.