Moving from Channel 4 and finding a new home on the ‘flix (d’ya think that term’ll catch on?), Charlie Brooker returns with a brand new selection of intriguing, mostly dystopian tales, expanding from three episodes to six in a single series.
For this review, I’ll give a few thoughts on each episode, in ascending order of personal preference. Maybe it’s unfair to suggest that some episodes are better than others, none of them bad at all, but since each episode tells a whole new tale, each of us will undoubtedly our favourites and personal preferences. Plus, I know plenty of other people have effectively ranked all the Black Mirror episodes so I guess that I’ll join in the fun!
So, let’s dive down the rabbit hole. Into the Twilight Zone. Beyond the Outer Limits. With episode plot summaries from the ‘flix. See, there I go again . . !
“Hated in the Nation”
The death of a journalist at the centre of a social media firestorm leads a veteran detective and her tech-savvy apprentice to a chilling discovery.
The longest episode of the series, clocking in at just under 90 minutes, this episode is all about Twitter hashtags going viral. And deadly. Clearly, Charlie Brooker is well aware of media frenzies and the outrageous things that are said on social media as a result and his voice is clearly heard here, giving us a story about when it all goes too far. It is a relevant, interesting story that provides plenty of intrigue and thrills.
Even with an hour and a half runtime, it all moves along smoothly, never dragging and with no major lapses in interest. There are great performances to be found throughout; Kelly MacDonald is great and it was awesome to see Benedict Wong make an appearance, fresh from the glamour of the MCU!
I would have to say, though, that this episode just felt a bit too conventional for my tastes. I mean, I know that there’s plenty of rouge futuristic technology, mad hackers and grisly deaths but when the episode finished (with a relatively tame ending) I was left feeling that there had been no proper shocking, mind blowing moment or twist and that it all felt a bit too safe.
An American traveller short on cash signs up to test a revolutionary new gaming system, only to discover the thrills are a little too real.
A chance for Charlie Brooker to write an episode reflecting his love of videogames, with a sly Bioshock reference added for good measure, “Playtest” boasts some super cool visuals and a spooky, Halloween atmosphere. The story is smart and interesting, pondering what will become of videogames in the future; we certainly strive for a more interactive gaming environment and this episode clearly explores the possibility of games becoming even more immersive. And dangerous. Plus, this being Black Mirror after all, there is a clever, satisfying twist at the end.
However, I will say that the scary stuff didn’t have much of an impact on me. Although I appreciated the attempt at an eerie, uncertain, tense atmosphere, I often felt as though they were just going through the motions and that it was too easy to simply walk away from this episode, not having been left with a genuine sense of fright.
In a seaside town in 1987, a shy young woman and an outgoing party girl strike up a powerful bond that seems to defy the laws of space and time.
I guess that my expectations for this episode were astronomical, since I’d heard of many people calling this “the TV episode of the year”, the very best that Black Mirror has to offer. So while I appreciated how it was so different to all of the other episodes, since there’s a great deal of heart and good feeling involved, I failed to get as excited about it as everyone else seemed to.
On the positive side, the two leading performances from Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis are very good and their characters develop well throughout the episode. There’s also a unique, interesting, story which, while quite difficult to understand at first, gradually comes together and leads to a satisfying conclusion; it is commendable that Brooker has decided to do something a bit different as he writes a story full of emotion, soul and tenderness.
The different time periods are very well designed, the exploration of gaming throughout the ages is wonderful and the soundtrack, featuring the Bangles, The Smiths, Simple Minds and Belinda Carlisle, is perfect and fun.
There’s definitely nothing wrong with the episode, it was just nigh-on impossible for it to live up the hype that had been built up so much on the Twitterverse.
“Men Against Fire”
After his first battle with an elusive enemy, a soldier begins experiencing unfamiliar sensations and strange technical glitches.
With its videogame-style first person POVs and disturbing character design, this episode is dark, creepy, menacing and explores moral and ethical issues relating to modern warfare. There is a great mystery to be unravelled as our protagonist starts noticing glitches within his ocular implant and certain revelations about the antagonistic “roaches” are brought to light. The episode successfully builds a sense of paranoia and unease, making this an intriguing psychological thriller. It also explores issues of ethics and morality very well and constantly engages the audience, requiring them to think about the issues presented.
Again, the cast performs well, especially House of Cards’ own Michael Kelly, who delivers a subtly sinister turn.
A woman desperate to boost her social media score hits the jackpot when she’s invited to a swanky wedding. But the trip doesn’t go as planned.
Clearly the most visually appealing episode with its bright colours and perfectly designed technology, “Nosedive”, surprisingly penned by Parks and Recreation alumni Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, is an incredibly imaginative and exciting vision of the near future in which social media is EVERYTHING and everyone competes to have the greatest social ranking, obsessively posting photos of food and drink (even if they don’t even like it), giving everyone star ratings, constantly wearing a beaming, painted smile and generally acting like super happy androids (sounds like an R.E.M./Radiohead pairup waiting to happen!)
Brooker has said that Twitter is basically a giant videogame, with an inherent obsession with getting the most likes/follows/comments and how we furiously tap buttons in order to get “points”. Devising the story for the episode, his voice can be clearly heard and he clearly has something to say about how we present ourselves to the world and how social media has become so important in our lives.
The cast is excellent, featuring the likes of “House Prices Dallas” (Bryce Dallas Howard), James Norton and I-had-absolutely-no-idea-it-was-her Alice Eve. The larger than life characters are delightfully crazy and witnessing Howard’s character go through her tumultuous journey is engaging, tense and fun to watch.
“Shut Up and Dance”
After a virus infects his laptop, a teen faces a daunting choice: carry out orders delivered by text message, or risk having intimate secrets exposed.
Oh, this episode. Oh my. I’ll just jump in and say that this was one of the best TV episodes (can we call it a “TV episode” if it’s on Netflix?) that I’ve seen this year. The very rare kind of episode that left me speechless, wide-eyed and with a insatiable urge to tell everyone just how amazing it was. It’s Black Mirror in its purest form and as such, is incredibly wicked, twisted and dark.
After a sinister, unseen hacker threatens to release incriminating footage of our young protagonist Kenny (Alex Lawther), he is sent on several “missions”, ultimately having to team up with fellow victim Hector (Jerome Flynn) and this whole storyline is constantly tense and exciting. The chemistry between the two characters is perfect and surprisingly, there is genuine warmth and affection developed between the two of them. As they both struggle to make sense of what is happening to them, Kenny occasionally breaking down in tears and losing hope, we end up supporting these characters, willing them to succeed and hoping that it all works out. Even though we know it’s unlikely.
And that ending. Well, let me just say that up to a certain point, the episode was very good but the final few minutes take it up to a whole new level, delivering a shocking, heart stopping finale that will haunt you for days to come. I mean, here I am weeks after watching it and I still can’t get over how awesome it was. The grand finale ties up all loose ends, certain revelations are made and is ultimately a delightfully messed up, wicked finish. And of course, the use of a certain Radiohead song and a certain scary image are the icing on the cake. I’m not the kind to get easily spooked (apologies if this sounds overly macho, which I’m clearly not), but THAT image combined with THAT song has been the thing most likely to give me nightmares for a long time. Ultimately, I’m really impressed that an episode such as this has managed to get under my skin so effectively.
Apologies if I’ve built this all up too much; I’ll probably watch it again some day and not think much of it at all. But right here and right now, I’ll say that it was extraordinary.
All in all, these six episodes are a great addition to the current stock of Black Mirror episodes, constantly delivering interesting stories and an insightful look at what the future might hold, positive or otherwise. It is great to see Charlie Brooker expanding to include more episodes in a single series and hope that we’ll see more soon.
Maybe now I’ll rewatch some of the previous episodes. Confession: I still haven’t seen episodes two and three of series one!
Imaginative, tense and exciting, Charlie Brooker successfully delivers more “tales of the unexpected”, having something to say about where we’re all headed . . .
★ ★ ★ ★
And just for fun, these were my weekly episode tweets:
- Black Mirror: Nosedive – Excellent start. Though I’m probably just saying this to get rating points. Gotta reach that 4.5! 😁
- Black Mirror: Playtest
Turn off your electronic devices, people!
And a Bioshock reference. Nice.
- #BlackMirror: Shut Up and Dance
OMG, incredible. Thrilling, exciting, perfect ending.
And Radiohead to finish – mind blown! 😈
- Ooh, I finally get to watch “Black Mirror: San Junipero”. Will it be as amaaaazing as everyone says?
- Black Mirror: San Junipero
Not exactly mind-blowing but with two great leads, an interesting story and some awesome tunes!
- #BlackMirror: Men Against Fire
Fascinatingly dark story with some great visuals.
And Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is excellent.
- #BlackMirror: Hated in the Nation
Bit of a disappointing ending but otherwise a tense, engaging 90 minute tech thriller
- #BlackMirror Series 3: Done.
Next week: Stranger Things Series 1 finale!