Tung's Take: Black Mirror season 4
Who doesn’t love picking at a scab? You know it’s there for a reason, covering up a wound, but you scratch at it anyway. You regret it, sure, but will you do it again? We both know the answer to that one. To watch Black Mirror is, for a great many people, like picking that scab. It feels great in the moment, a little transgressive even, but afterwards you kind of wish you hadn’t done it. In pressing play you expose a wound, and now that the rights have transferred over to Netflix, where once there was time for a new scab to form, now there’s no respite.
Of course, we could always just exercise a little self-restraint and ration ourselves to one episode per week - one a day even! - but we don’t. At least I don't. As if to make any attempt at such restraint totally futile, season 4 was released at prime binge time - the Christmas perineum. You know, that pointless bit in between Christmas and New Year during which no one knows what to do with themselves apart from to eat chocolate oranges and to watch TV. You could read a book I guess, but why not just let life imitate art and spend hours watching Black Mirror on your literal black mirror and be done with it. Brooker loves a self-fulfilling prophecy; it’s what he would want.
But binge-watching a series that isn’t actually a series in the traditional narrative sense but rather six individual stories is kind of odd, and with each season it gets odder. Because it’s not just like watching six short feature films anymore. They are interconnected, and not just thanks to numerous easter eggs suggesting that each episode shares a universe.
While watching series 4 I was acutely aware of the fact that I thought I knew where each episode was going. By now, we all know the formula: a new piece of tech that promises to broaden humanity’s horizons turns out to have terrifying consequences, things turn out terribly, roll credits.
That’s not to say that there weren’t surprising moments, episodes even. Hang The DJ was a beautiful, hopeful subversion of the typical ‘unhappily ever after’ ending, albeit a close narrative relation of season 3’s San Junipero, and both U.S.S. Callister and Black Museum switched things up at the end so that at least the baddies got their comeuppance. Overall though, in comparison to previous series, tension was in oddly short supply. At this point, we’re expecting at least one main character to die horribly (or, as has become standard - to get trapped in an alternate universe) from the very beginning, and it all just becomes a matter of how.
The how can be compelling enough on its own (see, just to contradict my argument totally, the excellent new episode, Metalhead) but there’s no denying that, despite the enormous scope of Brooker’s imagination, Black Mirror has become broadly repetitious. The representations of new tech have begun to blend into each other - if we’ve seen one tiny disc get spiked into a temple we’ve seen a hundred at this point - and ‘it’s all a simulation’ has very much become the go-to. Four seasons in, it’s become easier to guess where things are going - I find myself looking for signs of alternate realities, of hints and set-ups - and that’s taken some of the fun out of it.
Don’t get me wrong, as an anthology, there’s nothing quite like Black Mirror. It’s a triumph of form and imagination, growing in cinematic scope with each series and an ever-growing budget. I was very into Brooker’s genre experiments this series - the wonky sci-fi game-scape of U.S.S. Callister is a real joy, and the pseudo-Scandi-noir Crocodile is Brooker nastiness at its best. Far from being done with it, I’m hyped to see what comes next - I just hope the introduction of the shared world doesn’t mean too much shared tech, and that the success of San Junipero and Hang The DJ has proved to Brooker that we're all very much here for his wider experimentations in tone.
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