“Black Mirror” creator & writer Charlie Brooker has his particular paranoias, and that has never been more clear than in Season 4 of the technological dystopia, which presents each story as a vignette in some part of our near future. By this point — for this viewer, anyway — the novelty of “Black Mirror’s” standalone episodes, like short stories in a pessimistic collection, has faded a bit. The production values are still generally fantastic, the name-brand performances are still heartbreaking, and the direction, like the writing, indicate a sophistication of thought and method. But either the world has caught up to “Black Mirror” or “Black Mirror” created the world, because now the tech dystopia is everywhere. (“The Waldo Moment,” a much-maligned episode from Season 2, has ended up being an upsettingly predictive episode for modern politics.) Perhaps that’s why the series’ concerns in Season 4 seem more pointedly topical, instead of mere speculation.
In Season 4, Brooker (who wrote every episode except one, which he co-wrote) is fixated on the idea of consciousness inside a computer — not artificial intelligence, but human brains being essentially uploaded into a system they have no control over. It’s not without precedent: Futurists have been hypothesizing, and hand-wringing, over the implications of placing minds inside computers for some time now, and the idea of an uploadable self is what drives the award-winning Season 3 episode “San Junipero,” which remains one of the finest episodes of “Black Mirror.” But when four out of six installments worry about the same thing — and when three of those feature serious conflicts where humans are trapped inside computers — a seeming figment of futurism points instead to present-day anxiety. Why is “Black Mirror” so afraid of being imprisoned in a digital system, without any ability to pick up objects, push open doors, or otherwise control or escape their world? Why are so many of its characters facing the paralytic horror of being a mind without an attendant body?
To be sure, 2017 has been a landscape of terrors for many of us, and maybe “Black Mirror’s” fears are purely literal — we think we can control our own world of bits and bytes, but what if we realize we can’t? Or, on the other hand, maybe Brooker is really, really worried about getting uploaded somewhere where he can’t control what happens to him, and he is doomed to exist — to be conscious — at the total whims of someone, or more worryingly, something else. In “Black Museum,” the season’s concluding episode, a woman is uploaded into a teddy bear, with just two available actions: saying either “Mommy loves you!” or “Mommy needs a hug.” The limp ineffectiveness of the conscious teddy bear is mutely awful, with a hyperbole that borders on camp; your toy is alive, and just as you suspected, it hates you for not loving it enough.
“Black Museum” is the worst episode of the season, for a variety of reasons: It’s gruesome, its story hinges on people repeatedly choosing to be stupid and/or evil, and it’s one of “Black Mirror’s” three-act episodes, like the special “White Christmas.” It’s also, probably, the clearest distillation of “Black Mirror’s” themes for this season: The entrapment of consciousness as a mirror to the entrapment of relationships, whether those are familial, romantic, or purely professional. “San Junipero” presented a utopia. “Black Museum” — and “Metalhead,” “ArkAngel,” “USS Callister,” and to a degree “Crocodile” — present characters held captive by the expectations of or obligations to others, often quite literally. “ArkAngel,” starring Rosemarie DeWitt and directed by Jodie Foster, depicts a hellscape of a girl being first watched over and then invasively surveilled by her mother as she begins her first romantic relationship. It is a well-done story, but with a theme so blatant it could bludgeon you: If you love it, let it go. “Crocodile,” starring Andrea Riseborough in a lovely, vicious performance, has a similar bludgeoning theme — although unlike “ArkAngel,” it’s shaped more like a thriller, and is thus a bit more satisfying.
But then, blatancy is even worse a problem in this season of “Black Mirror” than in seasons past. The beautiful productions and performances serve to mask the fact that the stories’ twists are often cheap shots. “Hang the DJ,” an episode about a weirdly immersive dating app that is in some ways is the most optimistic episode of the season, pivots on a last-scene twist that invalidates the entire hour preceding it. “ArkAngel” and “Crocodile” are structured around the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop — which is to say, they’re predictable. Either “Black Mirror” has become more obviously manipulative, or 2017 has made me unable to appreciate the manipulation; in any case, I had to grit my teeth to get through “Black Mirror.”
The exceptions — and they are quite the exceptions — are “U.S.S. Callister” and “Metalhead,” two episodes that take on formats so different from the show’s typical austere futurism that they are instantly more appealing. “U.S.S. Callister,” starring Jesse Plemons and Cristin Milioti, is both a commentary on fan culture and a riff on “Star Trek” that turns into, kind of, a “Star Trek”-ish episode. And the black-and-white “Metalhead,” starring a muscular performance from Maxine Peake and directed by David Slade, presents an almost entirely silent standoff between Peake’s unnamed character and deadly robotic guard dogs. In a way, she is hacking the dogs — because by trying to hide from their sensors, and outsmart their algorithms, she is exploiting the computers’ weaknesses. But in her case, the hacking is an incredibly dangerous effort. Slade uses wide shots of a bleak, deserted, tundra-like landscape to reinforce her total isolation. Unlike the rest of the episodes this season, it produces a frisson of real fear — perhaps because unlike many of the others, “Metalhead’s” protagonist is not just a suspended consciousness but a mind inside a body, navigating a physical, technical world.
Brooker’s explorations in the past have felt relevant to a wider audience, but in Season 4 he seems to be grappling with a mind/body duality with abstruse implications. Maybe he’s been reading Kant — but in the meantime, it makes for an odd season of “Black Mirror.”