Charlie Brooker’s thought-provoking series Black Mirror is now a Netflix original series, and the show didn’t miss a beat with its transition from the BBC. Black Mirror, similar to Sherlock, runs in hour to an hour and half episodes—or mini-movies. Each episode presents a possible near future that, in turn, provides social commentary.
Okay, the term near future might be a misnomer. The landscape of each episode can vary from five minutes from now to a century into the future. Regardless of how far into the future an episode places us, Black Mirror will show us a world that’s just a bit off from our own and involves advanced technology of some kind. Taking its cues from the technology in question, these self-contained worlds within each episode will take varied shapes and forms, and the characters who inhabit these worlds and interact within the world’s rules will pose a question or questions about the human condition.
How much will social media control our lives in the next few years? What happens when the virtual world is indistinguishable from the real one? It doesn’t matter which question an episode asks, you can expect a twist and a potential debate.
You don’t have to watch each episode in order—these are disparate worlds—but I’ll cover the third season in episode number order. With that said, the first three episodes build off each other in an interesting way, so you may want to watch them in episode number order.
Before we get to my quick thoughts on each episode, a spoiler alert may be in order.
Bryce Dallas Howard delivers a brilliant performance in “Nosedive”; she plays a woman living in a future that grades every social interaction. Anyone can view anyone else’s wall (similar to Facebook but changed due to copyright infringement) by using an ocular interface that’s always connected. “Nosedive” isn’t as grim a future as Super Sad True Love Stories, but it’s not as chipper as Community’s MeowMeowBeenz app episode. It serves as a warning of social media run amok and of a community that forces everyone to have “happy thoughts” all the time. Yeah, the happy thoughts angle gives “Nosedive” a Twilight Zone “It’s a Good Life” touch.
All the dread “Nosedive” builds is undercut by Howard’s freedom from the internet and euphoric—and obscenity-filled—outburst at the end, but that’s a great thing. This ending provides release which is something viewers won’t get from Black Mirror’s next two entries.
“Playtest,” directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Dan Trachtenberg, unfolds like a pure horror flick. We get just enough of the main character (Wyatt Russell) to know why he’s running away from his past, but we aren’t given too many details. Russell becomes a VR video game tester, but the virtual reality’s artificial intelligence learns from its subject, the player. The game feeds off Russell’s fears and personal baggage and we’re treated to a Matryoshka Doll (Russian nesting doll) of an ending.
You won’t be disappointed when the final doll is revealed. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s say it’s a gut punch.
Shut Up and Dance
Forget the near future, “Shut Up and Dance” could happen now and that feeds into the blood-thumping pace of the episode. Some unknown internet terrorist hacks into the personal, on-line lives of various people and blackmails them into progressively reprehensible things. We see this unfurl through the eyes of a teenage boy protagonist who was caught masturbating with his own webcam.
If “Shut Up and Dance’s” premise doesn’t leave you shaken, the episode’s ending will. Again, I don’t want to spoil it.
“San Junipero” could be viewed as a simple love story, but it asks existential questions. If you haven’t seen the episode yet and don’t want a huge spoiler, skip the next paragraph because it’s going to be hard to discuss “San Junipero” without getting into the weeds.
The two main protagonists are elderly women on their death beds. The titular San Junipero is an online community where people can upload their consciousness to the cloud and live forever in a digital heaven. We begin with the viewpoint of Mackenzie Davis’ character as we discover San Junipero’s secret, but it’s the shift to Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character’s point of view that poses ethical questions. She shared her real-life with her husband (49 years), they raised a child together who died before them (her husband chose not to be uploaded because their daughter wouldn’t be there), and Mbatha-Raw must choose between an afterlife that’s unknown or one steeped in 80s nostalgia, never getting old, and parties every night.
Honestly, I’m conflicted with “San Junipero.” I understand why the characters would make their choices but I could see why they’d choose a different path. I’m left hopeful with a twinge of sadness; this episode of Black Mirror does the best job (in the series) of questioning human existence. Simply put, it’s beautiful.
Men Against Fire
“San Junipero” is a tough act to follow. Unfortunately, “Men Against Fire” is perhaps the weakest episode in Black Mirror’s third season. It tackles too much at once. The story is at its best when it focused on soldiers who were implanted with battle-enhancement mind/sight technology that made them literally dehumanize their enemy—they viewed them as monsters (or roaches)—and the personal trauma associated with this type of brainwashing. It lost me when it added that global DNA screenings could have dire consequences—the invention of a “master race”—and a Michael Kelly (of House of Cards fame) guest appearance that was an obvious ploy to mask a weaker episode.
Even though “Men Against Fire” pales in comparison to the other episodes of Black Mirror this season, it still has plenty of merit, and it ends in a satisfying way.
Hated in the Nation
“Hated in the Nation” is a sci-fi thriller and has little in common with the rest of the Black Mirror crop this season, except that it tackles social media like “Nosedive.” Kelly MacDonald (No Country for Old Men and Trainspotting) and Fay Marsay (Game of Thrones) are detectives investigating the mysterious deaths of people who died after being targeted by internet hate messages and a trending hashtag “#DeathTo.” This one’s a by-the-numbers sci-fi/detective show and it suffers from one of the same things in which “Men Against Fire” struggled: the scope is too big.
When “Hated in the Nation” dug down into its characters, it delivered strong moments. I also like how this episode expands Black Mirror’s range. “Hated in the Nation” flexes the show’s larger budget and it could be a sign of more divergent episodes. I just hope the show doesn’t lose its focus on characters and asking difficult questions.
Overall, Black Mirror’s third season is must see TV, and fortunately, the previous two seasons are also available on Netflix. You’re bound to find something to get your blood boiling and your mind moving.
Thanks for reading.