Black Mirror Season Three, the first season to be produced exclusively for Netflix, exhibits a variety of achievements and missteps; and while there are some interesting concepts, its lukewarm delivery (despite one good episode and one particularly excellent episode) demonstrates that is has a ways to go to match the quality of other recent Netflix and horror/sci-fi television offerings.
Described by many as “The Twilight Zone for the tech generation,” Black Mirror dazzled British audiences in its first and second seasons, and then later picked up steam in the United States on Netflix. While loosely connected and existing in the same universe (with most episodes featuring a broken mirror or establishing shots focused on black mirror-like surfaces), each episode addresses an entirely different concept. This results in a wide spectrum of tones and atmospheres. The original episodes feature talented English actors and actresses known to American audiences, such as Hayley Atwell, Oona Chaplin, Domhnall Gleeson, and Jon Hamm, and Netflix chose to continue the tradition by hiring Alice Eve, Jerome Flynn, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Kelly Macdonald to fill important roles in the present season. Interestingly, despite featuring top talent, Black Mirror’s biggest issue so far seems to be a lack of characterization and character development. This stems from too much of a focus on the technology over the characters.
The Twilight Zone is a show that features aliens, monsters, tragedies, and other threats to mankind. However, at its core, The Twilight Zone is really about the human condition. The supernatural and extraterrestrial forces set the stage; the moral dilemmas, human foibles and overall fragile nature of our society are what make the show just as memorable and instantly recognizable today as it was 55 years ago. Who can forget William Shatner losing his mind up in that plane, or Art Carney becoming Santa Claus despite the world being stacked against him, or Burgess Meredith coming to the realization that his broken glasses leave him with no means to pore over his precious books after the world ends? It’s all due to expert characterization… the combination of Rod Serling’s magnificent scripts and the talented actors’ unforgettable performances.
So in order for Black Mirror to truly be considered “The Twilight Zone for the tech generation,” (or even just a quality show in general) the series would need to feature interesting and potentially threatening and invasive technology and use it to tell stories about the human condition. And this is exactly what Black Mirror wants to do. Episode Five, “Men Against Fire,” tries so desperately to communicate the idea that the military industrial complex dehumanizes the enemy, that its payoff is simply the concept itself rather than the implications of the concept. The clever twist involves the main character, played by Malachi Kirby, discovering that his medical implants have altered his view on reality, causing him to see the men and women he was sent to exterminate as literal monsters. I can’t help but think that in an episode of The Twilight Zone, that kind of idea would have been the starting point that Serling would have expanded upon from there.
Despite Kelly Macdonald’s impressive talent, Episode Six, the hour and a half long “Hated in the Nation” focuses on her character boringly hunting down a man who uses mechanical bees to draw social media users into a life or death game of contemporary internet outrage gone wild. While the concept brings up all sorts of interesting ideas about technology being used to replicate a nature that humanity has all but overthrown, the episode does nothing with it. In a year where we’ve accidentally destroyed a good portion of our national bee population while foolishly thinking we were combating Zika, a show about the not-so-distant future relying on mechanical bees to save us from ourselves (and then turning on us and ironically destroying us in return) is enormously rich with implications. Unfortunately, the episode touches on none of these ideas. Instead, the viewers are left with a boring police procedural that ends with a final scene lifted directly from the end of The Silence of the Lambs. None of this is Macdonald’s fault. Her character’s lines were one dimensional, her story unremarkable.
The season’s worst episode, “Shut Up and Dance,” features Jerome Flynn and Alex Lawther frantically breaking laws and destroying their lives as they follow the orders of unknown blackmailing internet trolls. What’s interesting is that while all of the other episodes at least incorporate interesting ideas for future technological breakthroughs, this episode settles for computer cams and radio drones. It’s so uninspiring that they couldn’t even muster some snappy new technology to get our minds off of the farfetched story and unbelievable characters.
Bryce Dallas Howard and Alice Eve star in Episode One, “Nosedive,” and it isn’t much better than “Shut Up and Dance.” While first episodes are supposed to draw the viewers into a season (or a series in this case, as this is Netflix’s first foray into Black Mirror), “Nosedive” has the potential to keep viewers from delving any deeper into the series. The concept is clever enough–social media getting so out of hand that law, order, and all social standing center around it–but the delivery is boring and uneventful. One would think that there are only so many times the episode could feature Howard’s downward spiral towards becoming a social media pariah before revealing more about the society around her, but the payoff never comes. Her character has become such a caricature by the end of the episode that any self-realization that arrives in the final minutes feel too rushed and rudimentary to take seriously.
Episode Two, entitled “Playtest,” is one of the season’s more interesting episodes. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg (director of the satisfying 10 Cloverfield Lane), “Playtest” begins to demonstrate the kinds of interesting concepts a show like Black Mirror could ultimately explore. In it, Wyatt Russell (an actor with few memorable roles on his resume so far) portrays a man who escapes his troubles at home by exploring Europe. A series of unfortunate events lead him to earn some much-needed cash by agreeing to be a playtester for a top secret new survival horror virtual reality game. Russell’s character is entertainingly interesting, and the viewers laugh and shriek along with him as he spends time in a haunted house that generates scares by tapping into his worst fears… all harvested directly from a mushroom-like device implanted directly into his spinal cord. Because this character is fleshed out so much more than many of the other characters of the season, the episode has a more significant impact on the viewer. It only falls short at the end, when it once again relies too much on technological twists and a surprise reveal involving an underdeveloped (both in the world of the show and in the reality of the limitations of the script) relationship with his mother. Regardless, the episode is memorable overall; and it’s no coincidence that it’s also the only episode to be directed by a successful director of an intelligent and suspenseful feature film.
While diehard horror fans are unlikely to appreciate the finest episode of the season, Episode Four, “San Junipero,” comes the closest to using the technological world of tomorrow as the foundation on which to build a complex and character-driven story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis play the young versions of two women with terminal illnesses who meet and fall in love in a technological alternate reality that allow them to be young and free of pain and disease in any decade of their choosing on a magical tropical island. The way the episode portrays the unique elements of what it feels like to be young and in love in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, and clashes it against stories of loss and incurable physical and psychological damage in the real world is truly captivating. This episode delivers no scares. There are no monsters, human or otherwise. No worries, though; some of The Twilight Zone’s most popular moments are also its tenderest. What “San Junipero” does, instead, is lure the audience into a feeling of false comfort before delivering a crippling blow of existential religious terror in its final frames. While the technology does allow both characters to come to grips with the issues of their real-life existences, their decisions to remain in the digital world rather than die naturally ultimately denies them of any natural or religious rights of passage related to a typical death. The episode is careful not to present their digital afterlife in a menacing way, like something out of The Matrix. Instead, their souls are represented as little disc-like devices plugged into one of many servers in a sterile environment. It’s not until the credits roll that the viewer questions whether Mbatha-Raw made the right decision to stay in the program rather than to trust that a natural death could potentially lead her to a religious afterlife being inhabited by the other lost loved ones of her life. What’s even more fascinating is that it wouldn’t be surprising if these implications almost don’t matter to the viewer, due to the way in which the show so artfully delivers the wonder of these two characters existing and falling in love in this magical world throughout the bulk of the episode.
It’s ironic that the episodes of Season Three which contain the most high profile actors and actresses also happen to be the episodes that are the most devoid of character. The relative newcomers and unknowns are the actors who do all of the heavy lifting in this season. Black Mirror has marvelous ideas about the future of technology, but it needs to go further to tie these ideas into character-driven stories that can resonate with an audience. New viewers who are unsure if the series is right for them should start with “Playtest,” and then give “San Junipero” a shot. It is in these two episodes where Netflix’s investment begins to pay off, and it is in the heart of the structures of these two episodes where the creators need to look to successfully continue Black Mirror in the right direction.