The following review features spoilers (prefaced with warnings).
On Oct. 21, “Black Mirror” returned to Netflix for a six-episode third season. The anthology series, conceived by executive producer and writer Charlie Brooker, was created in 2011, originally hosted by Channel 4. In 2015, Netflix picked up the series, perhaps serving as the best platform for the anthology — viewers are encouraged to binge-watch the series or carefully take each episode, digest it and slowly prepare (unsuccessfully) for the next. The series lies at an addicting intersection of technological and psychological examination. Each episode, which is its own self-contained story — directed by a distinct, and always accomplished director and featuring a new cast of noteworthy actors — includes an element (or elements) of futuristic technology that frames the narrative. The imagined future each episode presents is rooted in our modern technological reality, rendering each episode particularly unsettling — in looking around our own bedrooms, we can see the roots of the fictional realities, yet it’s unclear how temporally distant they are from our own world.
Technology and the future are normally considered on grand sweeping levels. What impresses about “Black Mirror” is the show’s ability to fold these concepts into personal narratives, forging a more emotionally intimate experience for the viewer, despite only wedding us to each character for an episode. The feat is accomplished as Brooker constructs narratives that simultaneously nourish the fantasy of the technology and the character’s personal development, employing a group of actors that is seemingly irreplaceable.
The alarmingly fathomable narratives wield human fallibility in a manner that renders each episode equally devastating and addicting. My favorite episode to date is from season one: “The Entire History of You.” The episode follows a marriage at a time where everyone has implants that allow their memories to be replayed — either in the privacy of their own eyes or projected into public places. The replayed memories can be fast-forwarded, paused and deleted. I’m sure you can imagine how that would be in a marriage — ‘he said, she said’ quickly dies when the truth can be confirmed with the blink of an eye (literally). As the technological becomes trusted and depended upon, it betrays both the characters within the show and our own perceptions of modern technology. The technology comes to amplify the human fallibilities of the characters; the jealousy, mistrust and sheer sadness in “The Entire History of You” is put on display by the technology, making it an imagined prop by which an emotional connection is fostered with the audience. The third season manipulates our knowledge of online social capital, cyber terrorism, virtual reality, assisted suicide, the military and eugenics.
**Spoiler** In “Playtest,” the episode directed by Dan Trachtenberg (“10 Cloverfield Lane”), the protagonist leaves home in search of some relief from a family plagued by the effects of Alzheimer’s. While traveling the world, he runs out of money and must resort to an odd jobs sourcing mobile app. With the app, he finds (while residing in the house of a fling he met on a Tinder-esque app) a well-paying gig testing out a virtual reality console for a gaming corporation. During the test, the protagonist falls into a virtual reality rabbit hole in which his fear of Alzheimer’s converges with the unfinished game’s kinks. Threaded into the already complex narrative is the protagonist’s personality, one that both houses a charming quirkiness and a particular breed of American fallibility. The personal narrative is heart-wrenching: a young man falls to a homegrown agony while physically on the other side of the world and mentally in a foreign reality. The impact of the personal narrative is what renders the presence of the virtual reality so daunting, begging the viewer to start narrow and extend the conversation outwards. In fact, after finishing each episode, I began dwelling over the particular protagonist’s fate, only to turn to a friend to discuss the larger societal implications of such a technology. And the implications are always seemingly endless, rendering “Black Mirror” one of the most conversation-inducing shows I’ve ever seen. The series seems to always conjure up critiques of the supposed technological voids we perceive to exist in our lives. The show manipulates our conceptions of need and sufficiency, creating fictional technological advancements that only momentarily fill voids before erupting to seep beyond controllable boundaries, complicating both the lives of the characters, and our perceptions of modern technology.
Despite the various clichés that seem to fall into most tech-y sci-fi shows, “Black Mirror” remains fresh. It not only avoids the clichés of the genre, but from a general television standpoint, it plays with narrative forms that keep the viewer guessing. Because the episodes don’t narratively feed off each other (but constantly refer to one another with small Easter eggs), each has to be innovative in its own right. The show’s success is in large part due to the process of creation that arises from the collaborative nature of the show. The varying of directors and actors makes it so it’s a show with “no rules,” as Brooker put it in an interview with Collider.com.
“That’s the great thing,” he said. “There’s so much freedom. […] We have no rules which means everything is a negotiation and a discussion. The scripts often change quite dramatically when a director comes on board because they’ll have a particular vision that they want to realize and that we’ll get on board with.” Brooker added that assembling the series is “kind of like sequencing an album” — each episode belongs to each director, yet they all seem to fit into the “Black Mirror” identity.
This season, the show also sought to vary the mood of each episode — in the previous two seasons the tone seemed to solely hover around different levels of sullen. This season, Brooker said “you will get the absolute depths of despair, but you will highs, as well.” Let’s be clear: there are certainly more lows than highs, but they’re the type of lows that inspire conversation, rather than empty, Netflix-branded tears.
As a quick overview, this season you’ll see the work of several directors and writers, including Joe Wright (“Atonement”), Rashida Jones (“Parks and Recreation”), Dan Trachtenberg (“10 Cloverfield Lane), James Watkins (“Bastille Day”), Owen Harris (Kill Your Friends), Jakob Verbruggen (“The Fall”) and James Hawes (“Dr. Who”). You’ll undoubtedly recognize the season’s (notably diverse) actors, which hail from shows like “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones.”
I’d struggle to choose a favorite episode, but “Nosedive” and “Shut Up and Dance” offered the most imaginable scenarios given our current state of technology. “Nosedive” was also structurally intriguing, as the episode’s climax comes at the very end rather than at the assumed narrative peak. “San Junipero” is unique, as it slowly embeds you into the technology guiding the narrative, allowing you to become particularly invested in the protagonists’ personal lives before revealing the technology and inducing a shift in viewer perception. The most difficult episodes to watch were “Playtest,” “Shut Up and Dance” and “Men Against Fire.”
Regardless of which episodes you choose to watch and which order you choose to watch them in, I must stress, the show is not solely written for die-hard sci-fi fans. “Black Mirror” is far from a complete departure from reality, and amidst an increasingly saturated genre (although not completely related — think “Westworld” and “Stranger Things”), it’s the one mind-bending show you need to see.