In life, and in TV, all good things must come to an end. Now in its fourth season, Black Mirror has survived a move from the a traditional network to Netflix, a transition from the UK to North America and a meteoric rise in profile thanks to the genre-busting success of episodes like “San Junipero.” But with the arrival of a new, disappointing crop of episodes, it seems the one thing Black Mirror might not be able to weather is its own melodramatic sensibilities.
The series has always had a flair for the dramatic, something that writer-creator Charlie Brooker smartly balanced with authentic emotion in prior seasons. But Season 4 sees the series on a histrionic cliff of its own making, teetering on the precipice of cartoonishness. And while it’s not without its share of bright spots, Brooker’s latest sci-fi offering has all the markings of the beginning of the end for a show previously characterized by an astonishing, singular voice.
With Season 4, Brooker becomes intent on crafting mechanized traps and stomach-turning “gotcha” moments, resulting in episodes that largely feel just a few extremes away from a lovably weird SNL sketch lampooning the series. And while common decency and Netflix’s anti-spoiler requests prevent me from spelling out Season 4’s most egregious plot twists, more than one episode concludes in such a heavy-handed way that any hard-won tension is squandered in a matter of minutes.
The first episode of the six-part anthology has the best pedigree of the season: directed by Jodie Foster and starring the underrated Rosemarie Dewitt, “Arkangel” centers on an overprotective mother whose anxieties drive her to experiment with a sophisticated surveillance tool to keep an eye on her daughter. It’s a genius bit of technology, tantalizingly close to our current scientific capabilities, and intrusive to the point of being terrifying. But the resulting narrative amounts to little more than an obvious and redundant attempt to comment on our current surveillance culture, making “Arkangel” feel like a collection of Black MIrror tropes rather than a wholly new episode of its own.
That isn’t to say Brooker’s knack for crafting rebellious, engaging fiction is gone – ”U.S.S. Callister” ranks amongst some of the series’ very best, an ambitious deconstruction of the sci-fi genre directed by BBC journeyman Toby Haynes and co-written by Brooker and his “Shut Up and Dance” collaborator William Bridges that extends far beyond the space opera epic it looks to be on the surface. Stuffed with great performances from a roster of prestige TV greats like Fargo alums Jesse Plemons and Cristin Milioti along with Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson and Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel, “U.S.S. Callister” is a bit brighter and more traditional than the episodes it’s flanked by, but it’s an undeniably fun breath of fresh air in an otherwise dour season.
“Crocodile” falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, buoyed mostly by its compelling central technology (a device that allows others to access someone’s raw impressions of events) and an impressive performance from star Andrea Riseborough. But the episode’s tense atmosphere and somber tone stagnates by the time it tumbles towards its almost comically dark conclusion. In stark contrast, “Hang the DJ” is a charming, if transparent, attempt to recapture the magic of “San Junipero.” Another welcome break from Season 4’s deluge of dark cautionary tales, Brooker dips his cynical toe into the world of dating apps, crafting a love story that plays out in a set of surprising and generally satisfying twists. Stars Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole are game for the episode’s emotional acrobatics, and the episode makes for the season’s most apparent crowd pleaser (though it’s certainly still got that iconic Brooker bite).
Unfortunately, Season 4’s final two episodes are the weakest of the bunch. Viewing the two back to back highlights the narrative laziness, as each unfold along the path of least resistance, recalling similarbut better Black Mirror episodes from prior seasons. “Metalhead,” a thuddingly boring thematic sibling to the Season 3 dud “Men Against Fire” is a bleak, black-and-white chase film that never materializes into something more than it seems at the outset, and even at a slim 40-minute runtime, it drags on without much in the way of a payoff.
Not to be outdone, the most disappointing of the bunch is “Black Museum,” a compendium episode in the style of Season 2’s stunning “White Christmas.” But where “White Christmas” constructed a sprawling, meta-narrative that effortlessly folded three episodes into one morose story, “Black Museum” takes the simple route, setting the episode at a roadside museum filled with relics of tech nightmares past and a seedy tour guide to match, with each mini-episode corresponding to an item on display. Mundane in its construction and only ever partially successful in its execution, if there ever was a harbinger of doom for the series, “Black Museum” is certainly it.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that after three seasons, any show, no matter how imaginative or unique, might begin to show signs of wear. But for Black Mirror, which has been carefully crafted by Brooker since the beginning, those signs are nonetheless glaring. The allure of Black Mirror has always been his incisive sensibility, riddled with the same anxiety and fear of surveillance as the viewers who love it. But if this new batch of episodes are any indication, the series is merely treading water, as Brooker’s paranoid approach to an imagined future begins to lose its sense of nuance.