The twisty, dark, oftentimes disturbing anthology series Black Mirror made its modest debut on Channel 4 in the U.K. back in 2011, but this month the show’s third season gets a splashy, commercial debut on Netflix with 6 all-new episodes produced by the streaming service. In most ways, the series is very much the same (creator Charlie Brooker still oversaw all the episodes and wrote most of them), but there’s an unmistakable swagger now that carries through the new installments, which feature almost all American protagonists in contrast to the past two seasons. There’s a tinge less cynicism as a result—I mean, there are still episodes that make you want to curl up and die at the end, but a few of them have surprisingly sunny endings. Or at least as sunny as an episode of Black Mirror can be.
(FYI: It’d be no fun to spoil all the surprises for folks eager to watch the episodes, so if you’re looking for a full rundown of plot points, you’ve come to the wrong place).
The anthology format continues in Black Mirror Season 3, and Brooker has enlisted his most prestigious lineup yet. Atonement and Pan filmmaker Joe Wright directs an episode called “Nosedive,” which boasts a script by Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur and writer/actress Rashida Jones. And despite the A-list talent (Bryce Dallas Howard and Alice Eve star), “Nosedive” doesn’t feel entirely out of place in the Black Mirror oeuvre, with Wright eschewing his traditional flashy cinematography for something a bit more grounded and in keeping with the near-future setting of the episode. But it is also probably one of the more prescient episodes of Season 3, as it’s a darkly funny social satire about status anxiety in the social media age, and Howard delivers a truly stirring performance as a woman obsessed with being liked.
In terms of prestige, folks will no doubt be eager to check out “Playtest,” an episode directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg. It’s a genuinely terrifying video game-centric episode that revolves around a new survival horror game, and with this conceit Trachtenberg basically gets the opportunity to make a horror film—and it’s a damn good one at that. Moreover, Wyatt Russell—who turned heads previously in 22 Jump Street and Everybody Wants Some!!—is perfectly cast as an ambitious and somewhat dim-witted American who is more than eager to test out a mysterious new video game.
The best episode of the season, however, is the first one, “San Junipero.” Helmed by Owen Harris, who directed the emotionally devastating Season 2 episode “Be Right Back,” this installment takes place in 1987 and is a coming-of-age tale about two young women played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Halt and Catch Fire actress Mackenzie Davis. There’s more than meets the eye to this simple premise, and it unfolds in a manner that is both compelling and thematically satisfying. There’s some tremendous character work to be mined from Mbatha-Raw and Davis’ performances, and it builds to an intensely emotional climax.
The season isn’t without its misfires, though. “Men Against Fire,” a military-themed episode set in the future that revolves around soldiers protecting frightened villagers from infected mutants, tips its hand way too early and is heavy-handed with its social commentary. And “Shut Up and Dance,” while not a bad episode, is a frustratingly tense one. The Woman in Black helmer James Watkins directs this story of strangers that are entwined in an online trap (co-starring Game of Thrones’ Bronn Jerome Flynn), but it’s a bit too long and has one of the darkest throughlines of the season.
“Shut Up and Dance” is one of only two Season 3 episodes that feature non-American protagonists, with the dense “Hated in the Nation” serving as the second. At 89 minutes in length, this latter installment is the longest Black Mirror episode yet, and indeed it feels very much like a feature film of sorts. It’s a police/detective drama starring Kelly Macdonald as a jaded detective who teams up with an ambitious and tech-savvy newbie to solve a string of mysterious deaths that have a sinister link to social media. James Hawes (Doctor Who, Penny Dreadful) directs what is in many ways the most thematically relevant episode of this new batch, with a direct connection to the ugly side of social media and its lack of consequences.
Indeed, this being Black Mirror and all, every episode of Season 3 drives home the point that the technology we rely on to live our lives is not too far off from consuming and destroying them entirely. As a whole, this is the most fulfilling season of Black Mirror yet. The good episodes are really good, and I only came away from one with a feeling of disappointment. Of course, Black Mirror has this weird way of serving everyone at once—one person’s favorite episode is another person’s least favorite episode. But from a filmmaking standpoint, Season 3 has some major highlights (“San Junipero,” “Playtest”) that are among the most cinematic installments of the series.
Moreover, given that these new episodes were produced specifically for Netflix, there’s no ratings barrier—profanity and some nudity do abound, although not in any kind of gratuitous way. It merely serves to further flesh out these episodes as real and relatable. I mean, if you were in any of the situations people find themselves in in Black Mirror, you’d probably drop a few f-bombs, too.
Overall, if you’re already a fan of Black Mirror, Season 3 won’t disappoint. If you’ve had trouble really getting into Black Mirror, I have a feeling Season 3 will be a bit easier to swallow with its slightly sunnier disposition. Charlie Brooker and Netflix proves to be a match made in heaven, not the least because the show seems to have a much bigger budget now, and this is a partnership that I hope continues going forward. The opportunity at hand with anthology filmmaking is a fruitful one, and Season 3 proves that Brooker and Co. are nowhere near the point where they’re running out of prescient stories to tell. Which is probably a bad sign for humanity, but hey, at least we’ll be entertained while the world’s going to hell.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
Black Mirror Season 3 premieres on Netflix on October 21st.