Black Mirror season 3 review: An episode-by-episode guide to Netflix's binge-worthy offering
If you enjoy sci-fi and television, then like us, you probably spent last weekend glued to your TV screens binge-watching Black Mirror. Come to think of it, even if you don’t like sci-fi and television, you should still watch Black Mirror.
The show’s third season, a six-episode anthology that was released last week on Netflix, is the perfect follow-up to Channel 4’s original seven episode run: taking technology to its logical, unnerving end, whilst delivering meagre laughs, a few sundry chuckles, many SMH moments, and many more truly frightening ones. At the end of the binge, you’ll likely be a bit jaded; with a technology high, you’ll be online hungrily searching for anything related to the show, and like Mark Zuckerberg, you’ll definitely have your laptop camera covered with tape!
To understand Black Mirror’s basic premise (technology is great, until it isn’t!), consider these simple equations:
Game of Thrones: White Walkers
The Walking Dead: Negan
Black Mirror: Technology
To be fair though, to say that technology is the villain on the show is not doing the show justice. Series creator Charlie Brooker stated that Black Mirror’s dark and satirical speculative fiction episodes are “all about the way we live now — and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy”. With six independent episodes, it doesn’t matter which order you view them in. Let’s usher the year-end rankings a bit early by listing our least-to-most favourite episodes of Black Mirror’s 3rd season. Commence drum roll...
This episode opens with a montage of photographs of American backpacker Cooper (played by Wyatt Russell, the golden-haired son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell) on his various trips. An unfrazzled attitude during a turbulent flight suggests that world traveler Cooper is a bonafide “cool guy”: we learn early on that he’s a video game aficionado who cared for his dad until his death (battling Alzheimer’s), before setting off on his travels. Stuck in London due to a credit card mishap, he hooks up with a British girl Sonja, who convinces him to take up a gaming gig to earn some money.
He agrees to “playtest” a new, experimental game (it’s augmented reality, if we’re going to be pedantic about it) developed by a Japanese company specialising in horror games. Cooper consents to have “something” injected in the back of his head; what begins with a fun game of 3D Whack-a-Mole then leads to a trapped-in-a-haunted-house virtual horror experience that goes so far into the recesses of his brain that Cooper eventually loses his mind! What actually happens, how it unfolds, and the role technology plays, is quite interesting. An augmented reality (AR) game that draws on your memories would be unnerving for anyone; it’s downright terrifying for someone struggling from Alzheimer’s-related anxiety.
Playtest doesn’t paint technology in a bad light, which works for it. Instead, the focus is on the fragility that ties our thoughts, memories, and anxieties to real-world experiences by blurring the lines between real and fictional. It’s a scary ride, and a heartbreaking one in the end.
Hated in the Nation
This 90-minute season finale is the perfect “what if” episode: what if the honeybee population became extinct? What if Autonomous Drone Insects (ADIs) were created to replace them? What if, through advanced facial recognition software, the ADIs (which the government would covertly use for mass public surveillance, BTW) were used to kill disgraced people who received tremendous online hate?
Hated in the Nation captures the essence of online trolling and internet bullying. A moral vigilante hacker is on a murderous spree; he creates a #DeathTo hashtag for people who have done the opposite of endearing themselves to the online public. Thousands participate in the anonymous online trolling, using the #DeathTo hashtag to “sentence” the wrongdoers. Mr Moral Vigilante unleashes the deadly ADIs on the publicly-chosen targets, and the ADIs “do the job” by burrowing into the brains of the victims. The stakes are quickly raised when the detectives investigating the case realise that the real targets were not the publicly-denounced figures, but the nearly 4,00,000 people who used the #DeathTo hashtag online, anonymously trolling and playing their part in the deaths of the earlier victims. Can’t. Even!
Inspired by the public backlash Brooker received after publishing a satirical article about George W Bush in the Guardian in 2004, unsavourily titled “Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr — where are you now that we need you?”, this episode is a fast-paced, dark procedural that has a hint of Nordic noir: the two female lead investigators make for a refreshing pair of contrasts. The biggest lesson to learn from it: it’s NEVER okay to shame someone for kicks!
It’s rare that a Black Mirror episode is a feel-good one. Even rarer for an episode to marry technology with human sentiments like love and longing, as well as religious ones like belief in the afterlife. San Junipero is that rare episode!
In this alternate reality, San Junipero is a place where people can choose to go live as their younger selves forever - even after death. Before uploading their consciousness into the virtual system allowing them to “pass over”, they have a trial period of 5 hours per week to spend in San Junipero, traversing back and forth between decades. The episode centers around two young women, Kelly and Yorkie (played by Mackenzie Davis, who’s making a career out of playing smart, geeky characters) who meet in ’80s San Junipero and fall in love. In the real world, both are old women nearing death. Religion, homosexuality, family, ethics, and of course technology — they all play a role in the women’s lives, deaths, and afterlives.
Possibly, Black Mirror’s most romantic episode after season 2’s Be Right Back. It’s certainly the show’s most hopeful. Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth is a defining track from the episode; in San Junipero, that really is true!
Men Against Fire
The season’s most moralistic episode, Men Against Fire opens as a regular US military story: “Strike” and “Hunter” are part of a squad stationed somewhere in what looks and sounds like Eastern Europe, tasked with taking down the “roaches” — former humans that have mutated post-biological weapons attack. With “tainted” bloodlines and no apparent capacity for human language (they emit loud guttural sounds), the “roaches” ransack nearby villages, wreaking havoc.
Armed with an implant called MASS to help them with strategic operations, Strike and Hunter take down a horde of “roaches”, but after his altercation with a “roach”, Strike’s implant starts to experience glitches. It passes every diagnostic test, but the effect of the malfunctioning implant goes beyond headaches: the episode’s big moment comes during a routine raid on a “roach” habitat; Strike sees normal humans cowering instead of “roaches”. He’s confused, just as Hunter opens fire on those humans. Shocked, he soon realises there are no “roaches”; the government uses the implants to make soldiers view people as beastly “roaches”, instead of what they really are: normal humans pleading for their lives!
The army psychiatrist (played by the always-menacing Michael Kelly: think Doug Stamper in a cardigan) tells Strike that soldiers don’t shoot to kill (an observation made by combat historian SLA Marshall in his book Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command). The implant trains soldiers to kill without remorse, and permanently disabling it means a lifetime of war flashbacks on loop for the dissenting soldier. Heightened PTSD alert!
Episodes that reflect our current state (like season 1’s The National Anthem, which had shocking real-life comparisons: see Piggate) are devastating. Men Against Fire feels very real given the current extent of xenophobia around the world. It’s a dark look at humanity’s present state and the past, and summons all the atrocities that were sanctioned and committed on the bigoted principles of eugenics, racism, and apartheid. A remarkable episode, but not a great reminder of human history.
If we ever have the misfortune to be ruled by a Goop-infused Gwyneth Paltrow in a pastel-toned world, we’d be living the nightmarish lives of people in this episode. A satire, the teleplay for Nosedive was written by the incomparable Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, The Good Place) and beautiful tropical fish Rashida Jones (who else misses Parks and Rec, and Leslie’s adoration of Ann?).
The message is clear: social media kinda sucks. In a world where anyone can rate you out of five stars (due to technology in phones; smart lenses that display everyone’s name, image, and current rating; and a single social media platform), Lacie Pound (played by a perfectly-cast Bryce Dallas Howard) is rated 4.2. To get into an exclusive housing community, Lacie needs to up her approval rating to 4.5 at least; what ensues is a comical, sad, and dark story of friendship, individualism, and the power of social approval.
Nosedive is the show’s most visually stunning episode ever; it’s got that perfect Stepford Wives-meets-Pleasantville aesthetic which is a sensory pleasure. The plausibility of such a reality isn’t too distant from our approval-rating obsessed present. Last year, a startup was in the process of developing an app called Peeple (a ‘Yelp’ for people!), which did two things: it drew comparisons to an episode of Community, and it freaked people out! It makes Nosedive more enjoyable: that we’re capable of sidestepping this social landmine.
Shut Up and Dance
Black Mirror’s best episode this season is also its most terrifying. Set in present-day England, Shut Up and Dance is the story of a seemingly normal teenager, Kenny, who is caught in the epitome of modern nightmares: hacking. Alone and bored in his room one evening, he does what most able-bodied men often do: he masturbates to some porn on his laptop. Soon afterward, he gets a text from an unknown number with the frightening words: WE SAW WHAT YOU DID. His laptop camera is hacked, and we get to watch him from the creepy angle of the hackers, as he realises it.
Shame is a powerful human emotion. Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid being publicly shamed. The hackers play on Kenny’s apparent shame to blackmail him into doing a series of increasingly dangerous tasks. And Kenny isn’t alone; many others have fallen prey to the never-seen hackers collective (Game of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn is another “victim”; think Bronn in a suit).
The episode makes us empathise with these “victims”, and then just like season 2’s White Bear, it manages to turn on its head with one of the best twists this season (the likeable teenager might not be the innocent “victim” we were led to believe). All the blackmail victims get a text with a familiar grinning troll face, as their secrets are revealed to the world.
That the episode is set in the present and depends only on technology that’s available today, makes it scarier than other futuristic ones. But it’s the inherent shame and ridicule that makes it frightening; if your grandma’s secretsauce pasta recipe got hacked, it would be sad, but not blackmail-worthy. Child molesters and pedophiles face a tougher time in prison, than other criminals. These “victims” knew they’d done wrong; an interesting side note: “Shrive,” the name of the anti-malware program that Kenny downloads, is an archaic meaning to either confess your sins to a priest or to be absolved of them. Someone’s always watching: to the religious, it’s God; to the conspirators, it’s the government; for everyone else, it’s hackers!