TV Review: Black Mirror‘s fourth season marks a plateau point for a groundbreaking original

As it has done well over its past three seasons, Black Mirror has surprised me. However this year, the surprise hasn’t come in the form of a deadly plot twist halfway through the narrative’s third act, or a realisation that comes in the form of sad ending.

No, this year it was the episode that I had, for months prior, told myself would be the worst episode of them all, emerging as the shining light of Black Mirror Season Four – hello, “U.S.S Callister”. Which says a lot about this new batch of material delivered by Charlie Brooker and Netflix.

U.S,S Callister. (Photo: Netflix)

Don’t get me wrong, I have been a diehard Black Mirror fan since I first decided to give “The National Anthem” a go back in 2011. The way the writing of this show twisted and turned, challenging the viewer to look at a modern world in flux differently was unlike anything I had seen on TV before – certainly not British television – and it wasn’t long before I was hooked.

This was of course, pre-Netflix, and so eventually, much of the hype and suspense was rooted in the fact that I’d be waiting to see each episode weekly as they were screened in the UK. There was no option to binge the series until the streaming juggernaut got its mitts on it and after viewing Season Four of Black Mirror, I wonder how much of its partnership with Netflix has benefited the overall output.

On the other side of the spectrum, one could ask if the viewing audience has simply caught up to the tricks of the show now and therefore, our expectations of Black Mirror are higher? You’re going to have to make that call come December 29th, when all six episodes are available to view.

First thing’s first: Black Mirror is certainly not devoid of good moments. The writing talent is definitely there, that hasn’t changed. For a show that has become a cornerstone of modern television in many ways, I don’t think it has the luxury of doing so without crippling its branding.

Though, as we follow our central characters navigating Episode 6’s conveniently titled “Black Museum”, you can’t help but think back on the high bar the Black Mirror set for suspense, terror and hyper-awareness when the show started, to how hit has developed over the years as some of the thematic content has eerily fallen in line with our current social climate.

Black Museum. (Photo: Netflix)

Strong ideas are introduced in each episode, yet the major failing of Black Mirror this season is that we’re left wanting more than we receive. The most glaring example of this is Episode 5’s “Metalhead”. The performance by Maxine Peake is stunning, to be sure, and the production value of this black and white dystopian horror piece is wonderful to watch, but at the culmination of the episode, we’re left scratching our heads.

Obviously, the episode is more than just about an evil robot security dog. Sure, “Metalhead” is driven by the chase, but the amount of questions vastly outweigh the number of conclusions the audience is given.

How did the modern world fall so far into desolution?
Who or what business created and commands the dogs?
What is the importance and value placed on the object of our original team of protagonists’ search?

They go on.

Unlike each other episode this season, there’s no ironic twist or final statement “Metalhead” makes that lands with the viewer. Whether that is deliberate (I’m going to say that yes, it is) or not, it stuck with me more than it should, hence the above questions. Am I looking too much into these episodes now, thanks to the emotional impact of previous Black Mirror outings such as “White Bear” or “Shut Up and Dance?”, or have I missed something integral about this episode completely? It definitely does warrant a second watch.

Character development takes a backseat this season, I find, in place of upping the production ante and the exploration of the morbid or the bleak. We are introduced to some great and interesting individuals, but even though the episodes extend beyond 40 minutes in most cases, it feels like we’re not really getting a chance to become attached to any one of them or at least being given the chance to understand motivations, emotional triggers or backgrounds.

There is no “San Junipero”, nor is there an episode that has the weight of “Be Right Back”. Season Four’s “ArkAngel” veers the closest in terms of going for the emotional jugular, and “Hang the DJ” teeters on aligning itself with “San Junipero”. Do we find ourselves as attached to our central couple in “Hang the DJ” as we were to Kelly and Yorkie in “San Junipero”, though? No.

Hang the DJ. (Photo: Netflix)

In saying this, the performances we see in this season of Black Mirror are largely impressive, as is the direction. “ArkAngel” sees Jodie Foster take the director’s reins in depicting a mother-daughter relationship (portrayed by Rosemarie DeWitt and Australia’s Brenna Harding) driven by paranoia, over-protectiveness and technology, while Colm McCarthy executes the weighty “Black Museum” to great effect.

Andrea Riseborough‘s character in “Crocodile” is possibly the most frustrating of them all, yet none of this is down to her performance. We never get to understand what drives her actions past pure desperation; which would be fine normally, if the rest of the episode wasn’t setting things up for something more to be happening behind the scenes.

Jesse Plemons‘ turn as Robert Daly in “U.S.S Callister” is a series highlight. He’ll always be Landry from Friday Night Lights to me, but in place of leading Crucifictorius, Plemons takes control of his own domain – quite literally – as Captain of this Star Trek-esque ship. Manoeuvring between the quiet, downtrodden genius to a power-hungry, Mr Hyde character is one of Black Mirror‘s best plot turns; a turn I was genuinely stoked on seeing play out. It’s a rare moment this season where as a viewer, you’re struck with a “Ohhh, shit!” moment – a moment that when it happens, you get that pang of excitement you did when watching earlier seasons for the first time.

The aforementioned “Black Museum” serves as a bit of a gift to those who have rocked with Black Mirror since the beginning. Served up in the style of “White Christmas”, the three-stories-in-one episode is brutally graphic, violent, sad and vindicated, all in one. Referencing almost each episode of the show in some way, obvious and subtle, “Black Museum” is a season closer but by no means is the strongest of the batch.

I’ve been deliberate in ensuring no huge spoilers are given away in this discussion, as I feel like Black Mirror is best digested with no real expectation. I avoided series trailers in the lead up to my viewing, and only had the official stills to go on. This made the experience far more enjoyable.

You’ll make your own conclusions as to where you think the direction of Black Mirror is heading but I couldn’t help but think at the end of this season that perhaps, less might be more. This has been the second season produced for Netflix, the second that has seen Brooker produce six episodes over three. Because the main failings of this season seem to be centred on a lack of development of character where in the past, this has been a strong point, it’s fair to wonder how strong some of these episodes could have been if given more time to breathe in the early stages of their conception.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS OUT OF FIVE.

Black Mirror Season Four premieres on Netflix on December 29th.