Black Mirror - Season 3, Episodes 1-3 - Review: Twisted and Thought-Provoking
The term sleeper hit crops up a lot in the UK. A lot of smaller channels have found great success by broadcasting lesser known US shows to widespread audience and occasionally, one will suddenly pick up a mass following that can be heavily capitalized upon with several seasons already made. It tends to be offbeat reality shows with comedy themes like Storage Wars or the granddaddy of them all, Man Vs Food. Yet Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror was the opposite. A UK show that while critically acclaimed, never received huge rating figures. That was until its appearance on Netflix brought the show to the large scale US audience and suddenly exploded. The upstream swimming salmon of sleeper hits. It was so popular that Neflix commissioned 12 further episodes, later split into 2 seasons of 6 episodes. For anyone new to the mirror, imagine each episode as a season of American Horror Story. Each one is on a different theme with a different cast but they’re all a topical reflection of society, and what could be our near future.... and oh yeah, it often gets a bit freaky. Here’s what we thought of the first 3 episodes.
Episode 1, Nosedive – In a world where anyone, stranger or friend, can rate your popularity, some people, like Lacie, are beyond obsessed with their boosting rating. An invite to a swanky wedding should help with that but things do not go as planned.
Cast - Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) as Lacie, Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness) as Naomi, James Norton (War & Peace) as Ryan and Cherry Jones (24) as Susan.
So straight in the crosshairs is the modern social media obsession and the way we can put more effort into making our lives look amazing than actually living them.... you, have to give them credit, that is a very fair swipe. Immediately, this is wonderfully translated on screen as we see people being deliberately over nice to each other just for good ratings. The overly forced “hiiiiiiiii” greetings are equal parts disturbing and hilarious. This against a bland and pastel visual pallet from home interiors right down dull conservative clothing as if people are paranoid and terrified of expressing individuality for fear of rejection or disapproval. Everyone is aspiring to the same perceived idea of nicety like classical portraits all drawn to a romantic ideal instead of actual likeness. It’s like Pleasantville be skipped straight from the 50's to now and it’s outstanding world building and scene setting from director Joe Wright (Atonement). We quickly see that it’s more than just a measure of vanity as ratings relate to personal judgments, jealousy and even a social hierarchy. The dream apartment Lacie views even has a 20% discount if you’re rated 4.5 or higher, some areas have minimum entry requirements and vast deductions are even used as punishment measures.
There is dark humour aplenty as Lacie starts sucking up to her old school friend/bully that’s now an elite 4.8 in the hope of getting her all import ratings boost, which leads to the wedding invitation. Her brother Ryan is used as an excellent voice of reason and reflection by being less invested in the social system. While Lacie’s sessions with her personal ratings coach (which appears to be big business) draws in comedy by playing into the absurdity. After pledging the episode’s world, the story has a great sense of escalation to it as the world turns further against Lacie the more her rating drops and Bryce Dallas Howard is utterly compelling in conveying this. The moral message is good and clear as ultimately Lacie’s obsession with boosting her rating becomes her demise. Yet the worst part for her is the emotional castration of social expectations: she wants to get mad when things go wrong but can’t, knowing it only make things much worse.... which it does. Then we have the excellent contrast of truck driver Susan being someone that deliberately rejected the entire system after her husband’s death reminded her that there are more important things in life than what a stranger thinks of you. Her whole speech about the liberation is one of the episode's highlights and gets echoed well in the final scene as in her lowest moment Lacie finds some sense of happiness.
The storytelling here is superb but science fiction fans should be aware that despite being in a near future setting, the futurism content is minimal at best. In many ways, it isn’t science fiction at all but dystopian social fiction yet it makes for incredible viewing to the extent that genre fans will likely still find a lot of enjoyment from watching it.
Episode 2, Playtest – While travelling and strapped for cash in London, Cooper takes an odd job testing new technology for a video game company specializing in horror games. Despite his initial excitement, things quickly start getting all too real.
Cast – Wyatt Russell (22 Jump Street) as Cooper, Hannah John-Kamen (Killjoys) as Sonja, Wunmi Mosaku (In the Flesh) as Katie and Ken Yamamura (Godzilla) as Shou.
Unlike Nosedive, this episode shows a much slower and gradual introductory process centered on the idea of getting to know Wyatt and the relationship with his mother whom he can’t bring himself to speak with under any situation. Yet Wyatt’s brief stroll down memory lane of losing his dad after caring for him through Alzheimer's creates enough empathy as we understand that his travels are means of escapism to slowly deal with the trauma. Sonja works well as his London “not Tinder” hook up to be his means of audience while coming with suitable background knowledge of the mysterious game testing company when Cooper finds their ad. There are good subtle planting of ideas like AI outsmarting humans too.
The shift towards the testing location is an immediate and well-executed change in tone by director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) from the synth score to the heritage building in a similar approach to this summer’s underwhelming Morgan. The game company interiors immediately conjure feelings of being unorthodox from their high tech yet minimalist work stations, and Cooper echoes this well with nervous joking. It’s great gently escalating tension before really doubling down on the creepy once the idea of an artificially intelligent survival horror game starts being batted about and it’s well and truly game on. The test itself is so wonderfully psychological as we watch Cooper lured into a false sense of security before each progressive simulated encounter becomes increasingly unsettling and ultimately being broken down on every level. Suddenly, the more extensive build up all makes sense as the lines between simulation go from being blurred to dubsmashed and beyond. There is terrific imagination in the ways Cooper becomes duped into believing the things he knows to be impossible and yet in several points, it creates genuinely convincing false directions.
This is not an episode recommended for the more squeamish because it gets visually and mentally very unsettling the further Cooper treads into his tailor-made nightmare. It’s extreme but in no way gratuitous as it does serve the central society reflection perfectly over pushing the boundaries of virtual/artificial reality experiences. There will come a point when our capability for simulation exceeds our capacity to endure it, when things become too real. Although there is some relation to Oculus Rift boom, this doesn’t feel like a stab at gaming culture but a little towards horror movies. There a few a gaming Easter Eggs thrown in though, most enjoyably a Bioshock-worthy use of, “Would you kindly?”.
This is definitely more of a typical Black Mirror episode than Nosedive,and has a much greater appeal to older fans that like the twisted horror style attributes of past seasons. Stay with it for the quieter first 20 minutes because it really does pay off like crazy once the horror begins.
Episode 3, Shut Up and Dance – Kenny was a nice quiet kid until one piece of spyware and one moment of perceived privacy sees him blackmailed and terrified by an unknown source that forces him to play a part in their very elaborate game.
Cast - Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game) as Kenny and Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones) as Hector
So this time, the show is examining the dwindling concept of personal privacy to shatter illusions of safety, extrapolating on the idea of being hacked. In both the key characters, Kenny and Hector, it’s their initial reactions to being trapped that create their best moments. Kenny is pledged as a genuinely nice and caring kid but is immediately terrified while Hector’s first messages are greeted with vomit and soothed with the contents of his mini bar. It really captures how quickly their worlds are shattered and everything changes. Suddenly, Kenny doesn’t feel safe even inside his own home. Every person they pass with a phone could be involved. It’s like a dark sinister blackmail take on Nerve as we see other minor players performing setup and staging functions for the central pair. There’s excellent surprise and uncertainty to their journey and a really constant feeling of tension and suspense as soon as we first see Kenny activated. There even some great surreal moments as Hector randomly encountering a friend who stretches the limit of their charade.
The central twosome of Kenny and Hector make a great duo as they become entangled. Jerome “Bronn” Flynn was never going to disappoint and excels in physically expressing his frustrations. Alex Lawther was the younger bullied Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and he takes that same state of weakness but amplifies it to petrified levels. At times, Lawther genuinely makes it feel too real for comfort, which is exactly what the episode needs. Making Hector have far more to lose really creates an interesting dynamic as he forces Kenny on way past his limits. At times, it gets difficult to watch in the best possible ways as Hector resorts to bullying and abuse when persuasion fails. Their relationship becomes an enjoyable rollercoaster of mutual dependency and they even get some more heartfelt moments as they sympathize with each other as fellow hostages. There’s a fair bit of dark humour along the way too, powered by the vulnerability of the characters. What feels like Kenny’s biggest moment takes an unexpected twist to make it fleetingly hilarious. The further into the story we go, the more it becomes a blender of emotions.
The downside here is for some the final 10 minutes and ending may not satisfy. There is a lovely sense of slow gradual escalation for nearly 40 minutes but anyone expecting a similarly bat poop crazy climax like in Playtest will be disappointed as things stay more sedate and sinister. You could argue that in the spirit of the show, the ending we get is appropriate as everything is meant to be different but deeper horror fans may find it a letdown. This is an episode that constantly creeps its way under your skin rather than grabbing you by the throat. Also, even more than the first episode, there is nothing here in terms of science fiction other vague Big Brother-like ideas for anyone looking for near future content.
Overall, it’s an incredible start to season with each episode being brilliant and thought-provoking in its own right. At the same time, each does come as an acquired taste with Playtest carrying the least broad appeal. If you’ve never given the show the try, this is the time to do it but don’t binge it out of obligation, just pick the episodes that suit you unless you’re feeling that adventurous. Now to see what’s on the back half of this mirror…