‘Black Mirror’ Season 3 Review: A Mixed Bag Of Horror and Hope
The brilliance of Black Mirror is how it feels relatable to our present, yet just far enough into the future to work as a warning of a possible future. Creator Charlie Brooker described that distance best when he said the dark satire is about “the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” There’s an emphasis on the “we” in Black Mirror, a show that isn’t about the evils of technology, so much as the ways technology can fuel the worst parts of human behavior.
The series’ first two seasons explored everything from how technology can destroy relationships to our desire to record everything we experience. In its third season, Black Mirror hones in on new timely subjects like hate-mongering on social media, government surveillance, and virtual dating. Thematically it’s the most ambitious and diverse season yet, with episodes about romance, a haunted house, war, and the police. But in Season 3 Black Mirror is also more of a mixed bag than ever. Some episodes are distressing, and some are uplifting. Others fall flat.
Last year when Netflix ordered 12 new episodes of Black Mirror I was more worried than excited. While the first seven Mirrors were produced for the U.K.’s Channel 4, this latest season (half of which premieres on Friday, followed by the next six episodes in 2017) was produced directly for Netflix. There’s a certain unflinching rawness to the first two seasons, audaciously challenging our comfort zones with horrific twists and turns. This is a show where the Prime Minster has sex with a pig on live TV; you wouldn’t see something like that on an American show.
With the switch to Netflix, I feared the Season 3 would play things safe and sugarcoat the gut-wrenching stories the series was known for. I wasn’t wrong. The six new episodes adopt a much lighter tone than the earlier seasons. Ironically, though, that lighter tone is also one of the new Black Mirror’s strengths. Two of the best episodes this season offer more hopeful views of humanity’s interactions with technology.
In the season premiere, “Nosedive,” directed by Joe Wright and co-written by Parks and Rec‘s Mike Schur and Rashida Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard plays Lacie, a perky woman consumed with crafting a perfect social media persona. In the world of “Nosedive” people are like Reddit threads where everything they do, say, and post is up-voted or down-voted by others. Their social status is the equivalent of a credit score, determining social class and self-worth. (Imagine not being able to get a loan because you posted a bad picture on Instagram or were rude to a waiter). The episode culminates in a shattering performance from an unhinged Howard, and ends on an surprisingly uplifting note. While “Nosedive” comments on the dark absurdities of social (and social media) anxiety with a cringe-worthy accuracy, it doesn’t leave you reeling in emotional agony or shock.
Black Mirror takes another unexpected turn with “San Junipero.” The fourth Season 3 episode opens in a beach town in 1987 when the shy and unpretentious Yorkie (Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mackenzie Davis) develops a crush on Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an energetic fireball who catches the eye of everyone she passes. The episode is basically Tinder meets Inception with bits of nostalgic time travel. It replaces the usual cynicism of the series with the sweetness and hope of finding love via technology. It’s nice to know Black Mirror isn’t all about how terrible humanity can be.
But don’t worry, for all the masochists that enjoy a good Black Mirror gut-punch, there’s something for you too. “Shut Up and Dance” is almost on par with “White Bear” as one of the most disturbing episodes of the series. The story follows Kenny (Alex Lawther), a British teenager, and Jerome Flynn’s (Game of Thrones) Hector, who gets roped into a game of blackmail à la Saw meets Nerve. “Shut Up and Dance” is missing the distinct futuristic elements of Black Mirror and feels a little too close to the present (the episode’s only technologies are texting, drones, and laptop webcams). But the final moments deliver a shocking, nauseating twist (literally, this episode made me feel sick to my stomach) that could only come from the mind of Brooker.
Another season highlight is “Playtest,” which imagines a VR video game that puts the player in a haunted house full of their deepest personal fears. It’s one of the most fully-formed episodes of the season, expertly directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Dan Trachtenberg. It plays like a mini horror movie full of freaky jump scares, spooky visuals, and sudden fits of gruesome violence. But unlike some of the weaker episodes this season, “Playtest” doesn’t get bogged down in its genre elements. As much as as it feels like a scary movie, the episode never loses sight of the intersection of technology and emotional trauma. It’s like video game therapy gone wrong, and one episode you definitely won’t want to watch before bed.
In contrast, the season’s weakest episodes take fantastic concepts and weight them down with underwhelming stories. Episode 5, “Men Against Fire,” stars Malachi Kirby (Roots) and Madeline Brewer (Orange Is the New Black) as soldiers sent on missions to wipe out a species of mutants. It’s a zombie movie meets a psychological war thriller, but it spends too much time developing its world to develop its characters into people we care about. There’s seems something missing in the season finale, too. The giant-sized “Hated in the Nation” follows two female detectives (Kelly MacDonald of Boardwalk Empire and Faye Marsay of Game of Thrones) investigating the deaths of people at the center of hateful Twitter hashtags. It has some interesting ideas about surveillance and the destructive power of social media, but like “Shut Up and Dance,” it feels a little too close to our present reality. There’s a typically a horrific twist at the end, but one that hardly feels surprising in light of 2016’s real-life horrors.
It makes me wonder: Is real life catching up with Black Mirror too quickly? The 10 minutes into the future Brooker talked about has begun to shrink, giving us narratives that could be moments away. Perhaps a show about how awful humanity is isn’t all that exciting in the year of Brexit, a Trump presidential campaign, and so many police shootings. Brooker might need to dial up the time gap for his next batch of episodes, or begin to put a stronger emphasis on the human element.
The best Black Mirrors tell stories built on relatable emotions. “The Entire History of You,” “Be Right Back,” and “White Bear” are about heartbreak, loss, and the gratification of serving justice. (“White Christmas” also has hints of each of those.) Those are the standout episodes that makes Black Mirror feel so deeply affecting. If Brooker can blend the optimism he’s found with his earlier character-driven narratives, the next batch of Black Mirror episodes could be the best yet.
Black Mirror Season 3 premieres on Netflix on October 21.