It was only going to be a matter of time before new seasons of Black Mirror would stop feeling like the Black Mirror of old. Charlie Brooker’s tales of sci-fi horror in a world not too far ahead of our own have set such a ludicrously high standard for themselves that any deviation from their standard blueprint of technophobia, horrible twists and unhappy endings would be considered a near-blasphemy by the more devoted of fans. But time seems to roll by faster than ever in these days of instant gratification and accelerated trends, and if this third season had kept its same brutally effective formula going, there would still have been swathes of fans whining about how the show is just a miserable, repetitive one-trick pony. So perhaps it is no real surprise that for the third season of this contemporary classic, the Black Mirror of the title is beginning to look a bit brighter; some episodes dare to tell their stories with a hint of optimism and even *gasp* a happy ending. Viewers hoping to get away from all the maudlin British dread that permeated throughout the first two seasons will probably find this a welcome relief, but it does come at a price - a number of the cautionary tales on offer here aren’t quite as hard-hitting, or as focused, as the ones they’ve followed.
At the very least, the advent of Netflix picking up the reigns to produce this third series has not resulted in a tremendous shift in format. We still get a small handful of high-profile actors / actresses popping up among the collection of previously unexposed (and still incredibly good) acting talent in each episode, and the plots themselves seem to be the root sum of a few months’ perusal of New Scientist and the odd Reddit tech thread. That’s not a criticism or an accusation of creative derivativeness either - after all, how many people actually read New Scientist? Rather, it’s just a telling indication that neither Netflix or Brooker have felt the need to re-invent the wheel in terms of personnel or plot inspirations, aside from inviting in a couple more guest writers to help pen the odd episode.
But there is definitely a change in the general atmosphere of the show - one that is present from the very first episode. ‘Nosedive’, featuring Bryce Dallas Howard of Jurassic World fame, also touts the most socially resonant of the six short stories on show - a near-future in which every person’s worth, and consequently their status within society, is directly evaluated by their rating on a fictional social media network. In typical Black Mirror fashion, it’s a setting not too different from our own, but exaggerated enough to expose all of the darker actions that lie at the heart of our current-day Facebooking; the silent judgment of others, passive ostracism and rampant insincerity, all of which Howard’s character Lacie both gives and receives like anyone else in their attempts to raise their scores and get to the top of the social ladder. Naturally - this being ‘typical’ Black Mirror striking again - her attempts to do so result in a downfall with unnerving results for both her and viewer alike. Like all of the best episodes from this show, the creeping despair that eventually begins to envelop ‘Nosedive’, driven brilliantly by Howard’s ability to portray the slow cracking of her character’s social ‘face’ as well as her sanity, is based in an element of genuine real-life possibility - frankly, given the narcissism that rages in today’s society, there could be a day when, just like Lacie, we’re refused a seat on a plane simply because our popularity rating isn’t good enough. But the despair here is also mixed with a surprising dose of black comedy - the climax of the episode being chilling but curiously bittersweet, a tone that no Black Mirror episode has really carried before. It’s definitely original, but it also blunts the episode’s critique of social media somewhat. Given the growing case that is being made for how detrimental today’s social network giants have become for maintaining a civil online society, you’d imagine a show like this to really give social media the satirical kick up the arse that it’s due. Instead, it’s ultimately laughed off as just another cruel joke the modern world loves to play on us - and such a commentary feels like short change.
This ever-so-slight hint of cheeriness eventually resurfaces in ‘San Junipero’, the season’s fourth episode, which then promptly dials it up to 11 with a neon flurry of 80s nightclubs, existential angst and Belinda Carlisle tracks. Perhaps the most ambitious out of all the season’s offerings, it offers a fascinating look into just what the Cloud could mean for us should it ever become possible to copy human consciousness onto a machine (hint: virtual reality afterlife, woo). Initially set deep in the 1980s within a fictional California beach town of the same name, it focuses on the romantic relationship that blossoms between two local girls: the shy, somewhat dowdy Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and exuberant party girl Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who meet each other by chance down at Tucker’s, the town’s no.1 hangout spot for any discerning cool kid. As they say, opposites attract - but things are definitely not as they seem in this paradise of Californian nostalgia and power ballads, especially when it becomes apparent that Kelly can only see Yorkie once a week for exactly five hours, and Yorkie revealing herself to be terminally ill. It all adds up to a cleverly written, powerfully acted episode in terms of how it develops, offering hint after hint of how their world is in fact (SPOILER) a virtual reality ‘heaven’ for the deceased and elderly, and there are moments of serious philosophical weight that consistently bubble up from the result of two people falling in love when the very question of life and death threatens to tear them apart. It’s a great episode on the whole, although not quite the standout it’s touted as elsewhere. From a personal perspective I would have loved it to have gone deeper on its subject matter, and the rather abrupt happy ending does undercut the premise somewhat.
At the very least, and despite their moments of light-heartedness in a show that used to pride itself on being dark, both ‘Nosedive’ and ‘San Junipero’ are markedly better than the episodes that respectively come after each of them - ‘Playtest’ being the second episode, and ‘Men Against Fire’ being the fifth. ‘Men Against Fire’ is, at best, average, taking the idea of cybernetic implants for military soldiers, who in turn get a ton of cool augmented reality benefits as the defenders of humanity against an outbreak of zombie-like human mutants called Roaches. It’s pretty well-executed by everyone across the cast, but if you haven’t yet worked out the big ‘twist’ of this entry from the previous sentence, you most certainly will by its halfway point with the numbingly predictable revelation that unravels. ‘Playtest’ meanwhile, takes the potential of VR to deliver truly mind-changing experiences by putting unsuspecting American backpacker Cooper (Wyatt Russell) into the role of a experimental guinea pig for a UK games company pioneering a groundbreaking virtual reality game. It’s a game with rather innovative tech too - via direct connection to his brain, it can analyze his deepest fears and (unsurprisingly) develop a horror experience based on such terrifying knowledge. While its second half expectedly does come with its fair share of unsettling atmospherics and genuinely disturbing jump-scares, it comes off the back of a ponderously slow opening chapter that, eventually, becomes the keystone to a rather silly climax whose ham-fisted dialogue serves neither the story it’s trying to tell, or the tech that it’s trying to put a spotlight on. It is unquestionably one of Black Mirror’s worst episodes, and alongside ‘Men Against Fire’, only contributes to bring down the quality of the season as a whole. At least ‘Nosedive’ and ‘San Junipero’ give this season a unique edge just for breaking the show’s mold. These other two however make Black Mirror boring, and that’s something you could never say about the series until now.
So where are the big-hitters to keep this show’s standard up? Well, ironically given all the creative attempts to extend the show’s dramatic repertoire, they come in two British episodes that provide the familiar gut-punches we’ve come to know and.. well, just take from the first two series. At episode three, ‘Shut Up And Dance’ will be pretty uncomfortable viewing for anyone sensitive about their online privacy, with hapless British teenager Kenny (Alex Lawther) getting sucked into a game of awful ramifications when he unwittingly triggers some malware when surfing porn on his laptop, allowing him to be extorted by an unknown entity at the risk of having his habits exposed. Forced to do whatever this mysterious individual wills him to do, he’s eventually coerced into teaming him up with an older man, Hector (Jerome Flynn, aka Bronn from Game of Thrones), who is also being blackmailed by the very same person for spending his time with prostitutes at the expense of his family. Needless to say, this is one of those regular Black Mirror episodes that begin as a slow descent into full-on excruciation, as every new whim of this online trapper becomes more harrowing than the last, and every chance for escape slowly evaporating from our protagonists’ grasp. But its ending twist - about as shocking and as unexpected as this series has ever given us - helps put this among the best of Black Mirror’s episodes to date, and is worth watching for the sheer tension of it all alone.
And last - and order-wise, also last - comes ‘Hated in the Nation’, a feature-length crime thriller that puts the microscope solely on social media again to dissect its more abusive side. Focused squarely on a criminal investigation unit headed by police detective Karin Parke (Kelly Macdonald of Boardwalk Empire), it tells the tale of a string of unexplained murders, in which the victims have all been tagged in tweets accompanied by a threatening hashtag prior to their deaths. It loosely ties this digital whodunnit in with a bunch of other seemingly random ideas that probably wouldn’t have been strong enough for standalone episodes as well; climate change, the near-extinction of the bee population and their replacement with robotic drones to keep the pollen flow going. All a bit of a mish-mash, you might think. But this is a story that never once loses its focus or its sense of urgency, mostly thanks to a great performance from Macdonald herself, and also the individuals within her character’s team (Benedict Wong of recent Dr. Strange duty makes an appearance, as does Faye Marsay, another former GoT alumni). Even with the potentially daft revelation it holds in store for the viewer (spoiler: not the robot bees!), ‘Hated in the Nation’ lays bare the real venom at the heart of Twitter abuse, giving us a genuine allegory for just how violent words can be - whether we mean them or not.
All in all, the six episodes that comprise Black Mirror’s third offering should be commended for at least trying to push the show away from its seasoned formula of shock and gloom. It may be the weakest yet as a result, but it still flies the flag with competence - especially when you consider that at three episodes each, the first two series’ had less time and ideas to make mistakes with. With this third season being the length of those two combined, it might be a little bit optimistic to think it could maintain such a level of quality. You could, however, expect it to forge new direction for itself - and that’s exactly what it manages, even if the payoff isn’t always spot-on.