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Josh Reviews Netflix’s Season Three of Black Mirror!

I adored the original six episodes made of the British TV show Black Mirror.  Series creator Charlie Brooker had made a riveting modern/day Twilight Zone, with each episode a completely stand-alone installment presenting a look at the ways that technology has the potential to be terribly destructive to our lives. Those first six episodes, made between 2011-13, are brilliant, and if you haven’t yet seen them I implore you to drop everything and go check them out — they are available to stream on Netflix.

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I was very excited when I read that Netflix would be resurrecting the show, allowing Mr. Brooker to create six new episodes. I took my time watching the new episodes, both because I didn’t want them to be over too quickly and also because these episodes are very intense and I couldn’t handle too many too quickly! But now I have completed the new season and am eager to share my thoughts.

While there is nothing here in season three that equals the best of the original six episodes, I enjoyed most of these new episodes very much. Mr. Brooker has brought in some talented people to help create this new season, and it’s interesting to see the resulting slightly-different spins on the show.  (Though, rest assured, these new episodes all thoroughly feel like Black Mirror.) None of these new episodes reach the genius level that so many of the original six episodes did, and a few are weakened by some flaws I’d have preferred to have seen corrected along the way. But all six episodes are interesting and have a lot to enjoy. While this third season might just be “very good” rather than “genius,” that is still something for us to be thankful for. I am very glad that six more episodes of Black Mirror now exist! (With the possibility of more on the way!)

Here is my episode-by-episode rundown. I’ll avoid major SPOILERS but, still, I highly advise stopping here if you haven’t yet seen these episodes.

Nosedive — the new season gets off to a somewhat shaky start with this first installment.  “Nosedive” has a brilliant, terrifying-in-its-possibility premise, but it suffers somewhat in execution. In the not-too-distant future, everyone can use their cell-phones to rate their interactions with every person they meet, and those scores accumulate into a person’s average score that is constantly visible (because of special contact lenses that everyone wears) whenever you see anyone else.  Bryce Dallas Howard is spectacular as a young woman, Lacie, trying to nudge up her personal score. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that these scores classify each individual into a certain social class. (The story is instigated because Lacie wants to live in a new housing development only affordable to individuals with a certain social score, and as the episode continues we see the dark side to what happens to anyone who drops below a certain score.) It’s horrifying how plausible this scenario is. This is a classic Black Mirror premise, in terms of how short a distance there is from our world to the one depicted in this episode, and it’s nightmarish to contemplate this ever becoming our reality. The problem with the episode is that its basic idea is clear after the first few minutes (and in case you had any doubts what was going to happen to Lacie, the episode is calked “Nosedive” so you know exactly where this story is going), but the episode runs over an hour in length. So it becomes excruciating after a while as we watch Lacie’s life get worse and worse and worse. There’s no twist in the episode’s second half, we’re just watching the slow collapse of Lacie’s carefully-constructed life.  By the end, when she’s literally rolling around in dirt and mud, I was rolling my eyes.  I think the episode would have been stronger with a much tighter runtime. Still, this is a classic Black Mirror premise and a very interesting way to start to the new season. Nice work by talented Black Mirror newbies Rashida Jones and Mike Schur (the Parks and Recreation showrunner) and director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Hanna), and I enjoyed the appearances of supporting cast-members Alice Eve and Cherry Jones.

Playtest — In contrast to the first episode, this second installment (skillfully directed by 10 Cloverfield Lanes Dan Trachtenberg) was riveting from start to finish, and I genuinely had no idea where the story was going.  A broke young man, Cooper, takes a job testing out a project for a video-game company and finds himself trapped in a horrifying virtual reality scenario.  Wyatt Russell is a young actor who I don’t recall ever seeing on-screen before (and apparently he used to be a hockey player!), but he’s terrific in lead role as Cooper.  (Wunmi Mosaku is also lovely as the voice in Cooper’s ear for most of the episode.). This one was great until the final few minutes. I didn’t care overmuch for the series of fake-out “is this real or is this fantasy” endings. That was clever ten or twenty years ago, when Star Trek did it in episodes like TNG’s “Future Imperfect” or even the Doctor-focused episode of Voyager, “Projections”. But at this point it felt overplayed and cliche to me, and this narrative trickery diluted the impact of the final ending that showed what actually happened to Cooper.

Shut Up And Dance — In this episode, an internet hacker (or group of hackers? We never find out) blackmails a number of every-day people into doing his/her/their bidding. For most of the episode we follow Kenny, a teenage boy who made the unfortunate decision to masturbate to internet porn on his hacked laptop. The hacker filmed him using his own laptop’s camera, and sends Kenny an email threatening to send the video to every one of his contacts if he doesn’t do as ordered. With no apparent choice but to follow those instructions, Kenny begins following a series of tasks that at first seem just bizarre but eventually escalate to something much more serious. Along the way, he meets up with Hector ( Jerome Flynn, who plays Bronn on Game of Thrones!), another unfortunate soul being blackmailed by the mysterious on-line entity (or entities). This is a gripping installment as you watch poor Kenny get sucked further and further down the blackmail rabbit hole, hoping he’ll find a way out of his situation but knowing he probably won’t. I though this episode was pretty spectacular until the twist ending. STOP NOW FOR SPOILERS!!  Still here?  OK, at the very end we discover that Kenny is far from the innocent boy we thought he was. That shock was effective and horrifying but, to me, it totally diluted the point of the episode.  I’d thought this was a story about how so many people have online secrets they’d like to protect — emails they don’t want others to see, browsing history they don’t want exposed, etc. — and the dangers that can lead to, how easily someone’s life could get turned upside down if someone got access to those things they’d prefer be kept private. For most of this episode as we watch Kenny go through this ordeal it seems that this could happen to almost anyone.  But when you learn that Kenny really did have this coming, suddenly I was left unsure if the point of this whole episode. That everyone is horrible??

San Junipero — In the 1980’s, we follow the gentle story of the flowering relationship between Yorkie (The Martians Mackenzie Davis), a tentative young woman first taking ownership of her being a lesbian, and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a friendly and outgoing bisexual party girl. This is a gorgeous story, one that strikes an unusually sweet tone for Black Mirror and even — shockers!! — has a (mostly) happy ending!! I loved this episode, written by series creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker. This is a beautiful episode, and a wonderful example if how expansive Black Mirror’s anthology structure can be. I was not expecting an episode like this, and so I was delighted by the surprise. Both Ms. Davis and Ms. Mbatha-Raw are wonderful, endearing and with a depth of character that you discover as the episode unfolds. I loved the charisma between the two, and the gentle way we watch their relationship blossom while also peeling back the onion of their individual back-stories.  I’d like to write a whole separate blog piece just analyzing the ending of this episode. At first blush it seems happy, but is the idea of these two people being together for all eternity really happy? Could that eventually become nightmarish? Not to mention the religious implications of a human-created afterlife…  “San Junipero” was a highlight of this new season.

Men Against Fire — in the not too distant future, we follow Stripe (Malachi Kirby, who recently starred as Kunta Kinte in the remake of Roots), a rookie soldier fighting monsters called Roaches somewhere in what looks like Europe. After Stripe gets his first kill, something appears to start going wrong with the implant that all the soldiers have, through which they get military directives, targeting assistance, and apparently even implanted dreams. Is his breakdown a technological problem, or a psychological breakdown? It’s actually something else entirely, and I adored the twist ending. This episode has a powerful message about the ease with which we dehumanize our enemies. Like “Nosedive” and “Shut Up and Dance”, this feels horrifyingly possible in the very near future. The episode’s weakness is that, while the ultimate twist is great, the episode up to that point is a bit flat. I like Mr. Kirby’s work in the lead role and he’s a capable audience-surrogate character, but once Stripe gets zapped by that mysterious object held by one of the Roaches, you pretty much know how things are going to go.

Hated in the Nation — the season concludes with this extended episode.  Clocking in at almost an hour and a half long, this sort of feels like a Black Mirror movie.  Kelly Macdonald (No Country For Old Men, Brave, Boardwalk Empire) stars as Karin Parke, a homicide detective tasked with investigating the death of journalist Jo Powers.  Powers had been the subject of a social media outcry in response to an article she’d written.  Was she murdered?  Or did her internet humiliation drive her to take her own life?  Parke’s investigation is complicated when, the next day, another individual facing a social media firestorm — in this case, the rapper “Tusk” — is also murdered.  Parke and her new partner Blue (Faye Marsay, who played “the Waif” on Game of Thrones), along with National Crime Agency officer Shaun Li (Benedict Wong, from The Martian and Doctor Strange) soon discover that the Twitter hashtag #DeathTo is being used to allow anonymous social media users across the UK to vote on who will die at the end of each day.  Much of “Hated in the Nation” unfolds like a Black Mirror version of a police procedural, as we follow Parke and her team through their investigation, as the widening horror of what they have discovered unfolds.  There are some magnificently tense sequences in this episode, particularly the assault on the safehouse in which Parke, Blue, and Shaun Li attempt to safeguard marked-victim number three.  While the episode does feature a typically gruesome Black Mirror finish, I was surprised that the very end gave us a glimpse of hope — the second ray-of-light ending that this season gave us!  The great Kelly Macdonald carries this episode on her shoulders, as we discover this story through her character’s eyes.  This isn’t the most groundbreaking episode of Black Mirror ever made, but it’s a strong, enjoyable finish to the season.

I’m delighted that Netflix chose to resurrect Black Mirror, and very happy that Charlie Brooker was able to give us these six new terrifying stories.  This is innovative television at its best, with remarkable talent assembled in front of and behind the camera.  I am hoping this is not the end of Black Mirror!

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