‘Black Mirror’ Season 4 : Season’s Rankings

Just in time for the new year is a brand-new batch of twisted tales from the warped mind of Charlie Booker, aka Season 4 of “Black Mirror.” In this article, I will be giving you a personal ranking of what I feel are the best and worst of the lot, in reverse order. Mild spoilers ahead, so if you want to go in blind, maybe just take note of the order and come back later.

I tried to space things out in such a way that they didn’t get overtly depressive, but this is “Black Mirror” we’re talking about, so you might want to space out viewings in general to do the same anyway. As much as I love the show, too much of it at once can be a bit overwhelming, given how dark things can get. Fortunately, this time around isn’t all bleak, so you “San Junipero” fans can breathe a sigh of relief- it’s not all bad.

1.The Worst: Episode Five – Metalhead

Shot in gritty black and white, likely to soften some of the gorier moments and better replicate the feel of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, “Metalhead” isn’t bad, it’s just nothing you haven’t seen before- and better. It tells the tale of a band of survivors on the lookout for vehicles and supplies, all the while trying their best to evade the robotic “guard dogs” that are serving as security for such things.

Even worse, the robo-pooches can fire trackers into people that allow them to hunt down those who initially escape, and they don’t stop until they find and kill them, or their prey manage to destroy them before they can do so. It’s basically “The Terminator”-meets-“Man’s Best Friend,” for those of you who remember that semi-obscure early 90’s shocker. (If not, think Robo-Cujo.)

The end result is basically one long extended chase sequence with some okay action bits, but nothing spectacular. Director David Slade has done far more interesting work elsewhere, particularly on “American Gods” and “Hannibal,” as well as the superlative “Hard Candy.” Hell, even his music videos for Stone Temple Pilots and System of a Down are more interesting. I suppose it is better than his “Twilight” entry, “Eclipse,” but that isn’t saying much.

I guess the B&W approach sets it apart from other episodes of the show- or the obvious sources of inspiration, for that matter- but that’s about the best I can say for this serviceable but ultimately sort of forgettable entry. It’s worth a one-time watch, but just barely.

2. Just okay: Episode Two – Arkangel

“Arkangel” is the tale of an overprotective mom gone horribly wrong- you’d expect anything less from “Black Mirror”? After a harrowing incident in which her child runs away, mother Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt, “Mad Men”) decides to try out a new form of technology that acts as a sort of inner GPS tracking device for kids to ensure they don’t get into trouble.

It also monitors their heart rate and can even shield them from “scary” things, such as violent movies and fighting and the like by blurring them out, like a living parental lock for a computer or television. Marie can also see what her daughter sees at any given moment. After a certain point, Marie wonders if doing so is doing her more harm than good, so she eventually opts to stop using the device and trust her daughter Sara (Brenna Harding, “Puberty Blues”) once she hits her teens.

Needless to say, Sara has a lot of catching up to do, and wastes no time getting into what she’s been “missing out” on, with boyfriend Trick (Owen Teague, “Bloodline”) helpfully introducing her to horror and action movies, real-life torture videos, hardcore porn and so on. When Marie catches her daughter in a lie, she has to decide whether to reactivate the Arkangel program or not to make sure she’s okay when she stays out past her curfew one night and Marie isn’t able to track her down. But will she like what she sees if she does?

I had high hopes for this one, as it was directed by none other than Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster, but the end result is fairly predictable, kind of like an afterschool special from Hell. (For my younger readers, “afterschool specials” were morality plays that aired in the afternoon in the 70’s and 80’s meant to teach kids a lesson of some kind, like the dangers of doing drugs or having sex at a young age.)

It’s certainly well-acted, with particularly strong performances from its two female leads, DeWitt and Harding, with the latter one to watch in the future, acting-wise. As directed by someone who used to specialize in strong female performances herself, notably in “Taxi Driver,” where Foster played an underaged prostitute; “The Accused,” where she played a rape victim; and, of course, her Oscar-winning turn as FBI agent Clarice Starling in the classic “The Silence of the Lambs”; perhaps it’s to be expected that the strength of the episode would lie in the two female leads.

However, you can see the ending coming a mile away, and honestly the only thing up in the air is how ugly it will be, this being “Black Mirror,” after all. I won’t spoil that part of it here, except to say it goes a bit further than you might think given Foster’s involvement, but perhaps not as much as one might think who is familiar with the series to date. That said, as there isn’t really a twist, per se, beyond the initial premise itself, so maybe it didn’t need to be overtly dark, really. The end result isn’t bad, certainly, but it’s not one of the better entries of the show, either.

3.Now That’s More Like It: Episode Three – Crocodile

“Crocodile” is primo “Black Mirror,” a pitch-black slice of Hitchcockian Noir that just gets nastier and nastier as it goes along. It follows the trials and tribulations of a young woman, Mia Nolan (Andrea Riseborough, “Birdman”), who has the misfortune to be in an accident with her boyfriend that the two decide to cover up rather than report to the authorities. However, this is “Black Mirror” and secrets have a way of coming unburied on this show, and such is the case here.

As Mia struggles to continue to keep her dark secret, her past accident dovetails with the investigation of another unrelated accident that she inadvertently witnesses from her window one night. When an insurance agent looking to corroborate the victim’s story comes calling, armed with a machine that has the ability to replay memories from a specific time and place, Mia worries that her memories of the past incident will resurface along with her memories of the current one. As one might expect, things only get worse from there.

This was basically “I Know What You did Last Summer”-meets-“Rear Window,” but with a nifty tech-driven twist, and a more unpredictable protagonist that you’re never quite sure whether to root for or against. In the end, I think it’s safe to say where most everyone will land, though. I intentionally placed this one near the middle as it’s not one anyone would want to end on! Definitely one of the better episodes of the batch, for sure, and classic “Black Mirror.”

4.Three-for-the-price-of-one (and then some): Episode Six- Black Museum

In the tradition of the previous entry “White Christmas,” this episode offers more bang for your buck by encompassing several stories within its clever structure. It details the story of a young woman, Nish (Letitia Wright, “Humans”), who has to stop to recharge her vehicle and decides to kill some time by visiting a nearby museum, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. As you might expect from the episode title, and the show you’re watching, the stuff within is pretty nasty.

Taking a page from the old “Friday the 13th” TV series or Stephen King’s “Needful Things,” each item within the museum has a story attached to it, which the curator, Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge, “Penny Dreadful”) is a little too happy to relate to his lone customer. In one, a doctor with the ability to diagnose his patients with the help of an implant that allows him to feel what they are feeling gets a little too into his job. Interestingly, this one was based on a story by magician Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller fame.

In the next tale, a woman in a coma gets a potential new lease on life thanks to an implant that allows her to occupy the “unused” part of her husband’s brain so that she can see, hear and feel what he does and communicate through him to their young daughter. The problem is, she’s given to a bit too much backseat brain driving, as it were. Thankfully, the doctor includes a “pause” button to give the husband peace of mind when he needs it, but will he go to further lengths to silence her in time?

Finally, there’s the tale of a prisoner on death row, accused of murder, who may or may not be innocent, who signs away the “rights” to his image in order to provide for his family after his death. What he doesn’t realize is there’s a catch. Isn’t there always? In addition, if you keep your eyes open, there are nods to other episodes in the series in the other items on display at the museum, as well as other “Easter Eggs” throughout the episode for eagle-eyed viewers.

This is technically the last episode of the season, and is certainly a decent enough ending for it, given all the call-backs, but I prefer to end things on a higher note, so I’m placing it closer to the middle. But if you want to end on a sort-of “greatest hits” type episode, this is the one you want to finish it off with. Just be forewarned- it gets dark at times. REALLY dark.

5.Retro-Goodness: Episode One- USS Callister

The longest of the bunch, the near-feature-length “USS Callister” is a delightful throwback to the old sci-fi shows of the 60’s, particularly the original “Star Trek.” However, in true “Black Mirror” style, there’s a modernistic twist. Basically, the “show”-within-the-show isn’t a show at all, really, it’s a virtual world in which the participants are self-aware, but most of them aren’t there of their own volition.

Basically, it’s the creation of tech whiz Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons, “Fargo”), who has managed to create his own world using a sort of cloning tech to replicate his co-workers IRL at his company, many of whom treat him like crap. As a sort of revenge, he plops them down into his virtual world, where he reigns supreme over them and they are forced to obey his every whim- or face the often-vicious consequences.

Of course, technically, he’s only abusing “copies” of real-life people, so one could argue that it’s not the same thing as doing it for real, but given that it feels real to the participants, and Daly takes things to some horrific extremes, it does raise some interesting ideas about ethics, even in virtual worlds. Probably not by coincidence, this one features Jimmi Simpson, of “Westworld” fame, a show that tackled such issues in a more long-form format.

It also features a great role for Cristin Milioti (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), who plays the latest unwitting recruit to Daly’s twisted menagerie who decides not to take her circumstances lying down, virtual world or not. She gets the best line of the series to date, a lol one involving the Captain’s decidedly oddball ideas about keeping things “wholesome” and family-friendly, like the beloved show that inspired his VR world, i.e. kissing without tongue, cartoonish violence that doesn’t really do much harm, letting the “bad guys” go instead of killing them, etc.

The ending of this one manages to be both dark and hopeful- no mean feat, that. If you’re a fan of old-school “Star Trek,” be prepared to be wowed, as you boldly go where even that show never thought to go before. That’s “Black Mirror” for you.

6.The Best: Episode Four – Hang the DJ

Likely to be compared (favorably) to last season’s much-beloved “San Junipero,” “Hang the DJ,” as befits an episode named after a lyric from a Smiths’ song, is a romantic-but-somewhat-cynical look at dating apps in the future, as people sign up with the near-perfect guarantee of meeting their soul mate- but not without a cost.

Basically, you are put into a gated community surrounded by a wall, where you are paired off with various potential love interests for varying lengths of time. With some people, you get mere hours, others as much as a year. It’s worth mentioning that the length of time doesn’t always match one’s compatibility rate, so one can spend an inordinate amount of time with someone they don’t like at all, while spending very little with someone they do. What’s worse, there’s no guarantee that if you do like someone, you’ll necessarily end up with that person.

In addition, there are rules and regulations that must be followed, with potentially high penalties- possibly even death- if one tries to refuse to follow them. Will the meet-cute couple we follow throughout the show flaunt the rules to get back into each other’s lives? Can they? Or are they even right for each other in the first place and are just overreacting to being kept apart? Can the system be trusted to work?

I won’t spoil the fun by answering those questions, but I will say that this is easily the most light-hearted of the bunch, and, as such, the ideal one to end on, for my money. Thankfully, I randomly did just that, after looking at quick synopses of each episode and playing it by ear, in terms of order.

As I was watching it, I did think: if this one ends poorly, I might just end up wallowing under the covers of my bedsheets as we ring in the new year. But I’m happy to say that, though it does indeed have a trademark “Black Mirror” twist, it won’t ruin your end-of-the-year festivities, or beginning-of-the-year ones, as the case may be. As such, it’s your best bet for a happy ending, such as one can be found in the “Black Mirror”-verse.

So, that about wraps things up for my review. Be sure to let me know what you thought of the season down below, and by all means, feel free to do your own rankings. What worked for me might not work for you, obviously. That said, I enjoyed the season overall quite a bit, probably even more so than the last one, though I don’t know if it quite reaches the heights of the first two seasons on the whole.

I’m definitely looking forward to the next one, and I hope that creator Charlie Booker keeps up the good work, and doesn’t feel compelled to go for the downer every time, as he often has in the past. While it wouldn’t be “Black Mirror” without the occasional bleak twist, it’s nice that he’s starting to let a little light shine on that dark worldview of his from time to time. I can get behind that. Real life these days is unpleasant enough, right? Here’s hoping that changes in the new year…

On that note, thanks, as always, for reading, and have a Happy New Year!