'Black Mirror' Season 4 Review: The Dark Anthology Series Returns To Netflix

Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker's dark, twisted, technology-driven Twilight Zone riff, is about return to Netflix for yet another season of woe and punishment. There's a cold cosmic justice at work in Black Mirror; a sense that any transgression, no matter how mundane, will be met with the bleakest of punishments. It can often make for an unpleasant experience. Yet Black Mirror explored exciting new possibilities last season, with the acclaimed San Junipero – an episode that revealed that hopefulness was also a possibility in the Black Mirror universe. Best of all, it was an episode that wasn't obsessed with conveying a twisted moral – it simply used the Black Mirror premise to tell a story about two characters and the results were stunning.

Black Mirror season 4, sadly, does not have an episode that resonates as much as San Junipero did last season. The show once again continues down a dark, unrelenting path – which is to be expected, since that was the built-in methodology long before San Junipero came along. But how does Black Mirror season 4 stack up as a whole? The good news is that the latest season of Black Mirror goes off into new, unexpected directions and has fun playing around with style and form. The six episodes that occupy the latest season all vary in plot, tone, and message, which is a welcome change compared to previous seasons, which had a tendency to blur together.

Season 4 has assembled a fine line-up of talent: Jodie Foster, Toby Haynes, John Hillcoat, Tim Van Patten, David Slade, Colm McCarthy helm episodes that include Andrea Riseborough, Jesse Plemons, Letitia Wright, Rosemarie Dewitt. The episodes are slick, well-produced and continually disturbing in the way that most modern-day horror movies can only dream of being. But there remains a distinct sense that Black Mirror is missing something. That it's messaging is too blunt, that its punishments are too harsh. Then again, the real world itself no longer deals in subtlety. As 2017 draws to an end, we find ourselves trapped in a daily cycle of surreality – up is down, black is white, and norms that once seemed to be universally accepted have been tossed out the window. These are times that should, in effect, speak directly to the type of entertainment Black Mirror is selling.

Yet I find myself mentally returning, again and again, to The Twilight Zone, the televised fountain from which Black Mirror springs. Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone also trafficked in stories loaded with themes and messages that reflected on society, and more often than not they ended on bleak, unforgiving notes. But there was a balance to The Twilight Zone that Black Mirror continuously struggles to achieve.

That's not to say Black Mirror season 4 is a complete wash. It remains an engrossing piece of pop entertainment, loaded with enough dark, cerebral material to make you squirm and reflect in equal measure. Let's pick apart the new season episode by episode. Rather than listing the episodes the way they're presented, I'm going to list them below in order from best to worst. In other words, the first episode discussed is the best episode of season 4, while the last is the worst. I will do my very best to avoid spoilers, since half the fun of Black Mirror comes from the shock to the system it delivers. Still, anyone hoping to be 100% oblivious to what the new season has to offer, take heed.

Arkangel

It's every son or daughter's nightmare, and every over-possessive parent's dream: imagine being able to keep track of your child, at all times, with the push of a button. Jodie Foster helms this twisted, darkly funny take on parental control that grows increasingly disturbing as it unfolds.

Rosemarie Dewitt is a single mother who has trouble letting go of her daughter (Brenna Harding). Thankfully, Dewitt's character inhabits the Black Mirror universe, where becoming an overly-vigilante parent is only one technological upgrade away. Dewitt's decision might seem harmless at first, but things get swiftly out of hand, especially when Harding's character finds herself hooking up with a local bad boy (played by It's Owen Teague).

Narratively, Arkangel starts to run out of steam as it nears its inevitable conclusion, and one gets the sense that the storyline was never completely developed beyond the episode's great initial premise. Yet this ends up being the best episode of the season primarily due to Foster's inventive direction. The episode spans several years, a feat Foster accomplishes with a simple yet highly effective montage that takes us forward through time in a blink of an eye. Foster also has a lot of fun playing with the technological aspects of the narrative, particularly an element that serves to censor disturbing material in real-time.

Also adding to the episodes are the three central performances. Dewitt's overly-cautious mother could've easily come across as shrill or unsympathetic, but the actress hits just the right note to make the character's actions seem understandable. Harding makes the biggest impression, bringing a cocky confidence mixed with a vulnerability to her role – this is a performance that confirms this actress needs to go on to bigger and better things. And Teague, as the older boy Harding falls for, brings a likability to his role. The actor has been building a resume playing troubled young men, from Bloodline to It, and a less-intelligent script would've turned this character into a walking cliche. But Brooker's writing and Teague's performance makes the character well-rounded.

Arkangel is not the best episode Black Mirror has ever produced, but it's certainly one of the most effective. Best of all, the writing is clever and somewhat subtle enough that by the time the episode's shocking ending arrives, it doesn't feel like a cheat on Brooker's part. Rather, all the clues have been in place to reveal that this is where the story had been heading the entire time.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Metalhead

I have a feeling Metalhead, from Hardy Candy and Hannibal director David Slade, is going to be a polarizing episode among Black Mirror fans. For one thing, it's deceptively minimalistic. The episode wastes no time in setting up a story, or a theme, or even its characters. Instead, it launches head-first into an unrelenting black and white nightmare that plays hell with your nerves.

Set in (presumably) some sort of post-apocalyptic dystopia, Maxine Peake (The Theory of Everything) plays a survivor out scrounging for supplies who finds herself up against a four-legged robotic monstrosity that won't let up. It's sort of like Cujo, if Cujo the rabid dog were a rabid robot.

Anyone hoping for wit, or twists, or some sort of allegory here is going to be shocked to discover how stripped-down Metalhead is. Yet the episode's pulse-pounding, nightmarish scenario might just sink its fangs into you. A key element to making Metalhead work is the eerie, atonal score coupled with an uneasy sound design. I was reminded of the constant machine-like whirring that seemed to always be present in David Lynch's Eraserhead. This is pure nightmare fuel, and sometimes that's enough.

Rating: 8 out of 10

USS Callister

I'll have to tread lightly here, because USS Callister is not the episode it's being sold as. The scant promotional material associated with this episode has teased that it's a send-up of the original Star Trek TV series – which it is. But don't expect a Galaxy Quest-style parody here.

USS Callister is set in two distinct locations: the boring, mundane real world, and the world of the USS Callister, a Star Trek-style space opera set aboard a spaceship piloted by a Shatner-esque captain, played to perfection by Jesse Plemons. Cristin Milioti plays the latest addition to the USS Callister crew that already includes Jimmi Simpson and Michaela Coel, among others. But the crew of the Callister are hiding a dark secret that threatens to undo everything.

While dipping into your standard Star Trek parody zone – wooden, womanizing captain; hokey plotlines; cartoonish alien adversaries – USS Callister is really presenting a disturbing commentary on male toxicity. Plemons' star captain is your prototypical self-proclaimed "nice guy" who is anything but.

Director Toby Haynes has helmed several Doctor Who episodes and there is a distinct Who-ish flare to this episode. It also runs at feature length, which may try the patience of some viewers, especially since the episode begins to spin its wheels near its conclusion.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Crocodile

John Hillcoat, who directed the bleaker-than-bleak films The Proposition and The Road, helms this, the bleakest episode of Black Mirror season 4. Crocodile has a killer premise: Andrea Riseborough plays a successful woman who finds a tragic event from her past coming back to haunt her. Unfortunately, she inhabits a world where there exists technology that essentially turns one's memories into mini home movies. As Riseborough's story unfolds, and grows increasingly more unpleasant, we are also presented with parallel narrative featuring Kiran Sonia Sawar as an insurance claim investigator who uses the memory projection technology as part of her job.

Looks can be deceiving. While Crocodile deals with unpleasant material from the start, there is an air of pitch black comedy to the proceedings. At first. There's a Coen Brothers by way of Hitchcock-like atmosphere at play as the story unfolds, with one unfortunate situation leading to another as Riseborough gets more and more in over her head. But there's an abrupt, unrelentingly brutal left-turn in the narrative that the episode never quite recovers from, which is a pity.

Riseborough is sensational here, a live-wire growing increasingly more frazzled. Sawar is charming, creating a working-class heroine we can really relate to and root for. These performances, coupled with the clever storyline, should have made for the best episode of the season. But Brooker's script can't quite juggle all the elements that are up in the air here, and the end result is ultimately lacking.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Hang the DJ

Charlie Brooker likely looked at the overwhelmingly positive reaction to San Junipero, and realized he had to give Black Mirror season 4 a love story as well. Enter Hang the DJ, a Black Mirror take on the wild world of online dating from Game of Thrones director Tim Van Patten.

Georgina Campbell (Broadchurch) and Joe Cole (Green Room) play lonely hearts living in an Orwellian society where Big Brother isn't only always watching, he's also deciding who you can go out on a date with as well. Campbell and Cole are paired-up on a date that goes exceptionally well, but ends quickly. From there, the two find themselves in one dead-end relationship after another, while always remembering the spark they shared on their quick night together.

Nowhere near as memorable or sweet as San Junipero, Hang the DJ is nonetheless a fun diversion from all the darkness the prevails in the other episodes. What keeps Hang the DJ afloat are the utterly charming performances from Campbell and Cole. The actors have an incredible chemistry together, and their flirty, funny performances are a treat to watch. But Hang the DJ makes the mistake that San Junipero wisely avoided: it remembers it's a Black Mirror episode, and therefore thinks it's restricted to a specific perimeter. The inevitable Black Mirror twist that arrives proves to be ultimately unsatisfying, robbing much of the episode's already built-up goodwill.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Black Museum

How's this for meta: Black Museum is an anthology episode inside an anthology show. The Girl With All the Gifts director Colm McCarthy helms this episode, which features not one but four different storylines: a framing narrative and three separate stories within it.

Black Mirror has done this sort of thing before with their Christmas episode Black Mirror, White Christmas, but Black Museum takes it to the next level. It's a bold idea, and gives the episode a nice Night Gallery-esque feel. In a clever twist, Black Museum seems to exist within the same timelines of several other previous Black Mirror episodes: there are visual call-backs to props from different Black Mirror episodes, both from Netflix and the Channel 4 era, but I'll let you try to spot them all without any hints.

Black Panther's Letitia Wright plays a road tripper who ends up at a tourist trap: the Black Museum, a crime museum that houses artifacts used in several tech-based crimes. Wright is guided through the museum by the sleazy-seeming owner, played with sweaty menace by Douglas Hodge (The Night Manager).

Individually, the stories that are presented in Black Museum are interesting and twisted enough to entice Black Mirror fans. One segment, based on a story by Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame, is ghoulish and gory enough to give you nightmares. The problem, however, is that the individual segments never really colace with the anthology framing device. You get the sense that any of the stories here would be better served as one distinct episode, rather than being truncated to fit within the framework here. Worse than that, the wraparound story that frames everything is mostly void of life until the final few minutes, which saps it of its ultimate impact. Save this episode for last and enjoy the others first.

Rating: 5 out of 10

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Black Mirror season 4 will premiere on Netflix on December 29, 2017.