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Black Mirror Season 4 review: Great, Netflix ends 2017 on an emotionally scarring note

Black Mirror Season 4 review: Netflix ends 2017 with the feel-bad show of the year; the greatest, most ambitious thing on TV that only the brave should watch. Just as essential as ever.

tv Updated: Jan 11, 2018 13:24 IST
Rohan Naahar
In USS Callister, Charlie Brooker attempts what has to be his most audacious experiment yet — creating a typically disdainful episode of Black Mirror as seen through the famously optimistic lens of Star Trek.
In USS Callister, Charlie Brooker attempts what has to be his most audacious experiment yet — creating a typically disdainful episode of Black Mirror as seen through the famously optimistic lens of Star Trek.

Black Mirror - Season 4
Cast - Andrea Riseborough, Georgina Campbell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Maxine Peake, Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel
Rating - 4/5

You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.

- Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting, Gangs of New York

Black Mirror works like Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting. Like that Daniel Day Lewis character, it glares at us from under a tremendous top hat, silently, patiently, waiting for a sign of weakness. And when it spots us tremble, it pounces, mercilessly. It thrives on our fear, of others, of ourselves, but mostly, of the unknown…

We fear what we do not understand, and as long as we retain this very basic human quality — and honestly, there is no evidence to suggest that we won’t — creator Charlie Brooker will keep exploiting it.

But for how long? How long till we snap out of it, and embrace the fact that there are things that we do not — and will not ever — understand? Brooker’s greatest achievement is not that he has created a TV show that identifies our worst fears — and in many ways, sticks a (black) mirror to the society’s face — but that he has somehow convinced us all that our greatest fear isn’t people who don’t look like us, or the evil we are capable of, or the realisation that deep down we might not be nice people, but something as innocuous as technology.

And we’re dummies all right, for having fallen for it.

But let’s set all this aside for a moment — all this guilt and anger and racism and pessimism — and concentrate on the biggest fear for a Black Mirror fan. How long do we have before this show — our favourite — inevitably stumbles.

The cracks began to appear last year, when it sold its soul to a Netflix-shaped devil for a larger audience, bigger budget, and more episodes. For three years, we’d experienced perfection, and now, for the first time, Black Mirror had failed in meeting its unspeakably high targets. Was this the beginning of the end?

It might be.

Season 4, like Season 3 before it, is a mixed bag. But blame Black Mirror for conditioning me into looking at the bleaker side of things because while there are two episodes that didn’t register in the least — Arkangel and Metalhead — the other four were, simply put, classic Black Mirror.

It’s easy to forget, amid all the paranoid razzle-dazzle, that at its core, this show is a masterclass of genre storytelling. Brooker has brought exposition and foreshadowing down to a science. Think about it; the easy option — and indeed, the Hollywood option — would be to open every episode with a couple of minutes of quick title cards explaining the world, its weird rules, and bringing the viewer up to speed.

But remember Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting? Would he sit down and explain to his enemies — foolish young men and women — why he is about to chop their arms off? Would he offer them a cup of tea before breaking their knuckles with a rusty hammer? Then how could you expect Brooker — who for the purposes of this review, I am imagining as a gang leader for the Twitter generation — to write expository cards in the manner of Star Wars and Blade Runner for his show?

Half the fun of watching Black Mirror is learning new information along with it, surrendering yourself completely to its maniacal mind, and for an hour, playing puppet in the hands of an evil master. Never is this more apparent — at least in Season 4 — than in Crocodile. Under the direction of John Hillcoat, it’s a cracker of an episode, about memory, guilt, and legal paperwork.

And while it doesn’t quite hit the unreasonable bar set by San Junipero, Hang the DJ offers similar, if not quite as deep, insights into modern romance. And for the more eagle-eyed desis among us, there’s arranged marriage (and auto-rickshaws) to debate over a cup of matcha.

But there are two episodes that are emblematic of where we are in our relationship with Black Mirror in 2017. It isn’t the same equation we shared six years ago, when Season 1 was unleashed onto the world, changing the TV landscape forever.

I won’t say too much about Black Museum, other than the polite suggestion that you watch it last. You’ll thank me later.

But in USS Callister, Brooker attempts what has to be his most audacious experiment yet — creating a typically disdainful episode of Black Mirror as seen through the famously optimistic lens of Star Trek.

On paper, it sounds like a rather foolhardy mission, some would say, as ill-judged as trying to blend oil and water together. But here’s Brooker’s secret: while the idea of creating an unprecedented symphony is enticing, that’s not what he’s going for. He’s fully aware that the elements he is introducing to each other are volatile — especially if they come into contact. He’s Charlie Brooker. This is Black Mirror. What do you think happens?

I’ll tell you. We display unity unlike the world has ever seen before and kidnap Charlie Brooker. We lock him up in an underground bunker, safe from Donald Trump, Twitter and nuclear war. His only purpose will be to write new episodes of Black Mirror until he dies. Hopefully, till then we would’ve figured out what happens in the afterlife, so we can ensure he continues writing there, as well.

Watch the Black Mirror - Season 4 trailer here

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar