Review: Black Mirror Season 3 Gave Me the Most Beautiful Love Story I’ve Ever Seen (and More)
A brand new season of Black Mirror means 6 new episodes of existential dread. Or does it? This season hits on social media, video games, internet vigilante justice, VR, and so much more in engaging and defamiliarizing ways.
Before I dive into my rundown of the season, it’s probably good to keep in mind showrunners Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones themselves pointed out that they’ve seen all episodes labelled both worst and best because, well, that’s the nature of an anthology. It’s natural that different parts of different episodes will stick to you, so I’d be very interested to hear what your Black Mirror viewing was like and what stood out to you in the comments!
If you’re trying to avoid spoilers, head back now.
“Nosedive”: I went in with high hopes for this episode because Rashida Jones and Mike Shur were the writers, and Joe Wright the director. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as an office worker in a world that obsessively ranks every tiny social interaction. If you’re not sure why this is a horrendous but not totally unbelievable concept, just read our write-up on Peeple, the “Yelp for people” app. Howard does a fantastic job as Lacie, a ranking-obsessed woman who’s overly friendly and accommodating to raise her ranking. Our introduction into this system is done with minimal handholding and it’s the perfect episode to kick off the season.
Howard’s performance shines because even if you’re a person who doesn’t care about social media rankings and popularity, Lacie is so caught up on it that the stakes feel so high. Her desperation and upsetting argument that even if she doesn’t like the system, she still has to navigate it “because that’s how the world works” rings way too true. Sadly, it wouldn’t be Black Mirror without a horrendous, life-destroying breakdown and Howard delivers in the episode’s climax. While the ending is bitter-sweet, I can’t really imagine it ending any other way.
Fun fact: you can now download the sounds for this episode to passive-aggressively 1-star people when they’re being butt-heads.
“Playtest”: In a perfect combination, this episode was directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s Dan Trachtenberg. Wyatt Russell plays Cooper, a “thrill-seeking globetrotter” who ends up testing virtual reality and video game technology for money to buy a flight home. The company, run by Ken Yamamura, gets him to test a chip that’ll probe his brain to make the scariest possible experience in a 19th century-esque mansion. Embedded in this narrative is Cooper’s difficult relationship with his mother, whose calls he keeps ignoring after his father developed onset Alzheimer’s and died. This bleeds into the game and the story approaches the fear of mental deterioration, as well as the future of gaming.
We’ve covered how VR/AR can be both beneficial and dangerous for mental health, and “Playtest” cranks that up to 100. Trachtenberg’s love for video games is very apparent. The showrunners mentioned the Bioshock reference was his idea (there’s also some Resident Evil in there). There’s a lot of self-awareness in its use of jump scares and tropes that also make this episode hilarious. “Playtest” is a fun episode, but it didn’t stick with me the same way as some of the others—probably because I don’t foresee myself testing augmented reality experiences that builds off of my most repressed fears anytime soon.
“Shut Up and Dance”: Referred to as “a kitchen sink nightmarish thriller,” this episode was one of the most stressful to watch. Alex Lawther plays Kenny, a teenager who gets blackmailed to go on a series of tasks by a mysterious entity after they obtain a video of him masturbating through his laptop. These tasks begin with picking up a cake and end with him robbing a bank and fighting a man to the death. He meets other blackmailed individuals along the way, including a man played by Jerome Flynn who planned to cheat on his wife.
Lawther does a phenomenal job as the helpless teen who looks like he’s on the brink of falling apart every second—before being pushed another 10 steps further. When the episode began, I wondered why the protagonist wasn’t a female character considering how often we hear stories of women being blackmailed with nude photos or revenge porn. There’s a reason for this however—at the conclusion we learn that Kenny was looking at images of children after the mysterious blackmailer sends a troll face and releases all their material anyway. “Shut Up and Dance” presents lots of questions about empathy and “internet” justice. Pedophile fight club would, after all, be a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Often, it feels almost too sadistic, but this heavy-handedness doesn’t feel out of place. While not my favorite episode, it succeeds in being deeply unsettling. It’s a story without a good guy and if you’re marathoning like I was, I’d recommend taking a break and maybe grabbing a milkshake or something.
“San Junipero”: If you only watch one episode of this season, this is the one I recommend. “San Junipero” is getting a huge amount of praise, especially from the LGBTQIA community and it’s well deserved. It’s pretty easy to say that my favorite episode is the one that ends happily with the most perfect ending song possible blaring, but “San Junipero” is more than that. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis play Kelly and Yorkie, two women who meet and fall in love in an ’80s style setting. Eventually, we learn that the place, San Junipero, is a virtual reality experience where users can choose a time period—a nice play on the nostalgia we’re seeing a lot of in media.
The two meet in real life and it’s revealed that they’re elderly women. They spend 5 hours a week in the system and can choose to remain there forever as their younger selves after they die. Kelly is a widow whose husband chose to die conventionally and Yorkie became comatose after she ran away from her religious intolerant parents and got in a car accident. Kelly marries Yorkie in order to authorize her euthanasia, and they enter into a kind-of-relationship that’s at first strained by Kelly’s hesitance to pass and commit to Yorkie/San Junipero.
At one point Mackenzie Davis exclaims, “It’s not a trap!” which, in the Black Mirror world, feels like a lie. San Junipero feels like it should be sinister and in some places like the dark Quagmire, it is. But it’s also a world that opens up possibilities, allowing a queer woman who was never given acceptance a place for love. And in a time when it wasn’t legal! Black Mirror is a powerful show not because it hates technology, but because it’s invested in how technology will change human stories. Not unlike “Be Right Back,” this episode questions what it means to preserve life and love after death. “San Junipero,” however, brings us a future where technology changes death so it’s not just a scary experience, but a comforting one that can reunite loved ones. I cried buckets.
“Men Against Fire”: Following up one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever seen with an episode that’s largely about ethnic cleansing is a very Black Mirror move. Here, we begin with Malachi Kirby and Madeline Brewer as Stripe and Ray, two members of a military squad fighting a group they refer to as “roaches.” All members are implanted something called MASS, which feed them sexual fantasies as reward for killing roaches.
After an incident where Stripe kills roaches, his implant glitches and a roach then appears as a woman named Caterina. He learns that MASS alters his vision so roaches look like monstrous, wild creatures. Michael Kelly as Arquette, a psychologist, explains that MASS allows them to make stronger soliders—dehumanizing the enemy to make violence easier and less traumatic. He also delivers a speech about bloodlines, and how killing “roaches” makes humanity more “pure.” Kelly’s performance is fantastic in this scene, which could have easily come across as a lecture in less-talented hands. Stripe is then forced to relieve his combat experience, unaltered, and agrees to have his memory erased so he can live without the guilt. He’s then discharged and left in MASS-induced vision, willingly ignorant of the truth.
“Men Against Fire” makes obvious World War II parallels, including a scene that looks like an homage to Inglourious Basterds. There’s also a really interesting use of perspective that’s reminiscent of first-person shooter games. This is a pretty straight-forward episode and a highly relevant exploration of modern warfare. It’s also by far the bloodiest, so brace yourselves.
“Hated in the Nation”: With a much bigger season Black Mirror wanted to end on a strong note, and 90 minutes gives the episode plenty of space to do that. The story begins with Kelly Macdonald as DCI Karin Parke giving a testimony. Parke and partner Blue (Faye Marsay) uncover a phenomenon where people using a hashtag, #DeathTo, to criticize celebrities, politicians, and other figures results in them actually dying.
They find out that someone is using Autonomous Drone Insects created to replace the extinct bee population to carry out these murders. (Side note: Why no one even attempts to cover the target’s ears or nose is very frustrating to watch.) In a Law and Order: SVU-esque twist, Benedict Wong’s character is force to confess the bees are also a tool of government surveillance. Eventually, they discover the culprit’s identity and obtain his phone—which includes a list of everyone who ever used the hashtag. In this case, the phone is a trap and deactivating the bees actually causes them to kill 387,036 people. Parke has to give the testimony and Blue, who’s said to have committed suicide, is actually tracking down the culprit.
Apparently, the showrunners planned “Hated in the Nation” for ages, which makes sense considering how much it does in 90-minutes. The episode honestly feels like its own movie. “Hated in the Nation” follows a pretty conventional police procedural format and doesn’t stray far from it, a decision I wasn’t a huge fan of. Death threats and similar sentiments on Twitter and government surveillance are both extremely timely topics and the ambition of combining them in one episode is something to admire. The characters don’t treat these occurrences like news (“Okay! The government’s a cunt. We knew that already.”), which might be the weakness here. They aren’t magnified or build upon the same way that we see in other episodes.
The biggest conflict in this is the villain character for whom technology provides the means to carry out his evil plans. The moral of the story here as a civilian is to not send death threats over Twitter, which is pretty straightforward and somewhat less compelling than the collective struggles we see in “Nosedive” or “Men Against Fire.”
Overall, I enjoyed season 3 a lot and felt like it gave us a series of solid and thoughtful episodes. What did you think?
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