The first episode of Black Mirror’s newly-released fourth season, “USS Callister,” opens in the least characteristic way possible for the dark, futuristic series. With the screen dimensions boxed into ’60s-era ratios, we watch an expert Star Trek parody, in which Jesse Plemons plays the Captain Kirk-type character, Captain Daly. Speaking in that iconic William Shatner-style stop-and-start ultra-dramatic rhythm, Daly directs his star fleet through perilous dangers, their shield levels plummeting, to destroy an enemy ship. After successfully vanquishing the enemy, the crew crowds around Daly to lavish praise on him, kneeling and serving up adulation like starstruck children. The female crew members line up to receive dramatic, swooning kisses.
It isn’t until later that this opening scene is fully revealed to be the waking nightmare that it is. We watch Daly exit this virtual reality game he’s created and enter his real life as the Chief Technology Officer of video game company. His business partner is a loudmouth who doesn’t respect him, his employees (even the intern) don’t take him seriously, he’s balding, acne-scarred, and laughed at. Every night, he enters a personally-developed video game simulation of his favorite sci-fi TV show, in which the crew is made up of the people he works with.
From the opening, it seems like a story we’ve seen before—a diminutive, lonely nerd who suffers at the hands of jerks, but that isn’t the real nightmare. That comes when Daly uploads a code-version of Nanette (Cristin Milioti), the new woman at work he has a crush on, into the game. Expectations you might have had at the beginning of the episode are turned on their heads as Nanette’s story reveals the insane, cruel reality of Daly’s video game kingdom.
To say anything more would spoil the rest of the journey. Suffice it to say, the first episode of the newest Black Mirror season deftly plays with audience sympathies and assumptions. It delivers a terrifying and probing look into technology and the people who use it, like many Black Mirror episodes, but what really sets the first episode apart is how hilarious it is. Moments such as Milioti muttering “Jesus” at the goofy villain’s ridiculous laughter, along with tons of other parodic gems lighten the tone. It’s the funniest episode of the show to date, and yet the humor doesn’t detract from the excitement and terror of the story.
Plemons’ performance is multi-faceted to say the least. He plays Daly the downtrodden nerd, Captain Daly the confident star fleet leader, and as the show goes on, he reveals the much darker sides of both of those characters. Milioti captures our sympathies as soon as she arrives, and then delivers on the anger, terror, and humor that her character demands.
“USS Calister” is a season highlight to be sure, but the rest of the season also doesn’t disappoint. Black Mirror has been delivering some of the best televised storytelling available for three years, and it still hasn’t lost its touch. Each installment in the new six-episode anthology season is worth the watch.
The Jodie Foster-directed “Arkangel” plots the plight of a single mother who installs a device in her daughter, allowing her to track and watch her. It’s a quieter, simpler story at heart, one about the attachment and fear of motherhood alongside teenage rebellion and the coming-of-age so many shows and movies have explored. With just one technological possibility—that a mother can watch her daughter wherever she goes—the show unfolds disturbing consequences in its exploration of the mother-daughter relationship.
“Arkangel” demonstrates one of Black Mirror’s best narrative tools—the gradual build-up of dread. Even on the smaller scale of a teenage girl lying to her mom so she can hang out with a boy, there’s the constant sense that things are going to go very wrong very quickly. The conclusion definitely delivers.
Dread remains a connecting thread throughout the episodes, as series creator Charlie Brooker has established himself as a master of the cruel final act twist. If you’ve watched any Black Mirror before, you’ll find yourself constantly waiting for the moment in each episode when everything turns to crap. And you will find it.
The season’s final episode “Black Museum” takes the interesting concept of shorter stories based around artifacts within a museum and melds it into a compelling story about the woman being shown these artifacts. It’s one of the highlights of the season, alongside the remarkable “USS Calister.”
The low-point of the season is likely “Crocodile,” which presents one of the bleakest visions yet. A murder story set in northern Europe, the episode is increasingly unpleasant to watch—a factor that is acknowledged and accentuated by the distinct dissonant soundtrack. The protagonist hopelessly falls into a series of deplorable crimes, to the point that no viewer could possibly condone her actions. There is nothing approaching redemption or hope by the end of that particular hour. It’s still good television, as every episode of Black Mirror is, but its raw unpleasantness and lack of larger message will likely only appeal to the real nihilists among us, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Overall, season 4 is another quality installment in the Black Mirror collection. Although it can dive to some remarkably bleak depths (“Metalhead” and “Crocodile”), it also presents surprising moments of optimism (“USS Callister” and “Hang the DJ”) that make the entire season a balanced, thrilling, and thought-provoking trip into the dark side of human connectivity.
Featured Image by Netflix