Netflix Review: Black Mirror
My takes on themes, cinematography, and the writing of Black Mirror’s mini movies
Show writer and creator Charlie Brooker is a sharp, witty, and cynical social commentator. In America, we call that Jon Stewart.
Brooker is also a show-writing genius. His ingenuity is evidenced by his writing on the cinematic sci-fi miniseries Black Mirror.
Brooker deserves a heap of praise and credit as the frontman for the show. Every episode changes actors and directors. Brooker remains the consistent name in the credits from episode to episode. Great writing is the foundation for creating great cinema, and that’s what Brooker provides to Black Mirror.
I cannot fail to mention the production and acting throughout the series is incredible. The futuristic gadgetry and concepts employed play realistic on screen, and the actors come through every time with exceptional performances.
Without further ado, if you’re with me for the long run, let’s start talking some Black Mirror episode by episode.
My Top 3 episodes will be listed at the bottom.
Season 1 Episode 1: The National Anthem
I haven’t enjoyed the first ten minutes of a movie or show more than I did when I watched the first episode of Black Mirror.
The premise is set in the opening frames that the princess of England is captured and the prime minister must have sexual intercourse with a pig on national television as demanded by anonymous terrorists as the condition for her release. AND GO.
I knew from the get-go this was not going to be a good day for prime minister Michael Callow. I fully expected that Callow was going to have to pork the pig. I audibly laughed at the demand. Callow thought it was a joke, but it was a very real threat. I can’t imagine a better way to start out a series than that.
After the premise was doled out, the rest of the episode is a thrill ride. How will the Prime Minister escape what appears to be an inescapable fate? There’s also a significant amount of time spent from the angle of the general populace and news stations covering this breaking catastrophic story. The message being human fascination with the utterly absurd. The social media based world we live in gets us to react to anything, even a prime minister banging a pig.
What keeps The National Anthem from being in my top 3 is the epilogue ending. It was a bit puzzling to see the orchestrator of the threat being referenced as an artist and not as a twisted criminal mastermind.
Season 1 Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits
I was visibly angry and shaken by the end of Fifteen Million Merits. After spending the rest of the night thinking about the characters, the progression of the plot, and the result, I realized I couldn’t be mad.
The star of the episode, Daniel Kaluuya, now known for his starring role in Get Out, plays Bing, a boy who finally find loves in a miserable existence. Bing’s purpose in life is to pedal a stationary bike that assumedly powers the outside world in exchange for a currency called ‘merits’. Bing’s love interest is Abi, a Zooey Deschanel type who has a sweet singing voice.
Bing earns enough merits to get on a Got Talent game show and gives them all to Abi who performs for a panel of judges that decide Abi is better off doing porn. Ouch.
Abi consumed a substance prior to her performance that makes her more liable to agree. Abi reluctantly agrees to a porn career and Bing goes mad. Bing earns fifteen million merits to get a place on the game show where he does a hilarious dance before pulling a piece of sharp glass on himself and reciting a spoken word poem with his calculated thoughts about the dreary world that has consumed him and the girl he loves.
Pause for a moment. I fully expected Bing to enter the game show and murder the judges, which would’ve been satisfying retribution for Bing. Instead, the judges offer Bing a role as a motivational speaker for the rest of the kids still riding the bikes. Bing sells out and the episode is over.
Now there’s a ton of content in this episode to unpack. There are a few secondary characters that have emotionally charged roles. Fifteen Million Merits also establishes some lore that future Black Mirror episodes refer to.
The key to Fifteen Million Merits is the hypothetical world it builds by using a claustrophobic environment.
Season 1 Episode 3: The Entire History of You
Fifteen Million Merits is a hard episode to follow up, but there’s a tiny bit of reprieve for those with a vengeful spirit.
In a world where your life is playable on DVR, it certainly makes male to female interaction pretty difficult, especially if you’re in a committed relationship.
There’s not a lot that needs to be said about this episode except that it’s uncomfortable in a gripping way. Our main character Liam, suspects his wife, Fi, of cheating with a guy named Jonas. In today’s reality, Liam would have to find proof of this through careful observation or through her phone. Instead, Liam can demand that Fi show her the tape. Once we see Fi’s reluctance, the build from there is obvious. Complications further because Fi has a baby on the way.
There’s a powerful dialogue in this episode about honesty and relationships. For the first half of the episode, I was skeptical of Liam’s confident stance of Fi’s infidelity. Black Mirror is great at keeping the viewer guessing up until the conclusion.
Season 2 Episode 1: Be Right Back
Be Right Back continues the theme of Brooker exploring the fragility of relationships. Instead of focusing on the trappings of infidelity, Be Right Back allows the dead to come back to life, via artificial intelligence.
Be Right Back, like The Entire History of You, progresses as a slow burn. This time, Hayley Atwell (who plays Peggy Carter in the Captain America films) is tasked as Martha with the sudden death of her husband, Ash. A friend of Martha’s refers her to a company that can use her husband’s catalog of online interaction to develop his personality and talks to Martha through text. But Ash’s voice is not enough, which how about Ash as a choice of name for this episode, anyway… Martha goes a step further with some new innovative technology.
Black Mirror pro tip! The more innovative the technology, the more it’s going to royally screw you, or someone you love, in the anus.
How much can we really love a representation of someone is one of the fore questions this episode asks? If anything, this episode shows that humans have a strange relationship with the idea of closure.
What Martha really needed was some therapy.
Season 2 Episode 2: White Bear
White Bear is all about sensationalism. It’s heavily reliant on its twist.
I’ll qualify my thoughts of White Bear like this, it’s a good episode. It’s absorbing from the beginning as the tone is set for a thriller/mystery/horror feature. I have one seminal issue with this episode that took away from my enjoyment.
There is nobody to root for. Not from beginning to end did I feel a slight bit of empathy for any character.
It can be argued that White Bear isn’t about rooting for anyone by the message it sends, but my immersion post-twist wasn’t complete without being able to level with any of the characters I’d grown with over the course of the episode.
Season 2 Episode 3: The Waldo Moment
IMDB apparently missed the memo on how good The Waldo Moment is. Reddit had a post-Trump argument about it. The AV Club misfired calling the episode, “not fun to watch”.
Not fun to watch? What are you watching Black Mirror for? A Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson car chase? The review claims that Brooker thought he was clever for the writing in this episode.
Come to find out, a walking and talking caricature of the Waldo blue bear is now President of the United States. I should stop right there, enough said. Of course, I won’t because I always have more thoughts.
The Waldo Moment has its political commentary yes, but what make Black Mirror episodes their best is the human element. Pitting human emotion against a technologically shifting world. Daniel Rigby as comedian James Salter plays a wonderful and inspired performance. Salter’s downfall is pseudo-Dave Chappelle in 2005 leaving Chappelle Show.
The Waldo Moment is a multi-layered episode that considers not only the effect of the public’s view of the political process, but the life of a scrubby comedian finding hope for the first time. Salter’s hope is abruptly taken from him by the scheming government and the money-grubbing corporate world. How fitting. One might call it clever.
Season 2 Episode 4: White Christmas
A pure tour de force performance by Jon Hamm highlights an all-time hour and thirteen minutes of this sensational thriller of an episode.
Hamm plays a greasy sleazy yet seemingly straight man named Matt, and he occupies an arctic shack with a quiet unassuming chap named Joe Potter. Matt attempts to get Joe to open up, but Joe seems content to let Matt discuss his previous livelihood. This dynamic has significant relevance down the line, indubitably.
Matt shares his story as an online real-time dating coach, which would lead to the demise of his relationship with his wife. His wife uses a technology that effectively blocks the sight and sound of Matt out of her life. Matt also tells a story involving a technology that clones a person’s consciousness and puts them in an egg where they become a monitoring system for themselves. It’s like if a sentient part of your mind was transferred into Siri or Alexa. The problem is that part of you is trapped in this system forever.
Joe finally speaks up and talks about his wife and her possible infidelity and not wanting to have their child. When Joe’s wife has the child, it becomes Joe’s mission to see his child in person. The rest of the episode takes all this information and compounds it into a shocking and memorable ending. White Christmas is sci-fi thriller at its absolute best.
The genius of White Christmas is how Brooker uses two forms of imaginative tech and seamlessly intertwines their use into one story.
Black Mirror has a lot of ‘oh shit’ moments in each episode, but then there are the OH SHIT moments. White Christmas climax and conclusion is a complete sequence of OH SHIT. White Christmas is an obvious top three selection.
Season 3 Episode 1: Nosedive
What impresses me about Nosedive is how Brooker not only makes an entire episode an analogy for social media but epitomizes it in real life.
Nosedive also proves how boring and dull life would be if everyone was nice to each other all the time. Is being nice overrated? Is that a crazy thing to say?
It’s not about being kind and all smiles, because anyone can put on an unrecognizable facade. 5-star people in public can just as easily be 1-star people in their own homes.
Nosedive follows Amy Adams, I mean Lacie Pound, in her misadventure to get a high enough rating to live with the elitists. Your value in life is determined by how other people rate you. It’s like if Tinder and Yelp combined to take over the world.
Pound’s journey leads to obvious disaster after disaster and we meet a sage old woman who just doesn’t give a damn. Despite the older woman’s wisdom, Pound is determined to make it to an acquaintance's wedding where she can make the speech that will finally get her a dream home.
The end of the episode is quite remarkable. I got a good laugh out of it, and it reminded me of the importance of self-value and comedy.
Random note: Rashida Jones is credited as a writer on this episode. Shoutout to you Rashida.
Season 3 Episode 2: Playtest
I hate this episode. I don’t hate it because it’s bad. I probably hate it because it’s horror and I’m terrible with spooks. I actually hate this episode because of spiders.
When Cooper gets to test out a new form of immersive virtual reality created by the next Hideo Kojima, he enters into a game world where everything is a little too real. It’s a cheesy plot on the surface, but executed well in that the episode is compact and thought-provoking.
Early in the episode, on a plane, a movie with a giant spider on top of a skyscraper is playing while Cooper pays little attention. Cooper might not have been paying attention, but I damn sure was, and I knew this was foreshadowing. I get it, I’m fixated on the spider. Let me provide even more unnecessary context.
I spent a solid 20 minutes of this episode walking around my room occasionally glancing at the TV. Playtest didn’t have more than two or three jumpscares, but the obvious one caught me dead to rights involving the aforementioned arachnid.
Let’s talk some actual substance for a brief moment. Playtest does a great job building suspense. I will say the payoff is cheap, which is rare in the Black Mirror anthology. Disregard the payoff and Playtest is terrifying due to the fact that virtual reality has the possibility of becoming more and more immersive over time.
Season 3 Episode 3: Shut Up and Dance
This is the blackmail episode. Two aspects of Shut Up and Dance land this episode in top three consideration. As in White Christmas, there’s a definite OH SHIT moment as the episode races to its conclusion. Where Shut Up and Dance truly excels is in setting the stakes early and having the characters pit their wills against their pride.
Shut Up and Dance takes the embarrassment premise from The National Anthem, but instead of analyzing it on a macro level with a political figure, places characters on a micro level losing the respect of those they love. The Prime Minister was embarrassed but he had heroic intentions, our cast here commit a crime and have to deal with numerous consequences.
We start with Kenny, a teen who has just committed the atrocity of watching some kiddie porn while his computer gathers footage of him pleasuring himself to it. The hackers, like in The National Anthem, are not going to be revealed, and we can assume it’s just some 46-year-old overweight man in his mother’s basement on a supercomputer. I like that Brooker focuses his episodes on what’s important, whereas we can only speculate on the perpetrators of the hack. The focus is on the characters affected by their actions becoming public.
Kenny is given specific instructions and time constraints that put the episode into 4th gear from the jump, and we stay on the gas pedal for the entire episode.
Two scenes provide truly memorable moments: the scene in the woods, and the bank scene. I’ll leave it at that.
The ending is appropriate considering the source material. Most any other result would be trying too hard.
Season 3 Episode 4: San Junipero
I have a lot of thoughts on San Junipero, and yet I don’t know if I want to say most of them. My first comment for those that haven’t seen it, just watch it. If you’ve seen it once, watch it again.
San Junipero is the most affecting episode of the series. An episode so carefully crafted from its writing to its acting to its design, this episode alone deserves an award. Praise. Adulation.
Not only does San Junipero make you consider the purposefulness of existence, it allows you to expand your imagination of what our universe is. What is love and where do we find it?
In brief, San Junipero follows Yorkie, a confused uptight 80’s girl who falls in love at first sight with another girl named Kelly. Their series of interactions inside a virtual world provides a sense of bewildering wonderment as you try to figure out what in the world is going on. We learn the virtual world is a conscious afterlife for those that are near death or have already past. San Junipero isn’t heaven, hell, or purgatory, but rather a human representation of one.
We experience the world of San Junipero through the interactions between Yorkie and Kelly.
The juxtaposition of love versus the impending doom of death is how San Junipero really pulls at the heartstrings.
San Junipero transitions to scenes in the real world where the elder Kelly has a tough decision to make with the elder Yorkie who lies in a hospital bed comatose.
San Junipero deserves its own piece, or podcast, or documentary, or director’s commentary where it can be further fleshed out in detail the magical essence this cinematic masterpiece has.
Season 3 Episode 5: Men Against Fire
As someone that watched the entire series in order, it’s unfair for Men Against Fire to follow up San Junipero. Alas, someone had to take the bullet.
Men Against Fire shrouds itself as a futuristic military shooter episode until we get to the meaty topic at the core of the episode. There’s weighty moral narrative to chew on in regards to the real life comparisons for Men Against Fire.
Soldiers march into a village that has claimed to be attacked by Roaches, which we later learn are basically zombies. There’ll be more to learn later but I was just glad that this episode wasn’t about humans against giant roach infestations.
There’s more to Men Against Fire than gritty camo soldiers gunning down zombies. Manipulation of who we make our enemies is the central theme of this piece, and the astute mind can tell where this episode is going if you haven’t watched it already. We watch as Stripe’s moral compass shifts and his superiors and comrades don’t appreciate it.
The technological idea put forth in Men Against Fire is an awful one that would be an atrocity if retrofitted in reality. The fact of the matter is, human’s don’t need mind-altering technology to achieve what is shown in Men Against Fire. Men Against Fire is a really powerful episode about the effects of propagandists.
Season 3 Episode 6: Hated in the Nation
Brooker is really fascinated by hackers, isn’t he?
Hated in the Nation is better known as CSI: Attack of the Killer Bees. This episode is written and flows much akin to a Criminal Minds episode where a group of investigators follows a trail of puzzling events that lead to a person’s death (the difference being I like the characters in Black Mirror as compared to Criminal Minds). What makes Hated in the Nation a cut above your typical crime serial drama is the creative premise that belies the backdrop of the episode.
Every day a Twitter vote is gathered where a certain person will be targeted by a swarm of bees that have been hacked by, you guessed it, an unknown hacker. The public participates by putting up a hashtag and choosing the next person to die. This death vote doesn’t truly catch London’s attention until day three when the reviled prime minister becomes the target. The theme of our social reaction to traumatizing news returns as a theme with yet another Prime Minister in dire straits.
The investigators, led by Karin and Blue, first have to identify the source of the attacks (the bees), discover the why (the social media list), and we finally get to have a who (the hacker). Finally we get a hacker with an identity because this time it’s important. This specific hacker has a whole manifest he’s trying to accomplish and its Blue’s mission to bring him to justice.
I view Hated in the Nation as a better version of an episode of CSI.
Season 4 Episode 1: USS Callister
Star Trek with a twist, because of course it is. Oh man, this episode is a fun one. I enjoy any well-written, well-made space sci-fi adventure. USS Callister checks both categories.
Of all the episodes to this point, Callister feels the most unique. Sure you could relate this episode to Playtest, but Callister plays as less of show and more as a movie. It’s the minor technicalities that separate movies from TV. Movies can distribute their bigger budgets on smoother camera motions and sequences. The acting and writing are often more crisp or eccentric. Not that TV can’t accomplish these feats, but for budgeting and time the cinema screen has more pop and flair.
I could imagine watching Callister in a movie theater.
Callister involves an immersive space VR video game called Infinity, where players enter into a Star Trekian game world, where they can do mostly whatever they please except for having sex. Reproductive organs don’t exist in Infinity, which comes much to the chagrin of our cast.
One of the creators of the game, Robert Daly, is perturbed by the fact that his boss (played by that guy you remember from Westworld) is the frontman for the company, despite Daly doing most of the back-end heavy lifting. Our protagonist enters the fray, the spritely Nanette Cole, who actually appreciates Daly’s work as a developer. Brooker pulled a neat bait and switch where we expected Daly to be the protagonist until we learn that Daly is actually a maniacal evil lunatic who has a secret modded version of Infinity. In Daly’s secret version of the game, he traps his coworkers into his game and forces them to live out his own sci-fi adventure fantasy. Cole becomes the newest victim and has to figure a way to get her real self to help her virtual self be deleted.
Jesse Plemons, who plays Daly, does a cunning job of being so disgustingly evil that you pray he’ll get what’s coming to him. Cristin Milioti is the perfect opposite where her infectious never-say-die spirit makes her impossible not to root for.
My immediate reaction to Callister was that giving any human the opportunity to play God is almost guaranteed to lead to outright disaster. What I really like about Callister is how it used the Star Trek lore as a framework to have more fun with the science fiction elements. What Brooker does so well is he gives you a balance of science and fiction that is conceivable even if flawed, and never overwhelms you with too much theory and information.
Season 4 Episode 2: Arkangel
I noticed immediately on IMDB before watching Arkangel this it was directed by the great actress Jodie Foster. This episode felt like a personal essay. Was it? I have no idea, but Foster is a mother, and this episode is all about motherhood.
I’m not going to act like I know anything about motherhood or have a ton of thoughts on it outside of admitting how difficult it must be. Arkangel centers around the overprotective parent, and what a mother wants her daughter to be able to see and do. It’s a common discussion amongst parents the limitations a child should have.
Marie is a mother who nearly lost her child, and decides to invest into a service called Arkangel that can keep track of a child. A camera placed in the body allows Marie to see what her daughter Sara sees, along with her vital signs and any hazards she may come across. There’s also a feature that can restrict the child from seeing or feeling anything harmful. It’s quickly realized by Marie and the government that a child that can harm themselves without feeling it is a bad idea. Arkangel is outlawed as a service, but Sara still has the technology inside of her well into her teen years.
Marie doesn’t use Arkangel until Sara’s Arkangel for some time until Sara gets involved with a boy who’s into drugs.
While not the most entertaining episode, I appreciate Arkangel for its distinct message on parenting and the value of familial trust and relationships.
Season 4 Episode 3: Crocodile
Similar to Hated in the Nation, we’re back to the CSI murder mystery style of episode. This time, our killer has a lot more involvement in the episode, and our investigator stumbles upon a case she never expected or wanted.
The big takeaway from Crocodile, outside of the cheeky twist ending, is the performance of Andrea Riseborough as Mia Nolan. Nolan’s arc as a character makes her a true MF’er and Riseborough is up for the challenge every grueling step of the way. There’s also a hilarious line at the end that shouldn’t be funny at all considering what occurred.
This episode is built around a technology that can access people’s memories and recreate them based on their thoughts and recollection. The Recaller, as it’s aptly called, is basically an advanced form of a lie detector test or witness testimony.
Like Arkangel, Crocodile is in the ‘good’ category. I enjoyed these episodes for what they were, which as much as it sounds like I’m harping on them, goes to show the overall quality of the series as a whole.
Season 4 Episode 4: Hang the DJ
If Nosedive was when Tinder and Yelp took over the world, Hang the DJ was a prequel where Match.com created a monopoly service on human relationships.
What makes Hang the DJ so good is that it begins with a simple engaging premise anyone can get into. A guy and a girl begin dating according to an app that gathers information about them through their interaction. The catch is all the people you date have a certain time limit that can range from hours to days to months to years. The end goal is that you get married to your final match and the algorithms have produced true love.
Hang the DJ is partially a commentary about how our algorithmic society is controlling how we feel about other people. Our culture today is reliant on algorithms to tell us what news we should pay attention to, what to buy, what movies and music we should listen to, and even who we should fall in love with. The slippery slope is applied to the dating aspect in Hang the DJ. Does love have a say or should we trust the process?
Our protagonists Frank and Amy believe in love, but the dating simulation has other ideas. We learn through the course of the episode that the characters are trapped within a simulation until their final match is found. Frank and Amy’s wills and feelings are put to the ultimate test.
Hang the DJ is a top quality Black Mirror episode.
Season 4 Episode 5: Metalhead
Brooker thoughtfully answered a couple questions about Metalhead in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that I found quite insightful. I did not know about the Boston Dynamic robot dogs before watching Metalhead, and seeing them afterward definitely adds some eerie contextual background.
The top reviews of Metalhead from critics laud praise while on the IMDB scale this episode faired poorly(a 6.7 rating, the lowest of all Black Mirror episodes on IMDB). I find that discrepancy fascinating. I don’t trust either IMDB or critics with my personal opinion, but it’s always fun to juxtapose the two, especially when there’s such a big difference.
Why didn’t the fans like this episode? I’m still quite puzzled by this, but I’m biased because I thought Metalhead was a great episode. The antagonists, the miniature robot dogs that were aptly called, dogs, were basically mini-canine terminators. Just like in Terminator, the machine is never dead, and that’s what builds the suspense throughout the show. Our main character, a crafty heroic survivor of apocalypse, Bella, has her close encounters and can only manage to escape the dogs while her friends Clarke and Anthony are quickly disposed of. Bella is on a mission to deliver something to someone, which gives her character extra motivation, but the focal point remains that she survives the onslaught.
Bella has to outsmart and out-think her superior robot foe. The stature of the dogs doesn’t seem menacing, but its arsenal of weapons makes the dog an effective horror movie villain. Metalhead is the definition of edge of your seat entertainment. I’m not a fan of watching cinema in black and white, but the visual is achieved so well in Metalhead I forgot about the vintage look within the first five minutes of the episode.
I was engrossed in the woman vs. machine narrative. Certain scenes reminded me of Die Hard or The Shallows, where Bella is trapped in a close quarters predicament and has to scheme a way out of it. The best action movies accomplishment that feat without insulting your intelligence. Metalhead is an intelligent feature that future action films should study.
Season 4 Episode 6: Black Museum
The structure of Black Museum should remind you of White Christmas. Three recalled stories involving separate technologies eventually all relate back to each other. Just like White Christmas, Black Museum pulls this feat off masterfully. The story here is powerful, shocking (pun intended), and made me the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been watching television.
There’s a knot in my stomach just thinking about the first story told in this episode. I’ll never forgive Brooker for the giant spider in Playtest, and for the twisted visuals that occur early on in Black Museum. I had a physical reaction to a sequence where I felt sick and lightheaded. I had to take about a 20-minute where break before I could continue watching.
A black woman named Nish, played by the lovely Leticia Wright, stops for gas in the middle of nowhere. The only other building beside the gas station is the decrepit Black Museum. She enters and finds the hermit proprietor, Rolo Haynes, a carnie-like orator who tells the magnificent and disturbing stories of the artifacts in his museum. The first artifact was a medical tool where a doctor used a mesh-like helmet that allowed him to feel what his patients were feeling to get an accurate diagnosis. The doctor became addicted to the pain which led to me needing a 20-minute break when his addiction escalated to grueling proportions.
The second story involves a teddy bear, where a woman who was hit by a car and put into a comatose state, had her conscious transferred into her husband’s head by Rolo Haynes himself. At this point we can see where Haynes is certainly no saint. The husband struggles to deal with his wife in his head constantly, and he has her transferred into their daughter’s teddy bear. This technology was no doubt doomed from the start and the husband, Jack, was pretty dumb for considering this to be a plausible solution to his wife dying.
We finally move on to the final exhibit. An older black man sitting in the electric chair. The final story takes the episode to its crescendo and makes Black Museum a masterful episode with a definitive “oh shit” ending.
- San Junipero
- White Christmas
- Fifteen Million Merits
If you’re here with me at the end, maybe you scrolled down to see the top three, maybe you bounced around, maybe you made it through all 5,000 words! However you made it here, give yourself a pat on the back, and let’s all put our hands together in prayer for a fifth season of Black Mirror. This series rocks.