Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series has returned with a batch of six new realities to explore. Each episode adopts a new premise – usually centred around the dangers of a nascent technology – and follows it to its logical conclusion. Here, Brooker continues to use technological advancement to explore some of the most uncomfortable recesses of the human character, revealing how new inventions can permit us to carry out horrific crimes by abstracting us from our victims.
Shut Up and Dance is by far the most disturbing episode: set in a world that is the same as ours and featuring technology that already exists, this episode tells the tragic story of Kenny. Caught in a compromising situation by his laptop’s webcam, an anonymous harasser blackmails him into performing increasingly dangerous activities. The disturbing feasibility of its premise leads to a horrifying episode punctuated with moments of the blackest humour. The endless, slow-build of tension and the gut-wrenching final moments cement it as an episode which is deeply unpleasant and difficult to come to terms with. This is Black Mirror at its peak, an unremittingly bleak look at the way in which technology can allow us to mistreat our fellow humans. It trades on all of the show’s usual tropes: the abuse of technology, ideas of voyeurism, showing us a character’s punishment before detailing their crimes. While these elements may be familiar for fans of the show, they are put to such excellent use here that they seem completely fresh.
However, this central thematic through-line – of technological abstraction permitting inhumane cruelty – does not in itself guarantee success. Men Against Fire (an episode in which sensory augmentations facilitate a programme of ethnic cleansing) takes this idea to its extreme and yet lacks bite. It moves methodically towards its foreseeable twist, trudging through forty minutes of uninspiring, limp action and bland machismo, without ever landing an emotional beat. It is further weakened by the blandness of its visuals. While it is evidently trying to mimic the gritty style and gloomy colour palette of action horror films, the entire thing ends up being a forgettable mess. The run’s second episode, Playtest, also suffers from major issues. While better than Men Against Fire, its conclusion sacrifices narrative logic and thematic fulfilment in favour of a final shot which falsely suggests profundity.
In fact, this series’ standout episode is San Junipero, a bright, colourful instalment which categorically rejects the show’s usual message. For the first twenty minutes of its runtime, it is unclear whether the episode will even feature a technological twist. Instead, it seems to be the story of a blossoming lesbian romance in 1980s California. Had this been the sole premise, it still would have been an unmitigated success, sensitively depicting a heart-warming story with a winning visual style. Its ultimate support for technology and the good that it can do results in an uncharacteristically uplifting episode of the show.
Black Mirror’s third outing is unarguably flawed. As Men Against Fire and Playtest demonstrate, not every episode can balance emotional resonance, biting satire and deep discomfort. Nevertheless, when the show flies, it soars: episodes like Nosedive, San Junipero and Shut Up and Dance show that Black Mirror has lost none of its edge, none of its darkness and – most importantly – none of its heart.