Have you heard the news? Technology is bad. Tech is so outrageously bad — all of the social media websites are bad, our exploding cell phones, all of the bees are dying and if you can even believe it, Donald Trump is running for president. There’s no better time, just a handful of weeks before the election, for a new season of Charlie Brooker’s searing, skeptical British tech thriller Black Mirror.
The series, whose first and second seasons ran in 2011 and 2012, was one of the first anthology shows on TV — now a big trend. Each episode stood on its own, exploring a not-so-distant future in which technology and social media were actively changing, predicting how we would live in a variety of disturbing ways. In “The Entire History of You,” people could rewind their own memories and watch them like TV; in “Be Right Back,” a young widow tried to communicate with her recently deceased husband by using his old social media accounts to build a new person; in “The National Anthem,” an anonymous threat forced Britain’s Prime Minister to, um, I don’t know, just watch this one and get back to me.
As shocking as “The National Anthem” is in its conceit, it’s also overwrought and a little ridiculous. And the political commentary in the season two episode “The Waldo Moment” feels so unsubtle it might as well be the 2016 election. In fact, much of Black Mirror takes itself quite seriously — almost too seriously. Perhaps this works if you’re taking a story about people — realistic, three-dimensional characters and how they feel about the technology in their lives — seriously, but it works a lot less well if you’re just hammering home “technology is bad, technology is bad, technology is bad, technology is bad, technology is bad” on a broken record.
Unfortunately, the majority of the new episodes fall under the latter umbrella. I mean, holy hell, does Charlie Brooker hate Twitter or what? Technology is bad; we should be afraid. Turn off your phones! Log off the internet! We should never do anything anywhere at any time, because we are constantly being watched and reviewed and spied on. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? All of this being afraid, I mean.
Two of the most tech-terrified episodes are “Shut Up and Dance” and “Hated by the Nation.” In the first, Alex Lawther plays withering teen Kenny, whose masturbatory habits are captured on video by a mysterious hacker—and he’s not alone. There’s a network of people who are having their most shameful used as blackmail, to get them to do a number of often humiliating or dangerous tasks. This preys on our very real fears of information theft: Why do you think even Mark Zuckerberg tapes over his laptop’s camera?
Between Sony leaks, Russian cyber terrorism and Snapchat, we live in a state of constant fear that what we do in the privacy of our own homes will somehow be used against us. But to what extent? The episode’s gleeful punishing of these terrified strangers acts like we already agree with its ruling. And while many of them have been caught doing irredeemable things (from adultery to watching child pornography), our hero, young Kenny, is actually a victim himself.
“Hated by the Nation” uses drone bees to blame Twitter and, ironically, the power of the “hivemind.” Karin Parke (Kelly MacDonald) is a detective working to solve a string of violent deaths seemingly linked to a Twitter hashtag, but this 90 minute runtime grows increasingly more ridiculous as it goes on. Who’s killing people? Well, it’s robotic bees. How do the robotic bees know whom to kill? Well, the government put surveillance technology inside them. Why are the bees killing people? Because people are tweeting #DeathToX—whoever they feel is a bad public figure. Does this eventually turn against the people who tweeted in the first place? Yes, obviously, of course it does. Is there a scene where robotic bees swarm all of England? You’d better believe it, baby. Is there something to be said about Twitter harassment politics and the eminent extinction of bees? I mean, maybe, but no one is saying it.
“Nosedive” also has every opportunity to fall into the trap of “technology is bad” but instead focuses its energy on Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), a deeply flawed and yet insanely relatable protagonist. This is an ideal episode for anyone who has ever, maybe three drinks in, suggested there should be a “Yelp… but for people.” In a world where everyone is constantly rating every social interaction, those who are the most popular are afforded special privileges. Lacie is a desperate social climber, but she is also any of us who have scrolled through Instagram checking up on the cool people from high school. Her downfall, naturally, comes from that desperation. But there’s a genuinely compelling human story in relation to (rather than opposed to) this futuristic look at the danger of creating this “Yelp for people.” It’s darkly funny, as opposed to nihilistic.
Despite its logical parallels to The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror does not subsist on twist endings. It works best when it’s thoughtful and deliberate not gotcha! At the end of “Shut Up and Dance,” all of the information being held over the characters is released to the public anyway—signified with what is perhaps the worst use of a meme in pop culture in recent memory. There’s something much more disturbing about the idea of the lengths people will go to protect their information; the episode gains very little emotionally by showing all of its “protagonists” getting caught at the very end. The reveal that all their efforts were for naught is cruel and senseless in an episode that was already cruel and senseless in an appropriate, scary way.
Similarly, “Playtest” — which is one of the more frightening episodes of the season—takes a look at how virtual reality will change the nature of video games by being able to draw from its users’ worst fears. Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is a broke backpacker looking to make a quick buck in London by beta-testing a new horror game. Guess what? It’s a harder task than it looks. But this is an episode that relies so fully on its payoff—one that flips and turns on itself in the final few minutes. One false ending, shame on me. Two false endings and… Turn off your phone when you’re asked to? Essentially: Tech kills, call your mom. It’s frustrating to see on more than one occasion this season a stylish episode pull a “WHOA” at the end, often undermining everything it was attempting to say.
Perhaps only one episode of the new season suggests that technology can help us learn and understand and connect with each other. Isn’t that why we have it in the first place? To do everything six times faster and connect with strangers? In San Junipero, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) jump through space and time, but mostly hang out in 1980s to meet and dance and kiss each other. But why does everything always seem to reset at midnight? San Junipero, it would seem, is a virtual heaven full of people using “nostalgia therapy” to get relief from their own pain and suffering. Directed by Owen Harris, who also directed “Be Right Back,” it’s hard not to see it as a companion episode. But unlike “Be Right Back,” “San Junipero” is an optimistic look at how technology could change the way we both look at death or experience an “afterlife.” It’s somber, but also a heartening look at the random beauty of finding love online.
“A television anthology series that shows the dark side of life and technology,” reads Black Mirror’s subtitle on IMDb. But the “dark side of life and technology” has never been limited to fear. The episodes that stand out from the earlier seasons — “The Entire History of You” and “Be Right Back,” specifically — didn’t home in on how technology should make us afraid. In “The Entire History of You,” technology spurs jealousy and betrayal; in “Be Right Back,” it shows how tech could have the capacity to change how we handle grief.
The spookiness that often accompanies the post-apocalyptic or sci-fi genres should stem from our fears of the future. Sure, put tape over your webcam; don’t tweet ever. But the more interesting stories Black Mirror tells reframe how we craft our lives around technology, rather than in opposition to it. We have other emotions that technology can adapt with (or protect us from)—desperation, shame, loneliness, isolation, abandonment — and these are all much scarier.
For the love of God, don’t binge-watch this, despite the ease (and implication) of its premiering on Netflix. This is a season that requires you to stand up, walk around, have a glass of water, at the very least, between episodes. Technology is so bad and so scary, but we also… have to live with it. The unfortunate thing about Black Mirror is that it suggests we can’t live with technology progressing the way it is; that we should have constant fear and anxiety about it. It’ll kill us, ruin us, send us to jail, or, worst of all, send in the bees.