As tremendously thoughtful and introspective as Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror can be, each season is often an uneven trek between bland and immense. The third season, for instance, suffered a rehash of what was up until then the worst episode of the series, but it also had quite possibly one of the best episodes of television that year and definitely of the entire show. Season four, both fortunately and unfortunately, is no different.
It does a few genuinely surprising things, such as confirming a long-held fan theory about the show. It also reaches much harder for strictly thrilling storylines rather than commentary on how technology dictates our behavior, which is a real shame considering that’s how Brooker made a name for himself with this program. This also makes it hard to rank these episodes: are they bad as Black Mirror stories or are they good as a standalone tale irrespective of expectation?
Let’s find out with our ranking of the fourth season of Black Mirror.
#6 — “Arkangel”
This one is neither insightful nor exciting. This is basically a bad person being a bad mom. Admittedly, the idea of an ocular implant that allows parents to not only track their child’s movements but also monitor their conversations and actions as well as censor those things is terrifying, but it never quite goes down that juicy road. It sets up a story about the unintended consequences of avoided unintended consequences but then tells a rote one about an oppressed teen living her awful life.
It also doesn’t help that in addition to the premise being extraordinarily hard to buy into (sure, there are parents that would want this, but the idea that anyone would allow such an endeavour to exist is beyond farfetched), Jodie Foster’s directing is rather, let’s say, on the muddy. It can’t decide on what message to focus on—whether privacy or emotions or communication—and instead settles on blitzing through to the end.
Not only the worst of the season but one of the worst of the entire series.
#5 — “Hang the DJ”
While not blatantly bad, this one is disappointing. The concept is somewhat interesting: dating apps have turned into dating environments wherein you and other subscribers live in a small community and are forced to cohabit for various amounts of time until the program has found you your ultimate match. Seems pretty solid considering how much faith we put into algorithms now; what’s to say we wouldn’t rely on them, too, as we sign up to live with someone we hate for a full year?
But it never does much with it. It’s definitely a funny episode and a pointed one about how people tend to drive people mad, but it’s never the actual, singular point. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find it. And when the twist happens, it’s less of a twist on the premise and a twist into a completely different concept altogether. Not even the fantastically charming performances by Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole can fill the empty feeling in you once the credits roll.
It tried to be this season’s “San Junipero” but ended up far, far short.
#4 — “Crocodile”
It’s easy to see why The Road director John Hillcoat was tapped to direct this episode. By utilizing the beautiful but hauntingly sparse landscapes of Iceland, he is able to really give this episode the slowly maddening, burning pace it needs. This just might be the most beautiful episode the show has produced yet, creating eye-catching vistas to draw you into an intimate world of swirling paranoia and fear.
And it works, despite the story itself never quite getting there. As this woman attempts to cover up one bad decision after another, going darker and darker with each step, it doesn’t have anything to say about technology. Hell, technology acts more like a shortcut to the drama than anything else as an insurance claims adjuster uses a memory rewind device (yeah, that old chestnut again) to track an unrelated incident. Andrea Riseborough is pretty damn good, but with no meaningful story and just an uninteresting twist by her side, it’s hard to call this one good.
At least it’s not bad, though.
#3 — “Metalhead”
Here’s a tough one. This episode easily has the least to do about how technology is blah blah blah, but it doesn’t tell quite the tale. In some hollowed out world of the future, few human survive. They’ve turned to scavenging to survive, as seen as we find a group searching a warehouse for supplies. That is until a little robot wakes up.
This is a simple, straightforward concept. It’s actually very much Terminator adjacent in many ways, using a black and white aesthetic to emphasize the two sides of the coin: survive or die. Maxine Peake’s portrayal of that singular dichotomy is fantastic and the wordless, purely visual storytelling bits really highlight her acting chops, but don’t go into this episode expecting a fresh perspective on how technology shapes us.
And maybe stay away from your Roomba for a while.
#2 — “Black Museum”
Yes, this one is chock-full of Easter eggs for the eagle-eyed fan, but it also does something rather remarkable: it turns an episode of a sci-fi anthology series into its own anthology of sci-fi stories. Each of its own contained stories are wrapped up in the pitstop of a young girl driving through the desert on her way to visit her father on his birthday. The Black Museum, you see, is a collection of criminological artifacts.
Each one of them has a story, and as owner of the museum walks our heroine through each one, we build into a complication. Each brick is laid between each surprisingly compelling recollection by this charismatic guide. They each give you a little bump of that delectable technophobia Brooker is so good at and you are drawn deeper and deeper until…well, until an unfortunately tepid resolution. It’s all wrapped up too neatly; pretty bows and wrapping paper aren’t meant for Black Mirror.
The entire run-up, however, is pretty damn good.
#1 — “USS Callister”
The season indeeds starts with a showstopper. Directed by Toby Haynes who is known for coming into existing shows to throw his own spin on things, it also features some solid headline talent in Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, and Michaela Coel. And then it shoots you off into space, speeding forward into a series of plot developments that inextricably draw you closer and closer to the story until the perfectly victorious, bittersweet, ironic, goofy ending hits you in the face.
And I’d really like to say more because it is such an absolutely terrific episode, but it works the best without knowing much more about it. It’s exciting and reverent and subversive in all the right ways, hitting hard turns and bait-and-switches the entire way while giving us some frightful techno meat to chew on. Even if the rest of the season doesn’t sound like your bag, this one is worth it.
This episode will go down as one of the best that Black Mirror has to offer.