Despite having a total of only seven episodes across the space of two seasons and a Christmas special, Black Mirror quickly became one of Channel4‘s most talked about shows. It was met with both critical acclaim and a cult fandom that fell in love with its dark storylines and scathing but fiercely accurate portrayal of humanity’s flaws. After achieving international success when it was released online, future seasons were purchased by Netflix and the conversation surrounding the show got a whole lot more exciting. With a bigger budget put into the hands of creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, the show’s potential skyrocketed.
Being on Netflix instead of Channel 4 means that each episode can be a full hour long, instead of the forty minutes Channel 4 requires to make space for ad breaks. The bigger budget means that the creators have more freedom to explore the Black Mirror world, through more exciting loctions and better CGI, not to mention a host of amazing new acting talent. All this was hinted at in the trailer released shortly before the show went live, sure to send chills running down the spine of anyone familiar with the eerie Black Mirror future created in the previous seasons.
But for all the premonitions offered, when the third season was finally released on Friday 21st October 2016, it was as surprising and chilling and delightful as it ever had been. Sticking with the anthology structure, each episode told a new story about a new character, jumping between times and places in a not-too-distant future that is teetering on the precipice of dystopia.
Together, they create a fascinating world to explore. Individually, they are incredible pieces of television that leave your mind whirring for ages afterwards. They each resonate on a level that not a lot of shows are able to reach, with an emotional lag like a punch in the gut.
Though there is, of course, Black Mirror‘s signature feeling of delicious unease throughout, each episode has its own unique impact for viewers to chew over.
Episode 1: Nosedive – The glimpse of how peaceful life could be if we weren’t so worried about how it looked.
The first episode of season three departs from the British setting established in the first two seasons, heading across the pond to see what the future looks like in America. Instead of the teardrop-shaped gadget and Z-eyes many previous characters had installed, Nosedive shows people succumbing to the influence of a far more familiar technology: smartphones. People use their smartphones to rate those around them for every interaction, no matter how small. Desperate for that perfect five star rating, the main character Lacie polishes everything she does to gain the approval of her friends, her peers, of total strangers, of people she doesn’t even like. Dictating everything from how much rent she’ll have to pay, to the brand of hire car she qualifies for, Lacie’s rating becomes the focal point of her life. As unfortunate incidents see it slowly drop, life gets difficult.
This episode hits very close to home, especially for people who spend a lot of time on existing social media and take the opinions of the online community to heart. Even for people who limit their technology time, or are simply not all that interested in it, Lacie’s struggle to tear free of social pressure is a story that will resonate if you just pay attention to the people around you.
One of the lighter-hearted episodes, not only in this season but in the show as a whole, Nosedive has a heartwarming aspect to it that comes through the character of Susan. Susan is a trucker who Lacie meets midway through her adventure. Susan is the calm at the eye of the storm. She is content. She has a low rating and people avoid her. But she has made the decision not to care. She knows what is important to her and, for all the effort people put into looking like the perfect picture of happiness, it is Susan who shows us how to really appreciate your lot in life.
Episode 2: Playtest – The harsh truth that nothing needs to change for you to lose everything.
After Nosedive‘s pastel purity, Playtest plunges you right back into the darkness of the Black Mirror world through an augmented reality horror game that protagonist Cooper is paid to beta test. He takes the job so he can afford a flight home from his travels around the world, having spent time creating memories after watching his father die of Alzheimer’s. The game Cooper plays requires him to install a chip into his neck which taps into his deepest, darkest fears to create an experience that is uniquely terrifying. He is confronted with spiders, his high school bully and finally the thing that scares him more than anything – ending up like his father, grasping desperately at memories that used to be there, ignorant of how he got where he is, unable to even recognise himself in a mirror.
For all the cool gaming technology in this episode, complemented by the nerdy easter eggs peppered throughout, it’s not the tech itself that has the impact. For Cooper in particular, the technology draws it out. It forces him to confront his fear and his pain by inflicting it on him in a way that feels real. Seeing someone go through such an unbearable experience – especially in the name of a game – is chilling to watch.
But what’s terrifying about this episode is that loss of identity is a genuine fear for a lot of people because it is a very real possibility. And this episode reminds you how easily everything that is you can disappear in an instant, and that you could still be around to watch yourself drift away.
Episode 3: Shut Up and Dance – The way your skin crawls when trust falls apart in your hands.
Dragging you even deeper into the darkest parts of reality, Shut Up and Dance resonates from the beginning because it feels like the kind of thing that could happen to almost any one of us, even today. The episode tells the story of a shy, awkward teenager called Kenny, who falls victim to a hacker who blackmails him into following orders that start off relatively unimposing but soon pass into criminal territory. Faced with the threat that a video captured through the webcam on Kenny’s laptop of him masturbating will be released online, Kenny is drawn into darker acts through the course of a day.
To begin with, it doesn’t seem all that outlandish that such a nervous young man would be willing to ditch work, for instance, to protect his privacy. But as Kenny continues to follow orders, no matter how dangerous or illegal they get, you start to question his ability to make decisions. After all, everyone knows, even if they don’t want to think about it, that teenage boys masturbate. Is protecting the evidence of that really important enough that he’d go so far?
Once you’ve committed to following Kenny’s story, rooting for him against the clearly villainous hackers, the sense that something isn’t quite right evolves as the tension heightens from an uncomfortable prickle to a sickening weight in the pit of your stomach.
Episode 4: San Junipero – The glimmer of hope that love can still conquer all.
The fourth episode tells the story of two women whose faith in love is restored when they find each other in San Junipero. Both have known tragedy in their time on earth that have left them each, in their own way, afraid of what they might find there and how it could make them feel. Their connection is instantaneous and, though their reactions are vastly different, they both struggle to let their guards down around each other because of the same fear – that their romace could only result in yet more pain.
Set in the hedonistic digital playground that is San Junipero, this episode offers an idea of the way that technology might offer people a new lease on life instead of succumbing to natural decline. But what makes it so powerful is what the characters at the fore of the story do with that lease, with their extra time, with their opportunity to live the way they’ve always wanted to live, no matter what else has happened in life. Happily, carefree, at the side of someone who cares about them exactly as they are. It shows the hardships of reaching that point, not only in connecting and communicating with another person on a deep level, but also in allowing yourself to be happy.
Episode 5: Man Against Fire – The knowledge that you are complicit in your own manipulation.
With the entire world caught up in the moral and social complications of a global refugee crisis right now, Man Against Fire is one of the most powerful episodes of Black Mirror ever made. It follows an American soldier known as Stripe on a mission to rid the world of a threat only vaguely explained, even to the people tasked with their extinction, referred to as ‘roaches’. Stripe, and the rest of his peers as part of their duty as soldiers, has been willingly implanted with a MASS device, which allows him to view digital maps and plans, suppresses senses that might detract from his ability to do his job and gives his employers the ability to transmit rewards for good behaviour and achievements directly into his brain. But Stripe’s device isn’t quite up to code. As it falters and glitches, Stripe begins to see the world as it really is, to understand the way his experience of reality is being edited by his superiors and for the first time sees what ‘roaches’ really are.
The impact of Men Against Fire isn’t the technology itself, but it’s the choices that people in authority make in order to manipulate those under their control. More terrifying than anything in fiction, though, is the way these decisions echo those made by people in government and in media across the world today, utilising people’s fear and promoting the hatred of things that are different to consolidate power, to profit, to create a society where people are too scared to challenge the status quo.
Stripe happily consents to having the MASS device implanted, even after it has been explained to him how it will be used to change him. What lingers about this episode is how Stripe’s decision is not too far a stretch from the choices that people make every day to listen to and accept the kind of rhetoric that shapes their prejudices and, by extension, their personalities in ways they may not even realise.
Episode 6: Hated In The Nation – Charlie Brooker’s perfect scriptwriting, especially on his home turf.
There is a lot to love about the final episode of Black Mirror season three. At ninety minutes long, it is another one that is set perilously close to the reality of contemporary society. Following a drastic drop in the bee population, the government has funded technological replacements that copy the behaviour patterns of real life bees to uphold Britain’s delicate ecosystem. But that’s not all they can do, and their capabilities are put to deadly use when the system is hijacked by a vengeful hacker determined to use them to teach humanity a lessons for the snap judgements it makes on social media and the vitriol with which is goes after those it deems to be wrong. As the hacker’s victims pile up, the situation not just for the detectives on the case but for everyone using social media and for humanity as a whole becomes truly desperate.
The episode acts as a damning critique of the way people use social media to humiliate, demoralise and outright destroy people who have made the mistake of being fallible in the public sphere. This is something that the vast majority of social media users have been guilty of, assuming that the odd Tweet here and there about someone else’s bad behaviour won’t have any real world ramifictions. But it does. Not just in Black Mirror, but in the real world, whether we want it to or not.
For all the things that are impressive about this episode, what makes it really striking is the writing itself. A show with this kind of message could easily have been clumsy and heavy-handed. But Charlie Brooker’s masterful scriptwriting has resulted in a piece of television that is genuinely powerful. It forces you to stop and ask yourself who is really at fault – someone who made a most likely innocent mistake, or the legions of people who feel the need to tear their lives apart because of it?