But “Black Mirror” is also about the present. The anthology series’ futuristic technologies of varying plausibility are used as vessels to say something about what we’re capable of doing to ourselves and to each other — right now. In Season 4’s six episodes, which premiered Friday on Netflix, human beings, not technology, are the scariest things.
“Crocodile,” a bleak and difficult episode co-starring Andrea Riseborough and a tone-perfect Icelandic landscape, is a story about a successful woman who kills people to protect her past from ruining her future. The technology is a powerful machine that collects memories, controlled by a smart, ethical and kind insurance investigator played by Kiran Sonia Sawar.
The technology isn’t the reason Riseborough’s character begins to kill; instead, it’s a figure from her past who plans to dredge up their mutual secret using the most analog of media: an anonymous letter sent to the police.
The technological trick that makes “USS Callister” — widely considered the standout episode of the season — possible is one Brooker has used before on “Black Mirror.” It’s a good one: Place a real human consciousness into the line of fire of the sort of human cruelty we’re capable of through technology — when we think no one is looking, or no one can hold us accountable. In “Callister,” those consciousnesses live inside a private, simulation video game controlled by Robert Daly, the quiet IRL CTO of a tech company, played by Jesse Plemons.
During his downtime at home, Daly built a simulator to let him be the captain aboard the USS Callister — the spaceship from his favorite TV show. His crew comprises the stolen, captive human consciousnesses of several of his co-workers, each of whom has committed some perceived slight against Plemons’s character in the real world. All Daly needs to do to create a new prisoner is steal a sample of their DNA, which he does to his new employee, Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti). Cole, who is kind and admiring of Daly’s work, doesn’t smile at him enough once, earning her DNA a one-way trip to the Callister.
The episode jumps back and forth between Daly’s world and the real world, as the imprisoned Cole consciousness tries to free herself and her fellow co-worker clones from Daly’s godlike control. The successful episode accomplishes two things at once: It’s a thrilling space adventure story, and it effectively embodies the cruelty of the toxic masculinity it seeks to condemn. For Daly, what might feel like an outlet for his pent-up resentment and anger from being the Nice Guy nobody appreciates is shown uncompromisingly as the violence that it really is.
By 2017, a wide segment of the world’s online population has seen or experienced the sort of online cruelty Callister dramatizes, but the episode will have particular and obvious resonances for women in tech and video games who have experienced mobs of online harassment.
The structure of “Black Museum,” a story about violence against black Americans, is simple enough: Nish, played by Letitia Wright, follows Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) through a tour of Haynes’s Black Museum, a crumbling roadside attraction in the middle of the American desert. The museum is filled with technological artifacts that are each connected to a crime. Regular “Black Mirror” viewers know many of the stories already — the objects come from previous episodes. But not all of them: Two new ones (for viewers, at least) lead Haynes into the mini stories that give this episode its anthology feel.
In one mini-story, Haynes tells the tale of a doctor who became addicted to the experience of feeling his patients’ pain through a new device. The short tale is told as dark entertainment: It contains both the sort of brutal violence you’d expect in a torture porn film and an intentionally gratuitous joke about an erection. In the second story line, a man agrees to share his brain with the consciousness of his comatose wife. When her constant presence leads to nagging and fighting, the wife is removed from her former husband’s skull and placed into that of a stuffed toy monkey.
But then the anthology premise is dropped, and the viewer learns what Haynes and, secretly, Nish, knew all along: The main attraction of the Black Museum is the imprisoned consciousness of a black man who died on death row — despite substantial questions over his guilt. Haynes once profited handsomely off the torture of this man’s consciousness, allowing busloads of giddy tourists to pull the lever and electrocute him.
The most coveted souvenir of the Black Museum? A keychain that contains a piece of his consciousness at the moment of electrocution, his face screaming in real agony, forever. The new, terrible souvenir technology comes from an old idea: Photographs of lynchings were once sold as commodities to white Americans, often in the form of a postcard or stereograph.
Nish visits the Black Museum when it’s all but abandoned by visitors, the consciousness of Haynes’s prisoner tortured into a vegetable-like state. He’s no fun to electrocute anymore, even for the hardcore sadists and white supremacists who kept Haynes’s doors open after the waves of tourists stopped coming.
Nish hasn’t forgotten: She’s the man’s daughter.
As she reveals who she is, she speaks about another sort of pain — the kind that remains when an injustice is abandoned without being fully righted, even as other injustices are committed on top of it. It takes no future technological breakthrough to connect what Nish says to our current reality. There are resonances here with essays, interviews and articles written by black writers about the trauma of repeated, viral, black death.
More unplanned was another resonance with current events: One day after this episode was released, Eric Garner’s daughter Erica died at the age of 27.
“Even the protesters got bored after awhile, soon as it was clear the state wouldn’t do a d— thing about clearing him,” Nish says. “They just moved on to the next viral miscarriage of justice that you could hang a hashtag off.”
Both “Callister” and “Black Museum” have revenge endings. They’re not quite the happy endings of “San Junipero” from Season 3, or this season’s “Hang the DJ,” but not as bleak and hopeless as viewers have come to dread from the show. The good side wins; as in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” the bad guys meet their demise through the tech they once controlled and misused.
The repetition of the human consciousness theme, and the twinned revenge endings in the first and last episode of the series, are fine. But as I watched “Black Museum,” I felt as if I was seeing the show press itself up against the glass of a paradox it will never really be able to escape.
As many have noted before, “Black Mirror” is not a show for Luddites. It invites us to enjoy and dread the possibilities presented by technology. In doing so, it also asks us to do the same of human violence.