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Black Mirror: It’s Complicated

Like our love lives, our relationships with television can be marked with Facebook-like status updates.  Falling in love, falling out of love, taking a break, unconditional love til the day we die; these are all feelings that can be present when working our way through a television series. With Netflix’s Black Mirror, our relationship can be summed up simply: it’s complicated.

When I set out to “binge” Black Mirror, all I knew about the series going in was that it was a Netflix show and that it had a lot of buzz.  I was not at all prepared for what would come in the series’ premier episode.  I quickly gathered that this was a British science fiction show with individual episodes that have no relation each other.  The first episode has what proves to be one of the more shocking stories of the entire series, so I was thrust into this show’s world with little preparation.  I was shocked and absorbed by its dystopian nature.  Two more superb episodes round out the first season, I was enthralled.  “Fifteen Million Merits” was an exceptionally powerful episode, and I think it remains a high point for the series.  It was great seeing this after Get Out, as it was a tremendous vehicle for Daniel Kaluuya to shine and show the talent that would later lead to his Oscar nomination.  I was absorbed into the world and the stakes that the show set out in this episode.  Unfortunately, the show struggles to continue to meet such heights.

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Daniel Kaluuya and Jessica Brown Findlay in Black Mirror, “Fifteen Million Merits.”

The second season of Black Mirror was a better indication of what this series would be and that was slightly disappointing.  It got off to a great start with an interesting tale of a woman, played by Hayley Atwell, uses a new service to bring her husband back from the dead.  The episode plunges into the depths of despair, as do most Black Mirror episodes.  Like Kaluuya’s character in the season prior, a connection is made with Atwell’s performance,  and we follow her lead to a satisfying, thought-provoking conclusion.  What follows are a mediocre episode and perhaps the worst episode of the series: “The Waldo Moment.”  Centering an episode around an annoying asshole of a cartoon bear politician running for office was as horrible as it sounds. The season leaves us with a stunningly brilliant finale, accentuated with Jon Hamm coming in for the close in knockout Mariano Rivera fashion.

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Jon Hamm in Black Mirror, “White Christmas.”

“White Christmas” is an iconic episode, and one that many people would use to recommend as a jumping off point for the series.  But that is the problem with Black Mirror, isn’t it?  You feel inclined to recommend individual episodes to your friends and family, but recommending they watch the four seasons in their entirety is another subject entirely for this series.  At this the halfway point for the series, however, I probably still would have done that.

It would be a while before I proceeded with the more modern second half of the series, but when I did, I was met with another excellent third season premier, led by Bryce Dallas Howard.  She was great, but it was the premise itself that really captivated me.  A future where social media status was the foundation of our society feels too close for comfort.  With the more extended six episode order for the third season, the show continued to feature great variation in its episode hit rate.  After a couple solid episodes, the series would reach its peak with “San Junipero,” following quickly with a sharp valley in “Men Against Fire.”  The beauty found within “San Junipero” cannot be overstated, however, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis coming to take our hearts and bleed them dry.  A love story that transcends place and time, “San Junipero” is a brilliant exercise in melding human love, compassion, and relationships with science fiction.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis in Black Mirror, “San Junipero.”

At this point it seems we have a trend: seasons packed with a range of bad-middling-good episodes, featuring one brilliant standout.  Going into the fourth season of the show, that idea would become even more prominent.  It opens with another favorite for the series in “USS Callister.”  Featuring one of the more creative stories of the series, it lures us in with bright colors and it best ensemble cast to date.  Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milloti and Jimmi Simpson headline this Star Trek nightmare with exceptional results.  It manages to be terrifying, disturbing, and exciting all at once.  Unsurprisingly, the episode just took home an Emmy for “Outstanding TV Movie,” making it the second year in a row the show has won the award, with “San Junipero” winning the year before.

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Jesse Plemons in Black Mirror, “USS Callister.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the season would not be seen with such high praise, as the show concludes with its greatest roller coaster of quality to date.  With stories so outlandish and epic in scale, the series began to flounder under the weight of bad writing and uninteresting characters.  I quite enjoyed “Crocodile” and “Hang the DJ,” with their riveting and somewhat conceivable premises, but the rest of the season left me feeling very cold and uninterested.  If this show is only going to hit the mark with half of its episodes, is it worth our time?

That is the question that I am left with.  Would I recommend this series to someone after only liking a little more than half its episodes?  It does feature some incredible episodes that will leave you pondering the reality in which you live and how it could all come crashing down, but it also presents episodes that will leave you rolling your eyes and turning off the TV in disgust. If you haven’t yet watched Black Mirror, you should seek out a few of the best episodes, perhaps one per season, and leave it at that.  Binging the series in full is not a rewarding venture.  However, I will still be watching the series going forward because I really value what little good my relationship with it brings.  It’s just complicated.

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