At what point do we stop looking at a show like Black Mirror as a sign of things to come and start acknowledging it as a reflection of where we already are? All the Terminators and 2001s in the world couldn’t prevent us from lusting after self-driving cars, asking Siri who’s in the World Series or signing over our firstborn children to every app that asks for them. Visions like these are no longer alarmist (well, other than Men, Women & Children, which is also terrible): They’re too little, too late. Should the robots become self-aware and decide it’s their time to rule over earth, most of us will welcome our new android overlords with white-flag emojis.
Which brings us to the third season of Black Mirror, now available on Netflix. The streaming platform paid a princely sum to revive the acclaimed sci-fi-inflected UK anthology series, which, true to British-TV form, aired just six self-contained episodes in its first two seasons (seven if you count the Christmas special starring Jon Hamm). Its latest glimpses of plausible near-futures retain the spirit of their predecessors, but with much of the action now taking place on this side of the pond. They also feature familiar faces among the relative unknowns: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bryce Dallas Howard, Kelly Macdonald.
That Black Mirror is now a Netflix Original is apropos of its subject matter, if also a little ironic. Just think: A show delving into the dark side of our dependence on technology has become an exemplar of the binge-watching era. If you’re anything like me, you ignored that uncomfortable reality and gorged on all six episodes in the span of 24 hours. Ready when you are, giant killer death robots.
Everyone’s smartphone is a little sleeker, a little more minimalist, and in general all tech feels even more integrated — sometimes physically — into everyday life in Black Mirror. At first this all seems cool, even comforting; the first 15 minutes of a given episode are often sci-fi-lite in the vein of Her. These worlds aren’t dystopian, but you could probably see them, three or four years on, devolving into something approaching Logan’s Run. More to the point, you can see our world becoming like Black Mirror’s even faster.
The most unsettling episode of the new season is “Playtest,” which takes recent developments in augmented reality to an extreme (though logical) conclusion. This is what Black Mirror has always excelled at: starting with something familiar and dialing it forward a few degrees, just beyond comfort. Here that process begins with an American who travels abroad to avoid confronting his father’s death and his mother’s grief, only to learn that such problems are travel-size. With the assistance of an odd-jobs app, he volunteers as a guinea pig at an innovative video-game company whose latest creation is a house haunted by the player’s own imagination. The game reads as a cross between Solaris and MTV’s Fear: He’s tasked with spending as much time as possible in a mansion where his repressed fears (spiders; an old bully) manifest in corporeal form.
That’s a terrifying conceit, and not in a jump-scare way. At no point will there actually be anyone else in the home with him, he’s assured, and none of these virtual projections can cause him any physical harm. On the wall hangs a portrait of the house he’s in, and the creators’ assurances come as cold comfort when, moments before he hears something go bump in the night upstairs, a face suddenly appears in the window of that painting. Which is scarier: a monster or being alone with the worst that your mind can conjure?
Still, one of the show’s greatest strengths can also be a weakness: Several of these concepts are worthy of a feature-length film and feel rushed at just under an hour. Consider “San Junipero.” The episode introduces a strange seaside town that seems lifted from a dream or memory, and it’s little spoiler in a show like Black Mirror to say that San Junipero isn’t what it first appears to be. It’s like a mediterranean Miami, all night clubs and neon and young people trying to look bored. After a little while spent luxuriating in this freeform oddity — and getting a vague sense of what this place really is — the confines of time and narrative have forced a load of exposition onto it. It’s like the second half of Under the Skin, when mood is subsumed by plot.
“San Junipero” is still quite lovely, though, and that descriptor rarely applies to this show. Black Mirror doesn’t often delve into romance in a way that’s actually romantic, but Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis function so well as avatars of longing that you might forget how rarely an episode ends on anything approaching an upbeat note.
One question worth pondering, while watching Black Mirror, is the extent to which watching it in order matters. In most cases the answer is very little, though it's perhaps advisable for first-timers to begin with the second-ever episode, 2011’s “Fifteen Million Merits,” which to this writer's Lady Sybil–loving mind remains the best; this is especially important, as Black Mirror’s inaugural story, “The National Anthem,” is easily its worst.
Season three holds up against early standouts like “The Entire History of You” and “White Bear,” especially “Playtest,” “San Junipero” and “Nosedive”; not every episode resonates, but those that do ring out with enough force to compensate for the rest.
The problem with stuffing too many ideas into too short a runtime is addressed in “Hated in the Nation,” the 90-minute finale. The best performance of the season belongs, unsurprisingly, to Macdonald, here playing a world-weary gumshoe in an episode that draws an explicit causal link between online death threats and actual murder. There’s a plaintiff quality to the actress’s voice that makes her detective’s cynicism difficult to reconcile, and throughout the episode, as her case becomes ever more expansive and dire, something strange happens: Having her dreary worldview reinforced makes her feel more rather than less.
“I didn’t expect to find myself living in the future,” Macdonald says midway through, “but here I fucking well am.” As series-defining thesis statements go, you could certainly do worse — especially since Black Mirror almost never indulges in such on-the-nose ruminations. We all put up defenses — memes, ironic hashtags and other forms of put-upon cynicism, whether real or virtual — but eventually they break down. Sometimes these are momentary lapses, while at other times they can be a sort of breakthrough. Black Mirror lives in — and for — those moments, a ghost waiting to get out of the machine.