Charlie Brooker’s dark satire Black Mirror finds itself on Netflix for its third season with a plethora of stars on board, but are the first two episodes to scratch?
The first two episodes of Netflix’s stint of Black Mirror perfectly illustrate the show’s favourite narratives:
‘Nosedive’ is a dystopian technology-driven descent into madness in which an exaggerated version of a familiar concept, social media in this case, tears apart a character’s life. It’s reminiscent of ‘The Entire History of You’, ‘Be Right Back’ and parts of ‘White Christmas’, but feels less far away than any of those. The episode is directed by Joe Wright, whose experience in the period drama mannerisms of Pride and Prejudice or Atonement lends perfectly to ‘Nosedive”s mild-mannered world.
‘Playtest’ is one of the series’ genre-based episodes, delving into psychological horror and video gaming, that function by setting up a scenario and then attempting to pull the rug from under the audience with a big twist. The closest we’ve previously seen to this was in ‘White Bear’, an episode that underwent radical changes minutes from the end to throw a fresh perspective on what had previously been an enjoyable but unremarkable zombie film tribute.
When Black Mirror is working best, genre blends seemlessly with Twilight Zone-esque technological wonderland, and neither of these two episodes strike the same wonderful balance as series high ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ or the latter half of ‘White Christmas’. They do however definitely fall in the better half of the series’ episodes, avoiding the oddities of slip-ups like ‘The Waldo Moment’.
‘Nosedive’ follows Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), in a world in which everything is rated on a scale from 1 to 5, from personal encounters to pictures uploaded to a pseudo-Instagram. Lacie is cruising comfortably at a 4.2, indicative of effort and commitment into presenting and framing her life desirably, but needs a higher rating in order to qualify for a discount on a new apartment she desperately wants to move into.
As a result of a weighting system that’s never explained but makes sense, Lacie needs to be highly rated by 4.8s and 4.9s to raise her own rating, and when her 4.8 schoolfriend Naomi (Alice Eve) invites her to make a bridesmaid’s speech at her wedding, Lacie jumps on the opportunity. However, Lacie’s journey to the wedding goes horribly wrong and her rating plummets, so that when she finally arrives she makes a disastrous speech despite Naomi’s protestations and is arrested and placed in jail, learning that attempting to please everyone isn’t always the best approach, and that it’s okay to speak your mind.
This message is the most under-baked element of the episode and feels unnecessarily tagged on for the sake of it. There’s a conversation with a 1.4 ranked woman who Lacie hitch-hikes with that states this moral way too explicitly and it doesn’t feel right – it feels like a rebellion against being pleasant and polite rather than against the fake-ness of social media, and feels muddled as a result.
That said, most of the episode is terrific and feels as a real as Black Mirror ever has. Dallas Howard perfectly captures the perpetual anxiety of a generation living their lives under online scrutiny, and absurdity of how we present ourselves. There’s a wonderful little moment in which Lacie takes a bite out of a biscuit and spits it out, just so it looks all the more cutesy in her photo of it.
The ratings system will no doubt recall the workings of Uber and Air B&B to those familiar with the apps, and the accumulated ratings the like-hunting of Facebook. But there’s more going on here than many have given ‘Nosedive’ credit for – Brooker’s script satirises not just the modern accessibility and fore-fronting of these concepts but an upper-class obsession with presentation. There’s a twisted rags to riches story here, in a world in which that progression is more about who you know and working hard at your personal life than it is breaking through in a working environment.
It’s an incredibly dense episode that’s far less simplistic than a glance at the concept might initially indicate. And there are loads of lovely little references and touches, such as a knife-wielding Lacie at the wedding harking back to a similar hostage moment in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ in which a different character makes a speech at a popularity contest. And the colour palette is hauntingly beautiful, a far cry from Black Mirror‘s usual greys. This is a world which the inhabitants believe is Heaven, but it’s more like an ordered hell.
This theme of self-delusion and perception is one that has always been pertinent to the series, and is once again crucial in decoding ‘Playtest’, an episode that initially seems to be lacking a technological gimmick. American tourist Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is on a world tour of discovery but unexpectedly loses access to his bank account in London and is forced to take a paying job testing out a new VR game for company SaitoGemu. Cooper schemes to take photos of the company’s secret project and sell them.
Employee Katie (Wunmi Mosaku) installs a device in Cooper’s brain that will learn his fears and generate a simulation based off of them, but the game seemingly goes increasingly wrong and becomes more and more terrifyingly personalised. The episode ends with Cooper dead on the floor, a result of interference from his mobile phone which would have been switched off if he hadn’t been using it to take photos. Cooper is unable to take a final call from his ‘Mom’, who has been trying to call him thoroughout.
Of this episode’s hour-long running length, the latter half hour is far more interesting than the first, taking place almost entirely in the simulation. The first half of the episode sets up Cooper’s character and his inability to answer his mother’s calls in a world that seems almost entirely accurate to our present day. It’s a calm departure from Black Mirror‘s usual operation at heightened levels, helped to no end by a winning performance from Cooper’s hook-up Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen).
To make up for a subdued opening, the second half of ‘Playtest’ quickly ramps up to eleventy, and though Cooper’s screaming profanities are a little headache-y it’s mostly highly effective. Director Dan Trachtenberg of 10 Cloverfield Lane fame is an expert in intensity, crafting a horror-filled climax that buys into the dream-within-a-dream craze that’s swept narratives since Inception debuted. ‘Playtest”s iteration feels less hackneyed or cliched than many of its contemporaries though, even if it doesn’t feel as surprising this time around.
The emotional beats around Cooper’s mother don’t land as effectively either, as harrowing as his final dream encounter with her is. Instead, it’s his absent father who hangs over the episode, having died recently after a struggle with Alzheimer’s. Cooper expects to find his mother dead in the simulation, but he doesn’t – instead he finds her struggling with the same symptoms as his father, even suffering from memory loss himself. It’s this loss of control on reality and ability to co-ordinate oneself brought on by dementia that inspires the episode’s final minutes and leaves us on an ambiguous but clinically cut ending. Horr is at its most effective when it uses the supernatural as a substitute for a real-world fear and that’s exactly what happens here – Cooper isn’t afraid of dying, he’s afraid of Alzheimer’s. More time would have helped in this execution, but it’s a short and poignant foray into his troubled mind.
‘Nosedive’ and ‘Playtest’ represent a strong opening to the third season of Black Mirror, and I can’t wait to continue on. This series’ greatest strength is its ability to steer round cliche and avoid being ham-fisted despite operating in a genre and format where it’s incredibly easy to do so. If I had to pick, I’d probably say I preferred ‘Nosedive’ for the richness and relevance of its subtext. Hopefully the remaining four episodes will deliver a series high.
Verdict: Black Mirror‘s third season kicks off strong with a meaningful, exciting and varied double bill – none of the magic has been lost in the jump to Netflix and that’s great news.
Written by Tom Besley