Thursday, 10 November 2016

Black Mirror - Season Three [Collaboration]

After almost two full years off the air, Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror soared back onto our television screens courtesy of Netflix just last month. How would the show hold up, though? Would the gleeful darkness be lost in translation to an American platform? Would the show crumble under the fact that it now operated on the kind of website we all expected it would eventually take a stab at? The anticipation was high, and we were all scared. Yet, as we probably knew deep down that it would, Black Mirror triumphed. It used its widened platform in all the right ways, telling stories and tackling themes it hadn't even glimpsed at before. Sure, it's a little uneven, but what anthology series isn't? Having looked at the first two seasons of the show here, Nathan and I will now look at each episode from season three and attempt to come to some kind of understanding as to where the season's strengths and weaknesses lie episodically.

S03E01- Nosedive (IMDb Score - 8.4)

Ryan - Black Mirror is renowned for the way it tackles present day society and/or technology and throws it into the near future, offering us a glimpse of what perhaps could be. "Nosedive", written by Parks and Rec alumni Rashida Jones and directed by Joe Wright, ticks both boxes at once. It comments on society and it comments on technology, and it finds a smart way of binding the two together into one neat little package. The commentary it offers is hardly subtle, but "Nosedive" is the rare piece of television that is so in your face about its themes that it crosses the line back over into brilliance. Bryce Dallas Howard is a wonderful on-screen presence here, perfectly balancing the detestable elements of Lacie's life and personality with a much more hidden fragility. We don't particularly like her very much, but we don't struggle to sympathise with her. The jump to Netflix had me concerned about one thing in particular: could Black Mirror finally get to terms with filling an episode with enough plot? It had consistently struggled with this in almost every episode of the first two seasons, which is why it's brilliantly surprising that "Nosedive" fills its 60 minute runtime with ease. It starts smoothly, picks up the pace to introduce us to the world, kicks the story off, offers a twist, takes a detour, then wraps up nicely. What more could you want? Grade: A-

Nathan - "Nosedive," the first episode of season three, works absolute wonders because of how analogous the world presented actually is to our own - fragments of which are already embedded in the world today. This could very easily be set in 2020, or maybe even sooner. It presents a society in which humans rate their interactions on a 5-star scale, with your average dictating what house you can live in, which places you can enter and how quickly you are served. The terrifying concept is an unnervingly realistic premise, supported further with brilliant direction from Joe Wright, who keeps a tight focus on the world and their characters, primarily Lacie played by the sensational Bryce Dallas Howard; her balanced performance with her character’s pure desperation and insatiability for approval with an underlining fragility and insecurity must have been difficult to perfect, but she does so seamlessly. Drenched in pastel palettes and Instagram filters, the lush world crafted reflects the superficiality that social media can inflict upon us. Surprisingly though, a biting hilarity can be found in the smart script too, with sets the episode out from all that has come before it, making it one of the most unique episodes in the show’s history (although I’m sure the increased budget, which really goes a long way, does that too!). My only real criticism that prevents it from an additional "+" or "*" is that the end-point is a little predictable, but you can't shock and twist all the time, I suppose! Grade: A

S03E02 - Playtest - (IMDb Score - 8.3)

Ryan - After "Nosedive" so brilliantly filled its 60 minute run-time with plot, character work and perfectly executed thematic ideas, "Playtest" comes along pretty swiftly and throws that out of the window. There really isn't enough plot here to last the full hour, and the episode makes the bizarre decision of spending too much time with Cooper and his new girlfriend before the story really begins. The conclusion, then, is left feeling muddled and confused with none of the emotional beats sticking the landing. Story and character wise "Playtest" is a mess, but oh boy does it know how to create an atmosphere. The moment Cooper walks into the gaming company's building, the episode's aesthetic changes in a noticeably jarring way. In a smartly off-putting move, the tone darkens while the frame becomes more brightly lit. Then Cooper enters the house, and "Playtest" goes full blown horror to brilliant effect. There are genuinely unsettling moments that make brilliant use of the larger budget, with some pretty cracking CGI littered around too. The set design is excellent, and the cinematography is wonderfully eerie (although the CCTV footage from inside the house makes little sense considering the episode's conclusion). "Playtest" is thematically weak and the story beats don't really work, but kudos to the episode for having the ability to make us forget all of this in its fantastic middle act thanks to some classic old school horror with a modern twist. Grade: B

Nathan - In a similar vein to season two’s "White Bear," "Playtest" heavily infuses horror into its premise, in which a man is hired to test out and play virtual reality video games that emphasise his own personal nightmares. Visually ambitious, and putting the extended budget offered by Netflix to good use, the episode considers some very interesting themes and capitalises on the increasing VR technology on the market today, but the story feels a little bit silly and not all that engaging. While the horror moments are strong and genuinely creepy, the sci-fi elements (usually a strength for the show) feel a little redundant and repetitive, failing to include the emotional core until the episode’s very final moments, by which time it feels too little too late. Not helping either is the fact that the lead character is not particularly likeable and rather frustrating, possibly for his involvement in the test anyway and ignorance towards his mother. Essentially, it’s a smart idea that is not executed effectively, with a question mark over what is being said about the technology that surely is no more than a few years away. Grade: C+

S03E03 - Shut Up and Dance (IMDb Score - 8.6)

Ryan - I always quietly longed for another episode that would stick to the world we know today. Then Charlie Brooker dropped "Shut Up and Dance" and, in doing so, justified every single reason that I waited for an episode like this. "Shut Up and Dance" is, by a long mile, the scariest episode of Black Mirror to date. I'm not talking about things going "boo!" in the dark or even anything particularly violent, I'm talking about the way it makes us realise so much about our own world. Kenny (played terrifically by Alex Lawther) has no trouble in leaping straight into our hearts as a likeable teenage guy, and he earns our trust and faith. When something horrific happens to him, it hurts us. We watch as his situation gets worse and worse and it gets harder and harder to endure, but the episode always feels as if it's missing something, a little bite or kick to really hit home. Then it drops the moment. We find out who Kenny really is, and the reveal lands like a dagger in the heart. In a way, it's similar to "White Bear", but "Shut Up and Dance" understands how to play this reveal much better. It tells us, brilliantly and horrifically, that the pictures Kenny was looking at were of children, and before we can properly make heads or tails of what this means, the episode just ends. No points made, no themes hammered in. "White Bear" stuck the knife in, then pulled it straight out and started dousing the wounds. "Shut Up and Dance" plunges the knife in deep, twists it violently, and just walks away. Grade: A

Nathan - "Shut Up and Dance" is Black Mirror’s best episode yet. While nearly every single episode of the show seems slightly futuristic to differing degrees, "Shut Up and Dance" feels like it could be happening right this very second, making use of the technology we are all too familiar with, as well as their pitfalls and weaknesses (social media anonymity and webcam hacking). With the fear of being totally exposed to everyone he knows and following a trail of increasingly dangerous requests, Kenny (played by the superb Alex Lawther, who pours everything into his work with the character) is put in a situation that has to be one of the most horrific and tormenting imaginable - and that’s exactly what makes this episode so damn effective; that someone can spiral so quickly into chaos and danger is masterfully demonstrated and executed throughout the episode, carefully building intensity to almost unfathomable levels. And then it drops the final twist – delivered laconically – and the jaw hits the floor. Everything you believe the episode to have been built around (being, an innocent victim tangled in a web) comes crashing down, very similarly to another favourite episode of mine, "White Bear". The final sequences – the discoveries, the phone call, the drone attacks – are cinematic beyond belief and, of course, heartbreakingly bleak. With very little to fault, "Shut Up and Dance" is not only my favourite episode of the show, but one of the best pieces of television this year. Grade: A+

S03E04 - San Junipero (IMDb Score - 8.9)

Ryan - "San Junipero" is the best episode Black Mirror has ever put out. It is perfectly executed in each and every way (performances, cinematography, themes, narrative), but where its real and ultimate strength lies is in its willingness to subvert its own expectations. When we watch an episode of Black Mirror, we expect the worst. We expect these lovely characters to have a lovely time and then have everything ruined in a heartbreaking and devastating conclusion. But, just this once, everything worked out. Everyone was happy, everyone got what they wanted. "San Junipero" is the first (and probably only) episode of Black Mirror that made me cry. The relief that pours out of seeing Kelly walk out of her house and towards Yorkie in that final montage is so emotionally overwhelming that it hits like a train. It's just a beautiful moment in a beautiful episode. Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are superb here, delivering chemistry by the bucketload but also offering a perfectly weighted sense of emotion when the two characters argue near the conclusion. The little character-based plot twists all land, and the reveal of what San Junipero actually is is so brilliantly realised that it would carry the episode alone. Instead, "San Junipero" ignores the big bad stuff, and relies on the powerful bond between two people who love each other and tries to be nothing more than a tale of their dedication to that. It is stunning. Grade: A+

Nathan - After the darkest episode comes the lightest, in the form of fourth episode "San Junipero". Never has Black Mirror considered something quite as uplifting as this, which makes a welcome (and equally great) change from what came before it.  I didn’t appreciate this episode as much as I should have on first viewing, but subsequent views have reminded me of the best elements of the episode, rather than the worst (the first few minutes that don’t perhaps engage as much as they should and the slow-burning start which can become frustrating to a point). Key to this episode’s success is the brilliant chemistry from the two lead performers – Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) are two star-crossed lovers scored to a whole range of 80s power ballads and bops, which rewards the episode with a distinctive tone and theme that, as with every episode, gives the episode its own identity and feel (although this one does strike comparisons with "Be Right Back" from S2 for all the right reasons). It also celebrates the human emotion over the technology that, while important to the episode, never overshadows the powerful theme of love the episode holds so dearly. "San Junipero" is a slice of beautiful television and the best use of "Heaven is a Place on Earth" (which has been on repeat ever since) in television probably ever. Grade: A

S03E05 - Men Against Fire (IMDb Score - 8.0)

Ryan - The one thing that Black Mirror should never ever be is predictable. "Men Against Fire," unfortunately, is woefully predictable. It sets up an intriguing premise but doesn't shroud its secret in enough mist to be able to sustain its narrative tension. It all results in an episode that feels painfully slow and disappointingly empty. There just isn't enough going on here, and the stuff that is happening just isn't very interesting. It's not all bad - the performances are mostly decent, the themes are powerfully resonant, and the episode finds a glimmer of narrative hope in its final act - but there's nothing here that feels like Black Mirror even remotely trying to achieve anything. If you don't guess where the episode is heading for its middle act twist then, sure, this probably works as a satisfying escapade into pretty dark territory with some nice little bursts of action. The moment you guess that the villainous Roaches are just real people is the moment that the whole episode falls off the rails, and there's not much that comes after that's able to pull it back around. Grade: C+

Nathan - "Men Against Fire" is easily the season’s weakest episode, and battles for the position of being the show’s worst, even though flashes of brilliance deny it this dishonour. Its thematic work (looking at a manner of things including class, racism and prejudice) as well as the mid-point reveal and the use of the mind-altering technology implanted into the soldiers is terrifyingly smart and effective – it’s just too bad the rest of the hope feels sluggish, derivative and not all that sure on what it wants to say, beyond the obvious. What struck me very early on in the episode is the similarities with other sci-fi work, most noticeably 2014's Edge of Tomorrow or a filler episode of Doctor Who; neither of those are bad comparisons at all, but the episode just has nothing new or noteworthy to say. It often results in feeling melodramatic and lacking an emotional drive and core, despite the looming themes it considers, and feels like a completely wasted opportunity. The technology considered could be one of the most effectively demonstrated on the show, if only it was handled with more care to the story and characters it presents. Grade: C

S03E06 - Hated in the Nation (IMDb Score - 8.9)

Ryan - After a season that failed to consistently balance plot and runtime, Black Mirror showed how this is done effortlessly with its feature length finale "Hated in the Nation". I can see this being a polarizing episode for a number of reasons (most of which are listed in Nathan's mini review below), but it ticks all of the boxes for what I want from a Black Mirror episode. This is dark, twisted stuff with superbly written characters, bound to a world that doesn't seem a far cry from the one we live in today. Kelly Macdonald gives arguably the show's strongest ever performance here, the horror and despair she conveys even without words is spellbinding. The episode is structured nimbly, and never dwells on one thing too long. The action sequences are thrillingly staged, and it all builds to a finale so big and so horrifying that it's hard not to sit there staring at the screen with your mouth hanging wide open. "Hated in the Nation" even offers the brilliant idea of subverting the "underwritten villain" trope by using his anonymity to the episode's advantage, essentially turning him into one of the faceless, hashtagged Twitter accounts too. It's a thrilling episode from the get go, and even if the final moments leave the episode (and the season) on an unusual note, there's more than enough here to launch "Hated in the Nation" into the show's uppermost echelon. Grade: A

Nathan - "Hated in the Nation" is Black Mirror’s third season finale and second feature-length episode, but unlike the first ("White Christmas"), this episode doesn’t feeling deserving of the extended 90 minute runtime and, in fact, does the episode a disservice by turning it into a plodding slog that lacks momentum and intensity. It is admittedly a terrifying story and concept, with a sensational performance from Kelly Macdonald bringing dry wit and a biting honesty, but the technologies at the centre are both the biggest strength and the greatest weakness of the episode: the use of the DeathTo hashtag is one of the most harrowing and thematically pertinent of the season and considers online anonymity in a way that made "Shut Up and Dance" so relevant. On the other hand, ‘killing bees’ essentially fails to touch much of a nerve, despite the increasing possibility of their existence in the real world with the rate of their decline, and fails to make the episode compelling enough to want to spend 90 minutes in this universe. Moreover, it feels incredibly predictable and about 15 minutes into the episode, I’d figured who wouldn’t make it out alive. The upsetting thing though is that as a crime drama this would make a brilliant story, but Black Mirror (surprisingly) isn’t the right place for the narrative to play out. Grade: B-


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