Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Black Mirror - Seasons 1 & 2 [Collaboration]

It doesn't seem all that long ago that humanity lived in the dark ages. No, I'm not talking about the Middle Ages, I'm referring to a time in which only seven episodes of Charlie Brooker's dystopian anthology series Black Mirror existed. I know what you're thinking. Before Netflix came in and saved our souls with a third season of the show, how on Earth did we all survive? Black Mirror is arguably a show that should be watched by everyone. The ways in which it analyses technology and humanity and binds them to a variety of stories is deeply impressive, and while (like all anthology shows) the individual episode quality can fluctuate from poor to superb, it remains a vital show for this generation. In the first collaboration on this blog, myself and Nathan (whose blog can be found here) will take a look at each episode of Black Mirror's first two seasons - Christmas special included - and grade every episode on an alphabetical scale. Black Mirror's consistently fluctuating episodic tones and stories allow it to land as a seriously polarising show, so read on to see whether to not we agree on the following seven episodes.

S01E01 - The National Anthem (IMDb Score - 8.1)

Ryan - Black Mirror's pilot episode is about as far from conventional as you can get. The interesting thing about it is that, in comparison to all that came after it, it feels pretty tame. That allows the episode to give off different tones and feelings with different viewings, something that not much TV is able to pull off these days. "The National Anthem" takes on a story that seems preposterous, but is tied in to something very real. It looks at terrorism and politics, as well as humanity's undisclosed and locked away desire for things that aren't exactly pleasant. It's superbly performed and succeeds in turning its bizarre premise into something impressively tense, and the whole episode is capped off perfectly with a last minute twist that completely changes the bulk of the episode without diminishing any of it. While it may occasionally feel as if it's treading water in terms of plot (forty-five minutes is a rather long time for a story that ultimately boils down to one man deciding whether or not to do one thing), it's a tonally perfect introduction to the show, and one that, even in its slower moments, is impossible to turn away from. Grade: A-

Nathan - "The National Anthem" centres around a devilish premise that one can only question why it has not been seen on screen before, albeit with less of the gory detail – still, even if it had been seen before, I doubt it would be executed with the satire, humour and all-round greatness of Black Mirror. As the show’s opener, the episode is a brilliant introduction to the not-so distant dystopian universe, the technology-driven storylines and the satirical edge that makes it so special. While it is definitely set in a recognisable society - from the locations to the people it depicts – the technology it utilises is not at all too far from being totally convincing, grounding the story in the realism that makes the show such a success. Its central ultimatum, although suspenseful enough, is only intensified through the slow and steady build up to its, erm, climax, with such excruciating tension. What’s also notable is how the episode does what it needs to do and say: the temptation to focus on the crime, the motivations and the reasons may be all to inviting for most shows, but the writers instead place the focus on reaction, fallout and reception - the quieter moments that offer a more sustaining, enthralling and memorable piece of television overall. Grade: A-

S01E02 - Fifteen Million Merits (IMDb Score - 8.4)

Ryan - Acting as the show's second episode, "Fifteen Million Merits" took Black Mirror deeper into its own dystopian future but with slightly more uneven results. While the pilot featured a pretty basic aesthetic, "Fifteen Million Merits" is a feast for the eyes, with dazzling cinematography and an eye-popping colour palette. It introduces us to two instantly compelling characters and creates a genuine bond between them, all while offering a harsh interpretation of reality TV in the near future. While its depiction of this genre of television may feel a little on-the-nose, it still lands hard and hits home. Much like "The National Anthem", though, the episode struggles to really fill its run time (60 minutes, here) with enough story. Narrative isn't the most vital aspect of television, granted, but with dystopian storytelling a thorough and detailed plot is needed in order for the subtext to remain subtext and not bubble too close to the surface. "Fifteen Million Merits" succeeds as a completely original piece of television that further solidified Black Mirror as a show to take note of, but its subtext and ideas don't feel as interesting as the episode that came before it. Grade: B+

Nathan - "Fifteen Million Merits"’ future isn’t perhaps as recognisable as that of Black Mirror’s other episodes, but beneath the sterile, almost clinical world are writers that create other elements that are more than identifiable with our own lives, allowing the show to once again soar. Hot Shots, the Black Mirror equivalent of The X Factor, decides on the fate of their contestants with the aid of ‘compliance’, a parable to a date rape drug. The episode's use of technology is one of Black Mirror’s most advanced, yet the sheer amount of detail and intricacy fed into the lives of characters and their world is second to none. It feels intensely crafted, with a great deal of care and appreciation for the characters it is portraying, with two excellent lead performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Jessica Brown Findlay bolstering this further. Unfortunately though, on more than a couple of occasions, the writers do not know what they are trying to say, beyond the obvious, and the themes are either too forced and heavy-handed or simply lost in the complex world and characters they have built, falling on a double-edged sword in not being able to balance all their assets effectively. Grade: B

S01E03 - The Entire History of You (IMDb Score - 8.7)

Ryan - "The Entire History of You" may be the most frustrating episode that Black Mirror has ever put out. The concept of an eye implant that allows us to revisit every moment of our life post-installation is frankly ingenious, and opens up a variety of perspectives and alleys for the episode to take this technology-based story down. Unfortunately, it lands on all the wrong people. "The Entire History of You" settles on two dull and pretty unlikable protagonists, making it tough to buy into from the offset, but what makes it even more of a challenging episode to enjoy is where it takes these characters. We watch as their relationship begins to fall apart due to their ability to analyse and scrutinise every moment of their lives and the episode targets an emotional arc, but the characters are so empty that none of it lands. In fact, the moments that do evoke a response do so in the wrong ways; basically, rather than want them to stay together and side with them, it's all too easy to wish the worst on them. This is the first of many technology-focused Black Mirror stories (almost all of which are superior to this) and while the initial premise is terrific, there really isn't much else to like here. Grade: B-

Nathan - "The Entire History of You" features on the most promising pieces of technology – on a narrative level, that is – but wastes it in a story that often becomes too melodramatic for its own good. Taking the trend of documenting our lives for the sake of social media, the episode’s technology – a small implant that records every walking moment through the eyes of the user – is searingly smart and seemingly not too far from where we are now, with a plethora of themes to explore (the pitfalls of these technologies, their worth and what places they should hold in our life) but the unfolding story around it feels too simple for the genius minds behind the series. It does feature some brilliant performances from the three leads, with a heartbreaking ending, but this feels really rather predictable and lacking the brain otherwise seen in the show’s first season. It’s by no means a bad episode, and pretty much any other show would be dying for an episode of this quality and caliber in their history, but for Black Mirror, it feels more like a wasted opportunity. Grade: B-

S02E01 - Be Right Back (IMDb Score - 8.2)

Ryan - After a confident but uneven first season, Black Mirror launched back a year and a half later with its strongest and most emotional episode thus far. "Be Right Back" is fairly similar to the first season finale in that it focuses on a couple's usage of a fictional technology, but where this episode is infinitely more successful than "The Entire History of You" is in its characterisation and narrative direction. Martha and Ash are immediately set up as likeable people, and when heartbreak ensues it's tough to watch. Once the episode introduces its technology, though, things pick up even further. All of the elements that force Martha and the synthetic Ash apart come from minute details that we as viewers wouldn't pick up on by ourselves. It makes us, as viewers, place our trust in Martha to tell this story, and Hayley Atwell's performance here is terrific. She more than earns our faith in her character, and when the episode lands a deeply emotional final act, it comes across as fully justified. It may still feel like the show has more to offer, but in its season two premiere Black Mirror expressed a confidence and emotional maturity that surpassed anything it produced in its first year. Grade: A-

Nathan - "Be Right Back" launches season two on a much quieter footing and the change of pace is harrowingly beautiful and brave of the show. Black Mirror’s most affecting episode to date tells the story of a woman who uploads a digital version of her husband to continue communicating with him after his sudden death. It poses some very engrossing themes and ideas, set in a future that genuinely doesn’t seem too far away. The cast performances are sensational, especially Hayley Atwell, who plays a grieving widow riddled with depression: she is never tempted to overplay the quieter moments of the piece and in the climactic scene on the cliff-top, pours every ounce of emotion into creating a heartbreaking sequence. It is grounded in a tremendous amount of realism and trusts its instincts in having the episode play out almost entirely as a two-hander, making viewers feel intrusive on occasions to this normal couple experiencing such heartbreak, which only augments to the intensity built throughout. Bittersweet and incredibly powerful, this haunting episode’s success lies in its heart and decision to put the human story at the centre, with the technology that usually dominates Black Mirror taking a backseat but willingly serving its purpose. Grade: A

S02E02 - White Bear (IMDb Score - 8.3)

Ryan - Even after the show dropped six new episodes this year, "White Bear" may still hold the title of the most divisive Black Mirror episode to date. It's not hard to see why, really. "White Bear" is manipulative storytelling, and it entirely depends on whether or not this is the kind of storytelling you enjoy. I know exactly what Charlie Brooker aimed for here, and I appreciate that this is like no other episode of Black Mirror at this stage of the show, but "White Bear" is an episode that, for me, just does not stick the landing. The first two thirds of this episode are thrilling, but empty. The characterisation is flat, the performances are tough to believe, and the execution feels uninspired. Then "White Bear" drops its twist and, to the episode's credit, it is entirely unpredictable. It instantly works wonders in justifying a number of the episode's missteps, but then almost destroys its own intelligence by hammering its point in far too hard in the conclusion. The reveal of the justice camp is horrific, and the moment we discover who the central character was before she went there is almost unbearably soul-destroying in the ways that it forces us to toy with how we perceive criminality and justice. But then it goes too far. The credits are interspersed with footage from the guests' perspective, and it humanises the whole affair. Black Mirror is almost always a show that works best when it finds the human element, but "White Bear" is the sole exception to that rule. This needed to be thrilling and gripping, then shocking and disturbing. The moment that it tries to be any more is the moment that the whole thing comes off the rails about as quickly as it got back on them. Grade: B-

Nathan - "White Bear" is perhaps the most twisted, demented and compulsive 45 minutes of television we’ve seen in a long time. Even for its flaws and its indulgence in pushing its themes too far at the end, this still exists an episode that, if trimmed only slightly, would be near-perfect television. Its success as an episode is reinforced by just how much of a complete change in pace and tone it was from the previous episode, brilliantly contrasting emotions we experience throughout the show. Deeply infusing horror into Black Mirror is not at all unusual, but matched with the insane ‘rug from under feet’ twist that leaves viewers questioning everything they have learnt across the episode, as well as the haunting allusions to real-life cases, a deeply disturbing and alarming piece of television has been crafted, leaving you holding your breath for much of the runtime. Its uneasy nature continues throughout and cleverly leaves you questioning right and wrong. It almost reflects the thirst for punishment that feels both medieval (like a witch hunt) and futuristic (through the use of technology). Whether it would withhold such amazement upon future viewings is another question and not something I want to risk just yet, but that doesn’t stop me appreciating one of the most brutal, merciless and compelling episodes of television. Grade: A

S02E03 - The Waldo Moment (IMDb Score - 7.1)

Ryan - There's no point in beating around the bush with this one: "The Waldo Moment" is the first (and only) actively bad episode of Black Mirror. It's the first episode of the show isn't in touch with its own humanity, and that's mostly what prevents this potentially interesting story from landing the absurd developments it goes through. Besides the aforementioned "White Bear" (which remains a fascinating but deeply flawed exception to this rule), Black Mirror only really works when the future it depicts still feels human, even if in a distant and cold way. "The Waldo Moment" focuses on politics but doesn't do enough to justify itself. The story never feels very futuristic nor contemporary, it feels timeless but in all the wrong ways. Jamie fails as a protagonist due to how easily he slots into the "successful but depressed celebrity" stereotype, and Waldo himself isn't particularly funny. Everything that the episode needs in order to turn the premise into a compelling story falls flat, and we're left with an episode that takes everything that Black Mirror should be, and smashes it against the ground until it doesn't resemble itself anymore. Sometimes a whole new tone and feel can work wonders (ala season three's "San Junipero"), but "The Waldo Moment" has no idea how to do this well. Grade: C-

Nathan - "The Waldo Moment" just doesn’t work. It simply doesn’t fit in the Black Mirror universe and, compared to previous entries, lacks the charm, satire and smartness that makes the series so special. Essentially, the technology at the heart of the episode is not substantial enough to build a whole episode around and, as such, it drags and feels more of a chore than any other episode of the show. It isn’t totally redundant and is generally well-acted with decent intentions but the script lacks the usual hook of Black Mirror and it fails to compel, especially after the previous two entries registering so highly among Black Mirror episodes. Admittedly though, it is worth noting that the episode itself alludes very much with the current US election and a certain campaign runner, showing the team’s ability to interweave at least some reality in their work. Grade: C-

2014 Christmas Special - White Christmas (IMDb Score - 9.1)

Ryan - Almost two years after it wrapped up a shaky second season, Black Mirror dropped "White Christmas". Quite simply, it was the first one to truly feel like Black Mirror firing on all cylinders. The performances are uniformly excellent, the structure is brilliantly formed, the shocks come thick and fast and they all land, and it gives us a bunch of futuristic ideas all neatly wrapped into one festive episode. Going against everything we expect from a Christmas themed episode of television, "White Christmas" may be the show's darkest episode to date. By the time the truth is revealed about the one character we sympathised with, everything we thought we understood is turned against us, and it lands like a dagger in the heart. The episode pulls a similar twist to "White Bear", but succeeds by not binding it to something bigger. It feels intimate with its characters and their stories. While most episodes of Black Mirror offer subtext and an analysis of either humanity or technology, "White Christmas" works perfectly fine on surface level and doesn't need any further scrutiny. It is entirely unpredictable and takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions as you travel through the lives and stories of two people. It's about as twisted and thrilling as Christmas TV can be. And that final shot coupled with the episode's choice of closing music? Sheer perfection. Grade: A

Nathan - Black Mirror’s first feature length episode comes in the form of "White Christmas", the show’s first stab at the holiday period but off-setting the sentimentality of the season with the darkness and satire we have come to expect from the show. Interweaving three different stories into one is a very effective method and structure to the 75 minute episode, employing its cast, technology and narrative well and ensuring it’s continually engaging, as well as a welcome break to the soppy themes typically seen in the lead up to December 25. While technology is a big part of the episode, most startling is its renewed focus on the human stories it is telling, all of which culminate in a stirring ending that sees one of the best uses of ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ in a long time. While I have issues with the first and second story of the trilogy, it is more than made up for with a thought-provoking and clever ending, which aptly ties a lot of the episodes loose threads up, asking viewers which of the two lead characters' positions we would rather be in. I honestly do not know, but I do know this is a gift of an episode. Grade: A-


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