There’s a moment in every Black Mirror episode where the other shoe drops. Sometimes it happens early on—like in Season 3’s “Nosedive,” about a dystopian future in which social status is determined entirely by online ratings. Other times, it takes a while—like in Season 2’s “White Bear,” which waits until its conclusion to reveal that we’ve been watching a long, disturbing punishment all along, targeting the person we’ve been led to believe was the hero. The series has trained us to wait for the twist, something that reveals each episode’s sinister thesis.
It’s even more surprising, then, when Black Mirror gives us something truly unexpected: a happy ending. That’s the case for two—arguably three—episodes in the anthology’s fourth season, which premiered Friday on Netflix. And perhaps most shockingly of all, these are the episodes that stand out from the pack, taking Black Mirror in exciting new directions. (Caution: we’re going to discuss those endings below, so beware if you haven’t watched the entire season yet.)
“U.S.S. Callister,” a.k.a. “the Star Trek one,” will likely be this season’s answer to “San Junipero”—the breakout, Emmy-winning Season 3 installment about two women falling in love inside a computer simulation. In “Callister,” a group of people who work at a gaming company find themselves cloned in their chief technical officer’s (Jesse Plemons) private version of the game, which he uses to torment them into playing along with his own cheesy story lines.
The reality is virtual, but the stakes are real—because this is Black Mirror, and we’ve seen how dark the show can get. That inherent anxiety makes character moments like Jimmi Simpson’s big speech near the end of the episode—in which he recounts how Plemons’s character broke his spirit by tossing a cloned version of his son out of an air lock—resonate so much more strongly, and makes the episode’s final, triumphant payoff even more of a relief. After a thrilling chase sequence that cuts back and forth between reality and the game, the crew of the ship, imprisoned until now, find themselves free to explore the vast new expanses of an unknown digital universe.
“Hang the D.J.” has a similar feeling of urgency, not least because Black Mirror episodes about dating and relationships (“San Junipero” excluded) always go terribly. Its central conceit—a program arbitrarily gives people in another apparent dystopia a set time limit for their relationships before its algorithm ultimately finds each of them The One—is upended in a sudden and surprising way, right as all seems to be lost. Only then does the show reveal that our two heroes, kept apart by the machine but brought back together by destiny, are actually an anthropomorphized simulation of two real people in the real world, calculating their prospects of a successful relationship via a dating app. We’ve just seen one of the 98 percent of times their relationship is predicted to work out. The last few minutes of the episode are such a head rush they make you feel giddy.
Which brings us to “Black Museum,” the season finale—and an episode that would also work as a series finale, as it may be the quintessential Black Mirror fantasy. The hour takes us through a litany of Black Mirror-like shorts—a doctor becomes addicted to a device he uses to feel and diagnose his patients’ pain; the consciousness of a dead mother is placed into the head of her partner, but gradually, he sours on their arrangement; a mad scientist makes an exact copy of a convicted criminal in hologram form, so that people can pull the lever on his electric chair and watch him die again and again—before settling all of them in a satisfying, if not exactly uplifting, conclusion. It’s most comparable to the 2014 Black Mirror special “White Christmas” in its format: bite-size stories introduce technological concepts that become intertwined by the episode’s end. This time, though, the subjects aren’t secretly living in a simulation or imprisoned inside an egg. The character who becomes drastically more menacing as the story goes on receives his much-deserved comeuppance by the end, and our hero literally rides off into the sunset with a smile on her face.
These payoffs are exhilarating—but they wouldn’t pack such a punch if they hadn’t come after three seasons of really-makes-you-think thought experiments that coaxed humanity’s darkest sins into the light. Previously, Black Mirror episodes tended to follow a pattern; viewers knew not to get too invested in the livelihoods of their characters, because we knew those characters would prove to be either deeply flawed or hapless idiots, victims of their own relationships with tech.
And half of this season falls into that same predictable format: in “Arkangel,” a mother inadvertently ruins the life of the daughter she wants to protect by implanting child-monitoring software into her head. Yep, saw that coming. In “Metalhead,” a woman fails to return to her family after being tracked by a murderous robotic “dog.” Sounds about right. “Crocodile” ends with our protagonist getting arrested for leaving a trail of murders easily picked up by new software that visually records the memories of witnesses. Naturally. Each of these episodes provides an interesting situation to mull over—but by the end, we’re de-sensitized to the disappointment prompted by downer ending after downer ending.
But last season, “San Junipero”—the first Black Mirror installment with an unambiguously happy conclusion—turned that idea on its head. And with “U.S.S. Callister,” “Hang the D.J.,” and “Black Museum,” the show continues to evolve and surprise us—the surprise being, this time, that its endings don’t always have to be bleak. These happy episodes come at just the right moment in the series’s history: its shocker resolutions had already become a meme, something fans and haters alike could joke about. More broadly, giant plot twists have become such a norm that they’re becoming impossible not to spot.
So when Black Mirror began, we soon figured out the show’s main twist: there would be no happy endings. But four seasons in, the new twist is that this is not always the case. And occasionally, it’s nice not to be reminded how easy it would be to destroy ourselves.
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