This post contains spoilers for Black Mirror Season 4, Episode 2, “ArkAngel.”[hhmc]
In some ways, the Jodie Foster-directed episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season is typical of this modernized Twilight Zone. In essence, it asks the series’ favorite question: “What if society took a technological innovation too far?” But even if the premise inspires glib “what if baby monitors, but too much?” jokes, the episode itself deftly navigates a uniquely powerful, often intense relationship—the one that forms between a single mother and her daughter.
“ArkAngel” focuses on a woman named Marie who decides to try out software called ArkAngel, which essentially acts as a built-in baby monitor. Doctors install an implant in a child’s brain that allows parents not only to track their children’s location on a tablet but also to see things from their children’s perspectives and even block frightening and inappropriate images from view through a blurring censor feature. (Each feature is optional, but naturally, by the end, Marie has become an addicted user of all of them.) As Marie’s daughter, Sarah, gets older, she finds herself ostracized by other children whose parents do not use the software. Eventually, Sarah snaps after finding out her mother has used ArkAngel to obsessively pore over her relationship with a boy from her school—and that her mother told the boy to break up with Sarah. She beats her mother with the very tablet used to track her every move, then hitchhikes away on a passing semi-truck. As the screen cuts to black, Sarah’s fate is unknown.
As Marie, Rosemarie DeWitt conveys both a protective streak and something more sinister. In classic Black Mirror fashion, she’s soon drawn into a self-perpetuating and deeply dysfunctional cycle, which only ends when Marie realizes that by tracking Sarah, she’s brought her very worst fear to life.
Foster had directed episodes of Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards for Black Mirror’s home network, Netflix, but she had never seen an episode of the dystopian anthology when she first received the script for “ArkAngel.” So, as she recently told V.F., “I had to read the scripts, and then binge watch a whole bunch of Black Mirror.” (Her favorite episodes include “Shut Up and Dance” and “The Waldo Moment.”) She had a vision for “ArkAngel” that would set it apart from the rest of the series: “I really saw it as a small indie film. You know, it felt grounded, and it was going to be not terribly sci-fi . . . I really see this as a [Ingmar] Bergman movie that has technology elements to it.”
The story itself was particularly relatable for Foster, who was raised by a single mother and considers that relationship to be the most significant in her life—as well as the most complicated. “It’s the one that’s foundational for everything that I’ve done,” Foster said. “And it was beautiful, but it was also a really hard struggle.”
DeWitt, who has children of her own, also noted in an interview how “primal” the protective instinct mothers feel toward their children can be—the desire to keep kids safe, and the fear that comes with imagining them in danger. To DeWitt, one of Foster’s greatest accomplishments in “ArkAngel” is how completely she conveys that dynamic in a short period of time, while also providing “whiffs” of what Marie went through in her own life before she had Sarah.
Like most Black Mirror episodes—including “The Entire History of You,” which also explored the dire implications of brain- implant technologies—“ArkAngel” ends on a very dark note as Sarah boards that semi-truck, basically bringing all of her mother’s worst fears to fruition. To Foster, the scene in which Sarah beats her mother is meaningful on two levels: “One is the way that this child would have experienced emotion when she was young, scrambled, without real effect,” Foster said. “And then the other way, when you step back and you see the reality of what that violence is.”
The ending itself—when Sarah boards the truck—also allows the audience to experience the same unnerving feeling Marie must have felt, DeWitt said. “Will she be O.K. having this experience and being on her own, or is she about to befall some horrific experience?” the actress wondered. “That is the sort of paradox that the mother brain operates in all the time.”
For Foster, the implications go a shade further: in being so relentlessly protective, Marie ultimately brought this turn of events upon herself. “Her worst fear was that she was going to lose her daughter, and her daughter was not going to be safe, right?” Foster said. “Her worst fear is what she created.” When the screen cuts to black, Foster said, “You’re thinking, ‘Is she going to be in the side of a ditch? Is she going to be raped and thrown out a window?’ Whatever it is, this unknown is going to be the rest of her life as a singular independent human being.”
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Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com. She was formerly an editorial assistant at Slate and lives in Brooklyn.
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