The most terrifying aspects of Black Mirror are only tangentially related to technology itself, which the series often frames as neutral. The true horror of the series is the naïveté with which its characters eagerly adopt paradigm-shifting tech without considering the consequences—and always there’s a sense that we’re being implicitly accused of doing the same.
Season four expands on that accusation, implicating both human ignorance and malevolence as enablers of a technological dystopia. Interesting hypotheticals and shocking plot twists abound, but more than ever, those signatures are in service a broad argument. Specifically, the season suggests that the most disastrous side effect of our technological dependency will be the inevitable contempt bred by overwhelming human connectivity.
Rarely has Black Mirror’s tone shifted between episodes as drastically as it does this season, from the Technicolor-like splendor and dark humor of the space opera “USS Callister” to “Metalhead,” a black-and-white freak-out whose rhythms are calibrated to those of a slasher movie. Yet while distinctly conceived, the current season’s six episodes share the same theme of inherent human toxicity, arguing that technologies which draw the world together will inevitably erase individual experience and allow that toxicity to flourish. Black Mirror has always used dark hypothetical futures to comment on our present relationship with technology, and season four employs its provocative premises to couch a particularly urgent investigation of flaws in human nature that go beyond our overreliance on state-of-the-art devices.
“Black Museum” is a fitting season finale, as it’s the first installment of Black Mirror to assesses the series itself: The titular museum is a garish exhibit of technological horrors that attracts crowds of perverts and sadists. Most of the devices on display were conceived to render empathy literal, and the episode is a compendium of stories that propose the dark consequence of that degree of connection. Adding to its vividly imagined dystopian tech, the episode wryly aligns us with those to visit the museum to revel in the misery of others.
Elsewhere, the series uses more relatable situations to illustrate the devastating potential of connectivity and comment on modern life. In “Arkangel,” a single mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) uses a prototype device to surveil and protect Sara (Brenna Harding), her teenage daughter, and the extreme level of parental control unsurprisingly backfires. The episode is an endorsement of individual growth, of failure as a teacher, and of privacy. It unsettles as a rebuke of well-intentioned parental impulses that are common enough to be unremarkable.
In “Hang the DJ,” characters use a dating service that rigorously maps their search for a soulmate. Like season three’s “San Junipero,” the episode is notable for its dash of hopefulness, but the over-mediated dating app threatens to rob users of agency and, intermittently, genuine feelings beyond exasperation. Like the devices in “Black Museum,” the service is described as a revolutionary innovation in human interaction; the season isn’t entirely a dark assessment of social media, but that idea is present in almost every episode.
“Hang the DJ,” particularly, is as moving as any Black Mirror episode to date, because while illustrating people’s seemingly futile search for happiness, it also focuses on the persistence of hope—and reflects some nobility in daring to strive altogether. Conversely, “Metalhead” may be the show’s bleakest installment yet: Without providing any narrative context, the episode presents a terrifying and inescapable dystopia, devoid of any and all hope. It’s an ominous snapshot of the future if we prove unable to periodically disconnect—not from our screens, but from each other.