If you’ve made it this far already, and have seen all 6 new episodes, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll need me to tell you. But just for posterity’s sake, I’ll say it anyway. This series of Black Mirror has to be one of the best, most consistent on television in a long, long time. Plenty of shows reach this level with certain episodes, but it’s only a select few that can maintain that level throughout a whole series. Breaking Bad really stands as the benchmark for this, having done so over 5 seasons, and more than 60 episodes, but then that was carrying one storyline from start to end. With Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker has had to come up with new story after new story. While, as I’ve said before, ‘The Waldo Moment’ is a blip, the overall run of the show has been superb, and certainly, these latest 6 episodes are all incredible. Even if I regarded ‘Men Against Fire’ as weaker than the other 5, it was still pretty damn good.
It might seem unfair to apportion all praise to Brooker. There have been other writers – Jesse Armstrong for ‘The Entire History of You’ in series 1, and despite the story from Brooker, the script for ‘Nosedive’ was delivered by Parks & Rec duo Rashida Jones and Mike Schur – and directors, composers, cast have all certainly had a hand in the success of the show. But if you’ve watched or read any of his other work before, if you’ve had any awareness of his personality outside of the show, it’s clear: Black Mirror is Charlie Brooker.
Which is why this is such a significant achievement. ‘Hated in the Nation’ fused cop drama with Hitchcockian dystopia with techno-thriller. ‘Shut up and Dance’ explored how far people will go in fear of social stigma, and the effects that can have. ‘Nosedive’ questioned the idea of isolation in a universally social world. ‘San Junipero’ showed us one future where perhaps technology isn’t so bad, but even then, the morality of the system is surely a polarising issue. The only comparable writer is Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, and that’s esteemed company to be in.Still, to achieve Brooker’s visions, it requires collective success around him, and that was a clear benefit of this series’ move to Netflix. I’ve previously waxed lyrical about the musical talent, and episodically referenced the acting quality, but looked at overall, the names that came on-board are still impressive in itself; Bryce Dallas Howard, Michael Kelly, Kelly Macdonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mackenzie Davis on-screen, as well as Joe Wright and Dan Trachtenberg directing, and the aforementioned Rashida Jones and Mike Schur writing. Jodie Foster is also slated to direct a fourth series episode. As with many of us, Black Mirror has clearly resonated with many in ‘the industry’, and it’s something that can only be good for the show, drawing more and more attention and potential.
With ‘Men Against Fire’, the issue was essentially a crisis of confidence. Throughout the show, there has been an expectation and degree of trust that the audience understands what’s going on. It’s not something so progressively layered as, to use an obvious example, Westworld, where the trust is even larger, that the audience accepts that they won’t always understand what’s going on, not yet. But it is a show usually deep enough that the themes don’t necessarily stand out as themes, but rather sink in as such. For whatever reason, ‘Men Against Fire’ wasn’t quite so subtle, and those themes did stand out slightly too obviously. In my review of that episode, I mentioned the thickset references to WW2, Nazism and the Holocaust, and that was certainly a large part of that obviousness.Otherwise, the layering was superbly done, perhaps another knock-on effect of the Netflix funding boost. With the ability to craft effects and environments – practical and virtual – beyond what’s fundamental to the story, there’s a greater scope to these stories. Previous series have pulled off a similar scale in the context before, but think about something like ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ and, while I wouldn’t change the creepy accuracy of the Wii-like avatars for anything, you wonder whether it would have benefitted from some VFX establishing shots showing a wider picture of the ubiquity of that world. Because there was only so much money, we got a sense of that, but what we were shown was naturally more limited. Having the extra budget capabilities clearly hasn’t meant there’s an obligation to make everything glitzy – as ‘Shut up and Dance’ proved – but rather that there’s a greater freedom to craft a setting fit for purpose every time. When there’s the variety of Black Mirror, that’s surely invaluable.
Overall, it’s not really the sort of thing that needs a summary. Like I said at the start, this was a brilliant series, and I’d be interested to hear why anyone would think otherwise, whether they had watched the show back on Channel 4 or not. And, best of all, there’s no uncertain wait for further episodes anymore, with Netflix having optioned 12 episodes when they acquired the series, and with those remaining 6 coming sometime next year. Judging by series 3, it’ll be worth the wait.