I was so ready to love this.
When I heard that not only was Black Mirror returning for a fourth season, with six new episodes and Charlie Brooker retaining full creative control, but Jodie Foster was directing an episode, it seemed too good to be true. The premise was even better: what if a parent was given the ability to know their child is safe at all times? Isn’t this an obvious advantage of tech’s abilities to track us at all times, to store our information and capture the world? It’s the kind of question which has spawned some unbelievable episodes in the past, and it’s the kind of impulse which almost anyone can relate to, mother or not: the impulse to protect the ones you love.
And who better than Jodie Foster to helm a story about the safety of young girls? This is a woman who was a child model at the age of three, who found fame with the role of an underage prostitute in Taxi Driver, who was at the centre of perhaps the most famous stalker saga ever, and who came through it all with her aura of no-fucks-given steely intelligence intact. She’s a veteran director, exploring a concept which is bread-and-butter Black Mirror. What could go wrong?
Problem is, Arkangel is shit. It’s not shit in the same way that The Room is shit, but compared to the standard set by the previous seasons, it’s shit. And compared to what could’ve been done — with the same concept, the same actors, and the same writer and director — it’s really shit. The televisual equivalent of unwrapping a present on Christmas day to reveal a jumper that you already own.
The episode begins. The mother, who remains unnamed (unless I missed something), gives birth to Sarah, confirming that she’s a mother. But there’s a bit more going on: she apologises to a nurse for having a caesarean section, bringing up her concerns about being a proper mother, and referencing the idea that women spend their lives apologising unnecessarily. And we are introduced to the essential ingredient of Black Mirror — dread. In this case, as the baby is initially silent, the mother’s dread that Sara will not be OK. This is reinforced when a few years later, Sara goes missing in a park. So far, so good.
Then, the technology is introduced. How? A woman introduces it. The mother takes Sara to Arkangel HQ, drenched in your archetypal Apple-Store modern-techno aesthetic. And then the woman straight-up explains everything, in an expositional dump so lazy that I’m convinced it was written by Charlie Brooker’s intern while Charlie went to put the kettle on.
Sara is injected with… something, and as her mother says: that’s it?
Now, Black Mirror has used this trick before: in the episode Playtest, a doctor explains how ginger-bearded guy will experience the game. Sometimes, exposition is necessary, and it fits into a great plot. This time, the plot is so bland and unimaginative that it just reinforces the feeling that this episode was cobbled together last minute.
So Sara begins to age. The transitions themselves are cool and imaginative, but that’s all that can be said for them. Since we’re dealing with three different actors impersonating the same character (four if you count the baby), it’s immediately more difficult to empathise with Sara. Add that to the almost complete lack of characterisation, and what you’re left with is a cardboard cut-out of a girl. Sure, maybe part of the point here is that Arkangel hasn’t allowed her to develop naturally, but there’s no such excuse for the other characters, who are all similarly one-note.
If you list the plot from hereon out, the way it comes to pass is almost always the first thing you’d think of. Meaning almost every plot point is enacted in the least imaginative way that it could be.
Plot point → How plot point is demonstrated
- Sara is socially excluded by Arkangel → some kids on the school playground say “she’s weird” and call her “chip-head.”
- Grandad is ill → collapses of unspecified pain. Ow, my … something. Lazy plot device to demonstrate how some bad things are necessary to see. But since mother intervenes, there are no immediate repurcussions and no lessons are learnt.
- Grandad has died → mother cries at graveside.
- Mother worries about the negative affects of Arkangel → A child psychiatrist, a stereotype sitting in a stereotypical room, is shoehorned into the plot to give the mother time to voice her (obvious) concerns. Psychiatrist mentions that Arkangel never got past the test phase. But why? Here’s an opportunity to discuss some of the moral dilemmas such a technology could present. Is this opportunity taken? No.
- Mother decides to turn Arkangel off, so Sara can witness stressful things. → Sara is given a crash course in, I dunno, “fucked-up stuff on the internet”, I guess? Porn, violent movies, etc, are shown to her by ““Trick””.
- Trick is a rebellious child → Trick gets into one fight. Also has black hair.
- The characters are now fifteen → Sara transforms from a convincing ten-year-old to a thoroughly unconvincing fifteen-year-old, played by an actress who is (surprise, surprise) 21. Why can’t media cast teenagers as teenagers?! Stranger Things became a huge success doing this, and that was made by the same company! Anyway, that’s a rant for another time.
- Sara is rebellious, attracted to Trick → wears black, like Trick, who still wears black, and drives a van which is black. Inside the black van Trick’s two friends also have black hair and wear black.
- Trick convinces Sara to rebel → You probably saw where this is going. You’ve seen it in every teen movie ever — you saw it in Stranger Things. Steve Harrington/Trick is having an intimate party with a few friends, invites Nancy/Sara and her less rebellious friend. Sara/Nancy abandons friend to lose virginity to Trick/Steve. Parents worry, eventually find out. There is one interesting point here — that Sara’s conceptions of sex have been warped by porn, so she behaves like a porn star. This idea goes nowhere and is never discussed again.
- Mother finds out → turns on child-iPad at the exact moment Trick and Sara have sex.
- The way Sara finds out that her mother is tracking her again is an exception here — but maybe a more obvious way would’ve been better. The birth-control subplot is convoluted and contrived. And in the crucial shot of the pharmacy, it’s unclear whether the figure walking in is Sara or her mother. Is this deliberate? Because it only confused me.
- Finally, Sara takes back control of her life → Sara is shown symbolically wrestling control of the iPad from her mother. And, slightly less symbolically, beats up her mother with it and leaves home.
It’s all so boring, so predictable. Characters are one-dimensional, and therefore unempathetic. Remember the mother’s love interest? What did he do? And how would you describe the grandad’s character? Did the mother’s character ever progress beyond that single word — mother? Did you really give a shit when Sara and Trick’s relationship broke down?
Imagine if the story had started without explaining the Arkangel tech outright. Sara is an ordinary teenager, played by an ordinary teenager, and begins to rebel through her relationship with Trick. But her mother always seems to know where she’s been, what she’s doing. There are subtle hints that the mother has done something, but we don’t know why until Sara finds the hidden iPad. Not knowing what it is, she asks Trick, or her friend, who explains what Arkangel is, and why it was banned. Only now do we find out about what Arkangel does, and it explains everything in a interesting and unnerving twist. Then Sara and her friends can have the discussion on the ethics of Arkangel that the actual episode is sorely missing. Maybe Sara is outraged at an invasion of her privacy, but her friend can understand why a parent would want that level of security for their child.
Maybe instead of an injection, Arkangel is a pill you take — something that Sara can use on her mother in return. Through this Sara finds out about her mum’s secret relationship with guy-from-physio, and chastises her for double standards. When the tables are turned, the Mum understands her point of view. Or perhaps she doesn’t, and they have an iPad battle to the death. Who knows.
When watching previous episodes, I always wish that I was able to come up with stories as good as the ones I was watching. With Arkangel, it feels like any variation on the plot would improve it, or at least make it less predictable. I don’t mean that each Black Mirror episode has to have twists in the plot. I just mean that you never really knew where each episode was going, because you were in uncharted territory. That’s the whole point here, isn’t it? Our exponential advances in tech are leading us into uncharted territory, into situations and dimensions and experiences which we have never been before. That’s why the show is so breathtakingly original — usually. Because this is all new. And done right, Arkangel could’ve been too.