The fourth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on December 29th, 2017. In this series, six writers will look at each of the fourth season’s six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears.
Spoiler warning: This essay does not give away the ending of “Arkangel,” but does broadly address its plot.
Charlie Brooker’s tech-horror anthology Black Mirror is largely about exploring the downsides of the way we use technology. The best episodes are imaginative and daring, but they also tap into real concerns, like the way politicians are tailoring their behavior to please the fickle, easily swayed social-media crowd (in the first-season episode “The National Anthem”), or how the ability to rate services and companies via apps has turned us all into horrible bosses (in the third season’s “Nosedive”). The weaker episodes, though, can come across as shallowly scolding, or worse — just a little too obvious.
That’s the problem with the fourth season’s weakest installment, “Arkangel,” which follows the usual Black Mirror pattern of pushing existing technology a few iterations into the future, then considering the nightmarish consequences. For once, Brooker doesn’t take the premise far enough from our present reality: the episode doesn’t say much more than “helicopter parenting is bad,” and “holding too tightly to kids will just push them away.” It’s particularly frustrating both because the latest season of the show includes some series highlights (particularly “Metalhead” and “Hang The DJ”), and because the season is otherwise so diverse in its targets and approaches. “Arkangel”’s scenario has plenty of potential in ways that might have made it more frightening and more intriguing. The script is just too single-minded about the concerns it raises.
“Arkangel” opens with a young mother named Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) undergoing a Caesarean section. “I can’t believe I couldn’t do it,” she says miserably. “I couldn’t push anymore.” She’s already feeling inadequate as a mother, as if she’s let her daughter Sara down even in the manner of her birth. Her anxiety and guilt play out over and over throughout Sara’s life, but the crux comes when she briefly loses 3-year-old Sara at the playground. Terrified by the consequences of a momentary, understandable lapse in attention, Marie opts into the early trials for an experimental new product called Arkangel. The system includes a cranial implant for Sara, and a tablet that lets Marie monitor her child’s location and medical stats, see what she’s seeing, and even censor visual input that might be considered upsetting. As Sara grows up, she and Marie increasingly clash over the Arkangel system, which differentiates Sara from other kids, makes her feel overprotected, and even limits her from reacting to emergencies, because the system decides she might be upset if she saw what was going on around her.
Arkangel’s technology isn’t implausibly far from current, real-world gear
“Arkangel”’s tech concerns have plenty of real-world analogues. The market availability of tiny RFID chips has raised a long-running series of debates about whether children could or should get microchip implants that can help parents track them, or ensure lost children can be identified. Domestic pets often have those chips now, but human chip implants are still more of an area for body-modders and first adopters. Still, a recent workplace experiment in Wisconsin has shown how ubiquitous the technology could become.
And leaving aside the idea of personal implants, there’s an entire cottage industry in non-invasive, wearable tracking devices for kids, and another one in spyware that lets parents monitor and remotely control their children’s phones. Software like SafeSurf, Net Nanny, and Qustodio, or parental-control suites like Google’s new Family Link, lets parents filter what their kids can see online. And these technological solutions are just another salvo in the endless societal war over how much freedom children should have with their media. Individual parents and organized groups frequently call for books to be banned from public libraries. Pressure from parents has given birth to an increasingly granular film and TV rating system, warning about every aspect of potentially controversial content. Even the nonstop clashes over school curricula come down to parents trying to ensure their children are only exposed to approved information, presented in approved ways.
“Arkangel”’s biggest leap of imagination involves extrapolating that quest for control into Marie literally controlling how her child’s eyes work, and preventing them from seeing anything that raises her pulse rate. It’s advancing the argument to its most absurd degree: “You don’t want your child watching porn online, so clearly you also don’t want her to know if there’s a dangerous, aggressive dog nearby.” The comparison is flawed — if the barking dog that scares Sara early in the episode ever got loose and attacked her, not being able to see it wouldn’t save her, and might make the problem worse, because she wouldn’t know to run. Watching hardcore pornography online might be bad for Sara’s childhood psyche, but it isn’t going to rip her jugular out. Comparing immediate real-world, physical threats with the abstract menace of disturbing images online is clumsy at best, and disingenuous at worst.
“Arkangel” would still be a strong story if it said something more concrete and insightful about the urge to completely control children’s lives. There are massive and fascinating ethical debates to be had about parental controls in general, and especially the ways technology expands both the opportunities for control, and the threats digital natives face. It’s hard to get interested in traditional face-offs over whether Catcher in the Rye or a passed-around Playboy are actively damaging to teenagers, given that these days, they might have access to everything on PornHub, or much worse. Modern teenagers are vulnerable to forms of exploitation that didn’t exist a few decades ago — having their online videos repurposed for malevolent ends, being arrested for “creating child pornography” by taking naked selfies, having their social-media photos repurposed to generate fake revenge porn, being shot by a SWAT team because of an argument in an online game. It’s understandable that parents who didn’t grow up with any of this technology would find it threatening, and would look for ways to curb their offspring’s access to it, or at least to minimize the risk.
The episode just doesn’t engage with these ethical concerns in any coherent or unpredictable way. Its story is simplistic — Marie monitors child-Sara until the Arkangel software creates a crisis. Afterward, she backs off and puts the Arkangel tablet away. But when Sara hits her teen years, Marie pulls the device out again, and finds out things she doesn’t want to know about her daughter — and arguably has no right to know. Her resulting interference leads to a confrontation that’s so literal about the source of Sara’s teenage resentment that it’s almost funny. But there’s no last wrinkle, no rug-pulling twist or further iteration to take the episode past the obvious observation that even the most sheltered teenager will eventually need to rebel.
It’s no wonder parents see threats in technologies they don’t understand, and look for ways to minimize the risks it represents.
Director Jodie Foster gives the episode the glum, melancholy feeling of a tragic small-town indie movie. There’s no hint that any of this is meant as hyperbole, the kind of bleak humor that lines standout Black Mirror episodes like “Fifteen Million Merits” and the lurid, Tales from the Crypt-esque “Black Museum.” Its sheer earnestness makes its simplicity and obviousness even more awkward. It also suggests a few telling things about the intended audience. Even when Sara is a child, the camera’s sympathies are with her. Foster spends a lot of time studying her troubled face close-up, as if looking for that first spark of resentment or understanding. It’s obvious and inevitable that Sara is going to fight to reclaim her life from her mother: even though “Arkangel” starts with Marie’s fear and pain, it only uses it as a frame for how she projects her fears of inadequacy onto her daughter, and victimizes her in the process.
And that’s where “Arkangel” feels like a real missed opportunity to consider Marie’s side of the equation in a more nuanced way, to consider her efforts at control as a natural, common parental urge instead of an irrational aberration. “Arkangel” starts by making her seem irrational and damaged, and it goes on to track her behavior as extreme and horrifying. Even the framing of the Arkangel technology sets it up as a societal dead end, a rejected and obsolete technology that went nowhere. It’s as though Marie is the only person crazy enough to embrace it. But the sales of real-world kid-tracking and monitoring devices suggests the exact opposite. In our world, something like Arkangel might be embraced — and the question of whether it should be, on a broad basis, is much more interesting than the question of how disturbed one single mom is.
This story could have raised so many compelling, relevant issues
And as a narrative device, the Arkangel technology could have provided significant leverage to discuss other parental obsessions — particularly the way people often try to re-experience their own youth through their kids. Marie does that in one positive way in “Arkangel,” watching through Sara’s eyes during a game of hide-and-seek, and sharing her daughter’s simple enthusiasm. It’s a benign form of voyeurism, as Marie gets to be both the hider and the seeker, the knowing mom and the thrilled 3-year-old. But there’s no reason that voyeuristic impulse would end at age 3. “Arkangel” might have been a lot more incisive if it had acknowledged that the “live through your kids” phenomenon doesn’t end with puberty.
Like so many parents, Marie is horrified to see her daughter experimenting with drugs and sex, because it goes against the image she still has of Sara as a little girl. But if the episode had navigated that moment more carefully and thoughtfully, and moved on to the next stages of life, Marie might have gotten to re-experience college, young adulthood, and even motherhood through her daughter’s eyes, which would have opened up an endless set of opportunities to explore long-term parental expectations, how much communication or honesty a parent can expect, and all the issues of privacy and consent that Black Mirror loves so much. There’s a lot of symbolic potential in “Arkangel,” and a vast wealth of potential material. In this case, Brooker just doesn’t challenge anyone’s limits, or engage with the issues he raises. He starts a story with infinite potential, then cuts it short just as it’s spinning up.
Relevance: This feels like an after-school special for adults. It has a worthwhile message about having the courage to grant young people their freedom, but it’s delivered in a ham-handed way that limits its relevance, beyond the most obvious ideas.
Aesthetics: Gray and serious, with a wistful, achy piano score that tries to underline every moment as tragedy. A lighter touch might have helped this episode a lot.
Squirm Factor: Minimal for Black Mirror. The discomfort may hit home harder for younger viewers who’ve actually had to contend with helicopter parenting or smartphone spyware, and the end may feel like catharsis, like the kind of “that’ll teach you not to take me for granted” fantasy that’s so common to teenagers. But compared to the emotional violence this series has coughed up in the past, “Arkangel” is comparatively tame. Maybe this episode represents Charlie Brooker protecting us all from seeing anything that will upset us too much.