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Black Mirror’s Crocodile lacks a meaningful perspective on surveillance or privacy

Black Mirror’s Crocodile lacks a meaningful perspective on surveillance or privacy


It’s a tragic story, but it substitutes a halfhearted twist for worthwhile insights

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Black Mirror
Black Mirror

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 look at each of the fourth season’s six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears.

The other essays in this series address “USS Callister,” “Black Museum,” “Hang The DJ,” “Metalhead,” and “Arkangel.”

Spoiler warning: This essay does not reveal the end of “Crocodile,” but does address significant plot points not seen in the episode trailer.

What would the world look like if we couldn’t lie? Ricky Gervais took a stab at imagining that possibility in his 2009 comedy The Invention of Lying, as did China Miéville in Embassytown. In “Crocodile,” Black Mirror re-examines the question in a world where the newest form of surveillance takes place inside people’s minds, where technology can grant access to any observer. The results as heavy-handed and depressing as Black Mirror fans might expect.

At a dance party in Iceland, a couple named Mia (Andrea Riseborough) and Rob (Andrew Gower) writhe to a Goldfrapp song that declares, “I’m in love with a strict machine.” Still half-drunk, they drive home along a frozen highway, and accidentally hit a cyclist on their way. Mia immediately picks up her phone to call the police, but Rob begs her to think about the consequences: him in jail, and the man dead either way. At first, she’s the picture of dissent. She screams “no”; she says “don’t.” But in the end, she helps Rob hide the evidence. Both the man’s body and his bike disappear into the bottom of a fjord. Out of sight, out of mind.

In our world, that might have been the end of it. In this one, things turn out differently, thanks to the ultimate form of surveillance: using technology to peer inside people’s minds. In this episode, an M&M-sized device placed on a person’s temple allows memories — or “engrams” — to be displayed on a nearby screen. Everyone from insurance adjusters to police officers is empowered to poke around in people’s brains when they need answers, turning the entire population into de facto CCTV cameras that are always rolling.

The technology turns the entire population into de facto CCTV cameras that are always rolling

Many years later, Mia has become an award-winning architect. Hair cut and colored in a short, professional style, she’s built a new life with a gentle, bearded man, and they have a nine-year-old son. After a speaking engagement in the city, filmed at Reyjavik’s gorgeous Harpa concert hall, she meets up with Rob for the first time in years. He’s newly sober and looking to make amends, particularly to the widow of the man they ran down, who has never stopped searching for him. Rob says they have a moral obligation to tell her what happened. Mia is more concerned with protecting herself. The conversation that follows ends poorly.

Mia’s life doesn’t unravel until she witnesses a traffic accident, and an insurance investigator named Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) begins to investigate it, ping-ponging from one set of eyes and memories to the next. She’s only out to determine fault in the accident, via the “recaller” and facial recognition technology. Her search leads her to Mia, who can’t reveal what she saw without also revealing what happened in that hotel room. The fallout from their confrontation just leads to more violence.

As a small, slight white woman, Mia benefits from the presumption of innocence that surrounds her like a halo; she’s an unlikely killer, but that’s part of what makes her so effective, and it doesn’t seem like an accident that most of her victims in “Crocodile” are people of color. Like Get Out, which positioned white femininity as the canny, quiet heart of its violence, “Crocodile” asks viewers to imagine a tearful, blond, white woman as the malefactor willing to sacrifice anyone around her on an altar of murderous self-interest.

Mia weeps in between murdering her victims with blunt objects and disposing of their bodies, but she is no less a monster for having red-rimmed eyes

Mia cries every time she kills — she even apologizes to her victims — but that doesn’t stop her from committing horrific acts. Her pseudo-sympathetic tears are the lachrymal corollary to the famous line from Hamlet that one can “smile and smile and smile and be a villain.” Mia weeps between victims, but she’s no less a monster because she has red-rimmed eyes. When she appears outside the house of a future victim clad in black and wielding a hammer, she’s as cold-blooded and terrifying as any horror villain.

It’s less clear what the episode means to communicate about the memory-reading “strict machine” that motivates Mia’s killing spree. The technology is an obvious proxy for the increasingly invasive ways our lives are surveilled, from cameras to face-recognition to data theft. Although “Crocodile” feints at interesting ideas, it’s hard to identify a takeaway. Invasive surveillance is bad because… it’s really good at catching murderers? Or it’s bad because… it pushes people who are capable of murder into murdering each other?

The episode closes with an attempted knife-twist that’s only worth an eye-roll. It’s meant as a bit of dramatic irony, but it arrives abruptly and without setup, and lands with a dull thud. There’s also a deus ex machina involving a guinea pig that makes no sense, even within the episode’s techno-mythos. Although often pretty to look at, thanks to its snow-swept locales, “Crocodile” is most useful as a compact summary of some of Black Mirror’s worst tendencies: violence and cruelty for their own sake, and developments that abandon the story’s pre-established logic in favor of big, allegorical gut-punches. Too bad this one doesn’t land at all. 

“Crocodile” ratings:

Relevance: Low. Facial recognition is frightening from a privacy perspective, particularly as it pertains to law enforcement, but its deployment here doesn’t offer any insights. The memory-reading technology the episode conjures into being has a lot of potential for exploring the dark side of surveillance, though it is largely wasted.

Aesthetics: Austere and beautiful. The episode was filmed in Iceland, where the long drives between Mia’s murders unfold on empty roads that wind between dramatic snow-encrusted peaks and chilly fjords. It’s so isolated that killing a man in a hit-and-run and disposing of his body before the next car came along seems entirely plausible.

Squirm factor: The dread that precedes the first several murders is unpleasant, though it quickly fades with repetition, and while the skull-cracking is unpleasant to watch, Mia’s moral apathy is more discomforting.