Netflix’s Black Mirror is in its fourth (and best) season, which just hit the streaming service last week. For those not in-the-know, it is basically approaches the idea of Twilight Zone/Tales from the Crypt anthological storytelling from the perspective of how future technology could completely ruin us. If you need a quick refresher of the eps for this season, check out our preview here and a review of the first ep USS Callister here.
And yes – SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.
The second episode of the season, Arkangel, deals with over-parenting in a quasi-futuristic world where you can implant a GPS tracking into your kid’s head that not only pings their location, but also allows you to monitor their vitals and even what they’re seeing in real time (with the added feature of a visual filter that blurs out anything too stressful for a child). Directed by Jodie Foster (Money Monster, The Beaver), her foray into the world of Black Mirror has produced one of her best directorial efforts to date. Starring Rosemarie Dewitt (Marie) and Brenna Harding (Sara), Foster approaches Charlie Booker’s script with a less overt sense of menace. Arkangel keeps that haunting sense of paranoia and dread associated with Black Mirror’s tone, but in a more frustratingly passive role. A large portion of the story’s subject matter revolves around Marie’s feeling of helplessness in regards to keeping her child safe and she accepts an intense invasion of her child’s privacy in exchange for that sense of security.
What makes the episode deceptively impactful is how it scales down the normally shockingly violent/ironic societal overtones in favor of a much more intimate, sparsely told story of isolation and fear. Foster isolates Dewitt’s performances, giving her very little real-world socialization. She works, goes home and has the occasional emotionless fling. Unlike her daughter, she’s not actually out in the world – living life. In many ways, she’s only experiencing the world through the most emotionally stressful parts of her daughter’s life. It’d be easy to go the route of “look how shocking a teenager’s life is!” or “parents are too over bearing!” but this additional element of Marie’s reclusive life takes it up a notch.
Dewitt is, of course, an amazing performer who layers in the internally frenzied demeanor of a worried parent that makes the story work, but she also adds these subtle touches of personal sadness and desperation. Marie is alone in her own paranoia in that she’s withdrawn from the world almost completely. She has no apparent hobbies and no tangible connection to the world, except when she’s spying on her daughter. The “evil technology” angle is almost a red herring in this episode as the story is less about “helicopter parenting” and more about the dangers of living a reclusive, fearful life. Similar to how people watch a 24 hour news network, only hearing the worst of the worst that humanity has to offer in the most sensational and fear-inducing style possible, but never actually get out into the world and be a part of the society they fear so much (the shorthand is – people who think all Muslims are extremists, but have never even spoken to someone of the Muslim faith in real life). Marie exemplifies this attitude of “don’t live in the world, just in fear of it” with her downward spiral into watching her daughter’s life through a seven inch screen.
Foster communicates this through how Dewitt is framed in multiple shots. When she digs up the old tablet to begin spying on her daughter again, we see her from the bottom of a staircase, so very distant from reality or she’ll put Dewitt behind a pane of glass looking out at the world her daughter actually lives in, but Marie dare not go. She has cloistered herself off from both the good and the bad that society has to offer and as a result can no longer differentiate between the two in a real way, creating an even stronger rift between her and her daughter that culminates with her daughter fearlessly running off into the unknown that society has to offer – Marie’s greatest fear imaginable for herself.
At first glance it’s easy to dismiss Arkangel as very superficial commentary on over-parenting in the digital age, but like all great Black Mirror episodes, something more sinister and deeply rooted in the current cultural zeitgeist lies just beneath the surface. The idea that you can close yourself off from the world (in fear of the worst it has to offer) is an addiction that can only be fed by putting up more walls between you and the real world. Sure, you can try to view it through a filtered, curated ten inch screen but ultimately you’ll just be shutting yourself off from ever really experiencing anything and putting so many people on the other side of those walls that you’ll be left alone and still as sacred as ever.
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