Black Mirror: 406 “Black Museum” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Another season of Black Mirror comes to an end, a season full of sinister Star Trek parodies, parenting but too much, Icelandic murder sprees, extreme Tinder, and robot dogs killing everything. So, another season of Black Mirror, and the finale of season 4, Black Museum, sees a traveller on the dusty roads of Las Vegas (how many episodes this time have opened with a drive/walk down a lonely road?) finding herself visiting possibly the spookiest museum in history, one with more than a few reminders of the past. Black Museum acts as a twisted celebration of all things Black Mirror, a devilish grin as wide as the titular museums proprietor, as if to say, “look how far we’ve come”.
Away from the surface references, Black Museum shares much in common with the past, not least as it is presented as a triptych of stories ala White Christmas. Director Colm McCarthy (the terrific Girl with All the Gifts) and the production team bring distinct life to each of the stories and to the seedy museum, both outside and in. Brilliant too, to hear the distinct sounds of composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer of Utopia fame (who worked with McCarthy on Girl), setting the mood instantly and being a stand-out throughout with his signature droning, otherworldly sounds laced with disembodied voices. Black Museum is positively dripping in atmosphere.
Inside the museum, traveller Nish (the upcoming Black Panther’s Letitia Wright) meets the owner, Rolo Haynes (The Night Manager’s Douglas Hodge). Rolo is a fascinating character, his role throughout developing into almost an antagonistic face for Black Mirror itself after his initially friendly-seeming façade drops, the architect of all this pain, in this universe at least. If you’re giving so much evil a face, make sure its an unpleasant one, and Douglas Hodge sells Rolo with a sleazy expertise, revelling in his stories, an opportunistic entrepreneur who is the glue who holds the stories together working for his neurotech company. Black Museum showcases both Rolo and Nish as unreliable narrators, but Rolo is a wonderfully slimy character, almost like a twisted analogue for Charlie Brooker himself to speak through- Rolo exclaiming that “lots of folk just rush behind the curtain”, possibly a statement on the show’s viewers. There’s a lot of that throughout- this is perhaps the closest the “black mirror” has ever been held to our faces.
The first of Rolo’s unpleasant stories is one heavily promoted, the “Pain Addict” story from legendary American magician Penn Jillette. It’s remarkably simple but pinpoint in its terror- failing doctor Peter Dawson (Catastrophe’s Daniel Lapaine) is given the chance to use an implant that allows him to feel patients pain, accurately diagnosing them in no time (do this, and the second story regarding a sharing of a brain, sound at all familiar to ideas Karl Pilkington had? They sound it!) While first it’s everything the doctor could’ve wished for, making him a medical star, even allowing him to experience his girlfriend’s orgasms during sex (a certainly…vivid, visual!) there’s a “but…” in this story, as Nish calls out. Nish (another wonderful female lead this season!) feels like a surrogate for ourselves as viewers- the one knowing what’s coming, or awaiting the twists, seeking the next juicy morsel of story.
Events flip on their head in spectacular fashion, as Dawson feels a patient’s death, and finds himself craving similar highs. Related to chilli heat levels by Rolo (who proves an unfortunate master of metaphor throughout) Dawson abuses the technology, attempting to gain pleasure from a dying woman, beginning his character transformation in earnest, and lordy is it a gory one, as we see him mutilate his own body seeking a buzz. It’s one of the bloodiest visuals in Black Mirror, yet this story keeps building- realising he lacks the crucial component for the high, fear, he finds and brutally murders a homeless person before finding himself trapped in a coma on a never-ending high. The visual comparison between the animalistic Dawson as he executes his victim, with Dawson lying in bed, excited is something to behold.
The second story follows a couple, Carrie and Jack (Utopia’s Alexandra Roach and Friday Night Lights’ Aldis Hodge). One graphic depiction of sex from Rolo and one cruel collision later, Carrie is left in a coma. Rolo offers Jack the choice to use the neurotech of the doctor, adapted into cookie tech to allow her to take residence in Jack’s brain, as a fully formed consciousness with feeling. Carrie’s “interface” is vivid and colourful, compared to the plain White Christmas cookie style, and initially everything’s alright. Then comes the “but” …Carrie has become a back-seat driver glued in the backseat, with no privacy for her and no agency for him.
Their break-down initially starts wickedly funny, with Jack “punishing” Carrie with the taste of anchovies, and their arguments, as shot so we often only see him talking to her from one side of the conversation, drive home the surreal nature of the situation. It soon turns much blacker however, with Carrie limited to weekends inside Jack’s head to spend with their son, and the sudden change of time is disorienting, heart-wrenchingly affecting as we watch the weekends flash by, Carrie sitting there face doused in colour as her expression slowly morphs into blankness. It’s a gripping image in an episode full of them.
Jack pairs up with another woman, still arguing with Carrie interfering like an “ex”, and the sight of the two (three?) sitting at Rolo’s desk as if they were at counselling, talking about Carrie even though she’s in Jack’s head is supremely odd. True to Rolo’s greasy salesman style though, he reuses his “she’s done her thinking” line and Carrie finds herself in something worse than her boyfriend’s head- a plush monkey toy. The implications are chilling, but the situation balances being truly upsetting with dark hilarity, with Jack’s new beaus “interrogation” of Carrie smirk-inducing in how ridiculous it is. It’s a petrifying scenario, however, from a parent’s worst nightmares- to be so close to their child but unable to truly interact with them, human interaction limited to two Emoji-like buttons. Monkey-Carrie is eventually forgotten about, literally discarded like an old toy. A well of emotion bursts open, even more so as she’s still inside the monkey. Toy Story never did this to us!
Rolo’s main attraction is his true cruel masterwork however- a sentient hologram of a death row inmate, Clayton Leigh (The Defender’s Babs Olusanmokun). Rolo is not a morally grey antagonist of typical Black Mirror, but one of pure horror, the finale of technological abuse made flesh, mocking human rights for cookies. True to his “carnie attitude” he went for a prisoner, rights for prisoners a sales opportunity for him such is his little remorse, and its here where Brooker makes a pressing statement on criminal justice and the prison system, one that pointedly harks back to White Bear, as Rolo takes justice into his hands and puts it to the paying public for entertainment. He doesn’t make them- they do it themselves, just as the show has always preached- we cause our own downfall, moral or physical.
To see a man killed instantly like Clayton, then reduced to a tiny device and committed to eternal torture, to the gasping delight of the visitors as they wield technological power over another seen lesser- one who was likely innocent- is chilling. Nish reveals herself as Clayton’s daughter, screaming about the injustice of his fate, how the protests around him had moved on to the next focal point to “hang a hashtag”, uncomfortably close to reality and the pain that is exploited by others.
Rather than technology being the vice through which we commit evil in Black Museum, it’s Rolo who engineers it, allowing people to suffer or be abhorrent. He practically spits with pride at his achievements, a reflection of the uglier side of morality, dismissing the possible innocence of Clayton as “fake news” and “virtue signalling” to protect his success (remind you of anyone?), lying to Nish that Clayton’s family didn’t care about him, before we see his wife beg him not to sell his “soul” to Rolo. He’s reminiscent of the devil himself throughout, such were his tempting offerings that led to cruelty- he even offers the apple of knowledge, the forbidden fruit, to Jack earlier on. The “sentient snapshot” keyring idea one of the bleakest yet, selling a human mind for profit- as a souvenir of their fun little trip.
In a season of some well-earned emotional releases, this is one of the most satisfying by Black Museum’s close, as Nish’s vengeance is enacted. An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind- but it’s tough to have any judgement towards Nish’s actions as Clayton, a ghost in his cell, touches hands with her clearly somehow recognising his daughter deep down. Nish’s vengeance inverts the evil on Rolo, trapped in Clayton’s body as Carrie was Jack’s, his power gone, screaming pointlessly at her, cutting away from his harshest expletive in fist-pumping fashion.
Cue Rolo becoming a keyring himself, a fate he’s earned by abusing the technological wonders we’ve seen. It’s a surreal sight to watch Rolo’s victims, one trapped in a monkey, exorcise their demons together, Nish setting fire to the museum supported by one final “monkey loves you”. Thus Nish (with her mother in her mind- one final reveal!) rolls back off down the road, (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me bookending the episode in hilariously fitting fashion. If there’s anything Black Mirror loves most, it’s a cracking musical finish. Rolo’s desire to innovate was his end, his pond-life nature putting profit above humanity.
Black Museum shows us with how much cruelty someone can avoid being humane and warp life to their own gain with technology. While no doubt a morbid episode at times, with stories revolving around the power people wield over others in extreme fashion, startlingly real to a modern world, it also cues us that perhaps we should trust that evil will always lose- if we trust in our humanity. In Nish’s burning of the museum, it feels like Charlie Brooker’s own burning and exorcism of the final rigid form of Black Mirror, a completion of a season long arc of experiments and expanding what the show can be. Maybe throwing all these references and ties to the past, then setting them alight, is to do just that- create chaos. Anything goes next time around. Black Museum is the show at its warped, ambitious best, but Season 5 could really be all possibilities now, and that’s so exciting. Another whole year, though? Monkey needs a hug.