TV Recap: Black Mirror, Arkangel
My niece has a way of unnerving me with her utter fearlessness. I swear she has frog feet - she rushes and runs up narrow ledges at full speed, rarely losing her balance and performing feats of athleticism while somehow maintaining an elasticity that makes her wiggly and able to escape any embrace I give her, no matter how tight Her daredevil like demeanor intensified my insecurities about having a child. I would hem and haw over the precarious runs she would take up the stairs, worried that maybe one day my own children would inherit my own anxieties, or worse, I would project those anxieties onto them. My worries about failure, my self loathing, my latent bad habits, my addiction to making it perfect rather than making it - all made worse by a natural instinct to be protective.
The second episode of Black Mirror Season 4, ‘Arkangel’, is my potential parenting insecurities personified.
Directed by Jodie Foster, ‘Arkangel’ opens on a shot of Marie (Rosemarie Dewitt) in preparation for a c-section. Alone and exhausted, a nurse offers her a hand in compassion as her daughter, Sara, is delivered A short time jump shows us a little bit of Marie’s everyday life; she lives with her father, a painter who stays at home with Sara while Marie works as a physical therapist. A trip to the park and a moment of distraction lead to Sara being lost, having wandered off after a cat. Desperate to never feel disconnected from her daughter again, Marie participates in the ‘Arkangel’ program, an implantable device that provides GPS services, the ability to view what the child is seeing through their eyes and health monitoring. The system even allows censoring and filtering of images that cause the child stress, from aggressive dogs to violent images.
The program puts Marie at ease, but causes much confusion for Sara when her grandfather has a heart attack while Marie is at work. When his weakened state takes his life, Marie weeps over her father's grave and Sara sees only the digitally censored blurring and muffled sobs of her mother. As Sara enters school going age, she is a social outcast - Marie is quick to report objectionable behavior of fellow students, and Sara has developed a reputation as a tattletale. An older boy, ‘Trick’, is dismissive of Sara’s inquires when he shows a violent video to other classmates, and circumvents the system by providing a reenactment that partially surpasses the Arkangel’s security settings. Fascinated by the violence, Sara attempts to recreate it in drawings. The Arkangel blocks the simulated blood and Sara engages in self harm that requires the intervention of a child psychologist. Noting the Arkangel’s ban in Europe and failure to become integrated nationwide, Marie agrees to stop the systems usage and Sara grows into a fairly normal teenager with a rebellious streak.
The natural divide of an aging child and parent start taking hold, and Marie becomes suspicious of her daughters activities. Returning to the Arkangel, Marie sees that Sara has begun a sexual relationship with Trick. Always rebellious, Trick has turned to more illicit activities such as using and selling drugs, but appears to have a genuine affection for the younger Sara. After Sara persuades Trick to let her try his wares, Marie becomes enraged and threatens Trick, who abandons Sara and stops answering her calls and texts. Finally, the Arkangel alerts Marie to one final revelation - Sara has become pregnant, and Marie taints Sara’s food with an emergency contraceptive to prevent the pregnancy. When the school nurse alerts Sara to the revelation of the emergency contraceptives present in her system, Sara tears apart the house looking for the truth. She finds the Arkangel, and realizes the events her mother has fixated on. Marie arrives, and they have a violent confrontation that leads to Sara leaving home, and Marie as lost as she was at the time she turned to the Arkangel, having lost control of her own impulses and losing the love of her daughter in the process.
‘Arkangel’ is a fascinating idea that treads on familiar territory for Black Mirror - the obsession that technology can provide the user it’s supposed to comfort. Navigating from romantic relationships like in ‘The Entire History Of You’ or ‘Be Right Back’, ‘Arkangel’ does provide an interesting twist moving the dynamic to parent/child, but handles the root causes of Marie’s desire for control sloppily. The mechanics are almost ham fisted - from her delivery without a partner to her awkwardness with potential partners, Marie is written in a manner of a ‘broken woman’ that didn’t sit well with me. Some additional backstory, establishing her independence or the root of her anxieties, would have erased some of this unease. Rosemarie Dewitt is still a capable performer, and she traces Marie’s motives logically, even when they seem to swing to the extremes, and she helps each of the young women playing Sara seem grounded in their confusion. The teenage Sara, Brenna Harding, provides a rounded exploration of a adolescent life teetering between control and chaos; her acts play like a version of Lady Bird sent through a Philip K. Dick simulation.
‘Arkangel’ is also a fine showcase of Jodie Foster’s directorial work. While the conceit of the story is weaker and will draw comparison to other similar concepts in the Black Mirror canon, Foster’s ability to observe domestic life and the politics of a playground make the mundane world away from the hard sci-fi of ‘Arkangel’ compelling. While I remain critical of Charlie Brooker’s choices when it comes to the characterization of Marie, together Foster and DeWitt know that a small and attention to detail moment, like an extra turn at the mirror while putting on a ‘going out’ dress, can add depth to a character. This kind of collaboration between a performer and a director who graduated from acting breathe life into sometimes tepid story elements, and gave me an opportunity to believe that there’s more to the story than Brooker chose to let on.
Jodie Foster adds an irreplaceable presence behind the camera that allows a story about a mother and daughter to have heart and depth. While the two performers who portray the essential conflict at the height of the story make the frustrations of a changing parent/child relationship palpable. However, ‘Arkangel’, being an ‘eye based technology’ story, suffers against the baggage of previous stellar installments of Black Mirror, and Charlie Brooker’s abbreviated storytelling style leaves details about Marie and the world of ‘Arkangel’ too unanswered for my liking. If, as has been suggested, this season represents the final trip thru the Black Mirror, ’Arkangel’ is proof that consistent production deadlines have left Brooker with a shallowing pond of ideas to fish from.