Whenever I watch Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, one question always plagues me: How did they get there? How did characters arrive in a world where a Prime Minster would actually sodomize a pig on live television, where people would use hashtags to put out murder hits, where someone could be visually blocked from seeing a loved one, where a criminal’s torture becomes a tourist attraction? What must happen for humanity to sink to such cruel and bleak depths? After watching all six episodes of Black Mirror’s upcoming season, then listening to my daily news podcast the following morning, outlining the many nightmares of the moment, it hit me: It isn’t some evil invention of the future or ambiguous other that’s going to instigate our debasement, it’s us.

Black Mirror has never really been about the tech, but how those futuristic advancements expose what’s always been there. The series’ high-tech cornea cameras, consciousness clones, and social media ratings systems are just the springboards for revealing humanity’s self-destructive nature, our most shameless fears and weaknesses, and, sometimes, for justice. Brooker’s often described his sci-fi anthology series as a forecast of where humanity might end up in 10 minutes time if we’re clumsy. Clumsy we’ve been indeed; in 2017, we’re practically living in one long Black Mirror episode.

It begs the question: What place does Black Mirror, one of the most disturbing, albeit wildly entertaining reminders of humankind’s awfulness, have to offer in a year full of so much rage and despair? Does it continue to serve as a grim warning for what could be, or, as Season 3 suggested, is it a spark of hope in dark times? Well, the Netflix series’ fourth installment is a bit of both, with six new episodes that feel timelier than ever.

Half of the new chapters end on relatively optimistic notes, ranging from bittersweet to gloriously triumphant, while the others will leave you soaked from classic Brooker knife-twists of anguish and shock. (Masochists of the heart and mind need not fear; the new episodes are still packed with many unsettling, graphic horrors.) Yet calling Season 4 simply “uplifting” would be far too reductive; instead, the latest crop of episodes have woven something new into the mix that makes Black Mirror less relentless and more relevant. This year, Black Mirror carries with it a thirst for rebellion, in stories about the indistinguishable will to survive.

“Hang the DJ” (Netflix)

It’d be wrong to say all six episodes center around a singular theme – in Season 4, as a matter of fact, Black Mirror episodes are more distinct than in previous years, stylized in various genres, from a space opera spoof to a gritty survivalist thriller. But after watching the entire season, which was provided to critics in advance, I couldn’t help but notice a bit of a pattern. As different as they are, the majority of the new episodes have narratives about retaliation; against a system, a person, or a general injustice. This season is full of characters who make courageous decisions to affirm their independence, get revenge, or simply survive despite the odds against them. I realize that’s all pretty vague, and I can’t go into too much detail for fear of spoilers since Netflix has asked critics to keep mum on plot points.

Much like last season, the latest batch of episodes is a mixed bag. Some episodes are fantastic, with creative premises about imaginative new concepts. And then some are mediocre, a couple of which have compelling ideas that never quite build to a peak or end with satisfaction. But Season 4 is proof that Brooker hasn’t run out of ideas just yet, and this year his Netflix show is more ambitious in style and structure than ever before.

The six new episodes are all over the genre map. The Jodie Foster-directed “Arkangel” is crafted like an indie movie, a story about a mother (Rosemary Dewitt) and daughter and a surveillance tool with a slow build, though its steady pacing makes for an anxious watch. “Hang the DJ,” this year’s “San Junipero” (though not nearly as delightful) is a clever love story from Game of Thrones director Tim Van Patten starring Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole. I won’t reveal much, but it’s about a dating system that decides on your dates for you.

“USS Callister,” my personal favorite of the season, is a feature-length Star Trek spoof that takes a concept from previous Black Mirror chapters to fascinating extremes. It more than earns its extra runtime and has the best cast of the season – Jesse Plemmons, Cristin Milioti, Chewing Gum‘s Michaela Coel, and Westworld‘s Jimmi Simpson – all of whom, once you figure out the narrative, are so perfectly cast. Both “Crocodile” and “Metalhead” are more traditional thrillers. The former is a dismal Ireland-set tale about a memory device that will ensure you never look at Andrea Riseborough the same again, and the latter a tense survivalist thriller shot in black-and-white with the shortest runtime.

“Crocodile” (Netflix)
“Crocodile” (Netflix)

And then there’s “Black Museum,” the most quintessential Black Mirror episode of all. An anthology within an anthology, this Colm McCarthy-directed episode follows a young woman (Letitia Wright) who visits a museum of tech-related crimes. You’ll notice there’s not many Easter eggs buried throughout Season 4, unusual for a show filled with them, but just wait until you arrive at “Black Museum,” an Easter egg hunter’s heaven. (You technically don’t need to watch Black Mirror episodes in any particular order, but you’ll want to watch this one last to enjoy spotting all the references to the season’s previous episodes.) Most of all, McCarthy’s episode captures what makes this series special; its triptych of tragic stories depict the extremes to which technology can drastically improve our lives – from medical circumstances to personal afflictions – and then how we irresponsibly abuse those tools.

As gloomy and distressing as Black Mirror can be, and as much as our world feels like it’s slipping into a Brooker-invented nightmare, the fourth season does maintain some faith in humanity. Some of this season’s best (and a few of its most disappointing) episodes have characters who remind us that, as deplorable as humans can be, and as terrifying as our gadgets could become, the power is still in our hands. Maybe that’s just my highly personal takeaway as I desperately searched for some sense of hope in the bleakest show of our time, but Black Mirror left me with a speck of optimism. If some of the characters in Brooker’s world can prevail, get justice, or find the will to resist the system, surely we can too.

Gallery – 24 Easter Eggs From All Three Seasons of ‘Black Mirror’

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