We tread into familiar territory with Arkangel, a quintessential Black Mirror episode which follows the usual formula: we are exposed to some new technology, we see the dangers of its implementation, and we learn a moral lesson through a personal story centred around the aforementioned tech.
Marie Sambrell (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a single and loving mother, but when her young daughter Sara (Brenna Harding) almost goes missing, Marie (out of protectiveness and a yearning for security) agrees to let Sara trial a new piece of technology, the Arkangel implant. It allows Marie to track Sara, monitor her vital signs and health, see through her eyes, and even filter out stressful content such as pornography, blood, or anything that may cause distress.
We watch Sara grow up, and when she’s in junior school her inability to engage with or handle certain content, and her frustration with the limits imposed by Arkangel, prompt Marie to remove the filter and put the Arkangel tablet-device (which Marie uses to monitor Sara) away. We then see Sara as a 15 year old teenager – she’s a little more eager to experiment and do dangerous things (she lies to her mom about her plans; she goes to a party and sleeps with a guy she knows; she urges the guy to let her try cocaine), but she’s also a normal young-adult trying things out and rebelling a bit.
However, this new behaviour concerns Marie, and instead of talking to her daughter, she starts using the Arkangel tablet again. Marie (trying to do what she thinks is best) interferes with Sara’s life as a result of knowing her activities, and even slips contraceptive pills into her supplementary drink when the device indicates that Sara is pregnant. Sara’s discovery of all this leads to her confronting her mother, and her rage becomes tangible when she repeatedly bludgeons Marie on the head with the tablet (not knowing the extent of the harm she’s causing because her mother’s screams and blood are filtered out by the Arkangel implant). Leaving an unconscious but not dead Marie on the floor, Sara runs away from home, and the episode ends with a dazed Marie desperately calling out for her daughter; mirroring the beginning of the episode where Marie searches for a missing Sara.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the episode showed Sara growing up, rather than just focussing on events surrounding her early childhood and how it was affected by the implant. Although, it also made me more anxious regarding Sara’s fate and what would happen to her in the episode. Young children are the most vulnerable humans, so the biggest threats to a young Sara would be abduction, or injury as a result of not understanding the dynamics of the world etc. – but as a teenager, she could be exposed to issues such as drugs, societal pressures, predatory men or other teenagers. Thankfully, the episode never truly put her into a dangerous situation, and focussed more on how the the technology hinders her development and erodes the trust between her and her mother.
I think the episode did a good job at showing the different phases of her life, and it carefully displayed both the subtle and explicit impacts of the implant on her development – at her grandfather’s funeral, her crying mother is blurred out by the filter, disconnecting her from an integral life event; she sees an image of two people strangling each other as two people talking, as she’s never been exposed to the concept of violence; and when her filter is finally removed, she is overeager to finally see things such as pornography and violence to the extent that a schoolboy force-feeds her images and videos – whereas normal children would be exposed to this content over time and would have space to process it. These things are all crippling to the development of a person, so it’s easy to see why this technology is dangerous. The episode even reveals that Arkangel was banned in some countries, and discontinued in countries such as the US where it was already present.
On the flip-side, the episode also focusses on Marie and how this technology can harm a mother or parent.
The Arkangel implant caters to the fear that all parents have of losing their precious children, and while it does provide meaningful ways to keep children from danger (like the tracking feature) and to monitor their health, it steps too far when it allows parents to filter out content. It also incentivises parents to watch from a distance, rather than build trusting and healthy relationships with their children. Marie is presented as a loving but ultimately tragic mother – she relies too much on her Arkangel tablet, and as a result she is disconnected from her daughter; and the lack of transparency obviously angers her daughter, resulting in the violent confrontation at the end. We can’t really call Marie the villain of the story, the tech obviously is, but it was her over-dependency on it to be a good parent that led to the breakdown of her relationship with Sara. At the end of the episode, she sees that the tablet is broken, and feels absolutely scrambled. Without it, she doesn’t know what to do – the irony is that the device was broken all along; Arkangel was never a good idea.
One shot I found truly striking and impactful was one where it shows Marie looking at the visual feed on the tablet, revealing Sara’s perspective, who turns out to be standing right behind her mother and looking at her. It works on multiple levels – it shows Marie as vulnerable and in a corner, presenting the dangers that a lack of transparency (caused by the device) have brought on her; it symbolises their relationship, as Marie literally has her back to her daughter, and her eyes on the device, showing their disconnect; and it shows how blind Marie really is, despite the vigilance and security Arkangel promises.
While I enjoyed these aspects of the episode, it didn’t do enough new things to cement itself as one of Black Mirror’s greats. It’s thematically and stylistically very similar to episodes such as The Entire History of You, and to some of the elements of White Christmas and Be Right Back. As a result, it can’t be considered a standout episode, despite its strengths. I like how it presents a coming of age story, done in indie style, and imbued with the darkness of Black Mirror, but that just isn’t enough. USS Callister on the other hand took risks and represents the best that Black Mirror can be. The best episodes in this series are those that present novel and relevant dangers, through unique storytelling. I didn’t see much of that here.
Besides that, I enjoyed the way the episode was directed, and I was impressed with the acting. I think more work could have been done in explaining why Sara’s heavy exposure to ‘dangerous’ content was inherently a bad thing, and how it might have affected her development (although there is one scene where Trick, the guy Sara has sex with, comments that she doesn’t need to try and sound like a porn-star, which kind of indicates her disillusionment), and I think the conclusion was very 0-100, and we should have seen more conflict between Sara and her mom that would have realistically and logically led to the violent climax.
All in all, a good episode; I’m enjoying Season 4.
Side Thoughts and Observations:
- When an Arkangel employee is demoing the filter feature to Marie, they switch the cartoon Sara is watching to a scene from a military shooter – this scene shown is directly taken from Season 3’s Men Against Fire. I found it to be a cool reference that wasn’t forced into the episode.
- The Arkangel App that Marie uses looks so similar in style and design to so many of the apps we use today. It’s almost creepy that the way we swipe to change Instagram or Snapchat filters can just as easily be used to blur out ‘harmful’ content and contribute to ruining a family’s life…
- Trick may have exposed Sara to ideas and content that impacted on her innocence, but he’s actually a decent guy. He doesn’t get high on his own supply either.
- To be honest, I wouldn’t be opposed to an Arkangel style implant that allowed parents to track and monitor the vitals of young children, so long as it didn’t tap into their visual feed or block/alter what they see, and so long as it had an expiry date i.e. it only worked between the ages of something like 3 and 6. I think it could be a useful tool for keeping very young children safe, but after a point children should be trusted on their own, and parents have no reason to invade their day-to-day privacy.
- HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!