Black Mirror: 402 “Arkangel” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Parenting is challenging and rewarding in equal amounts. But as improving safety, education and medicine give our children greater chances of fulfilling their potential, so grows the possible ways for children to fall into harm from a young age. With that said, it’s understandable that many parents will take the easiest and safest route to ensure their children are kept from danger. Yet how much protection is too much? Can a child be shielded beyond necessary, impacting their development?
The first episode of Black Mirror to be directed by a woman, Arkangel is the series’ own take on an Indie film, and what an accomplished name it is. Jodie Foster is behind the lens here- a true signifier if any that the show is increasing in name and stature. That said, Arkangel is anything but a sizeable story in nature, instead zeroing in on one of the most complex and loving relationships there is- that between a mother and daughter- and using the backdrop of small-town Americana to tell a story of how technology could so easily enhance our worst impulses and drive a wedge between this sacred bond.
Arkangel opens with the very first moment this special bond begins, eye to eye at least- at birth. Marie (Mad Men and La La Land’s Rosemarie DeWitt) blames herself for needing a caesarean instead of a natural birth, and panics as the doctors check her baby, fearing the worst. Marie is a naturally anxious character, and by showing us her personality in this very private first moment with daughter Sara, it allows us to understand (even if not always deeply sympathise) with the actions she takes as events progress. Marie doesn’t even have a support system in place for something as reassuring as her partner holding her hand as she gives birth, and despite our eventual discovery of her father (Art Hindle) helping, Marie’s anxiety is well-founded.
Black Mirror has often found its greatest successes in rooting its stories in the uncomfortably real and near future, with a plausibility that makes proceedings skin-crawling. Arkangel doesn’t take place in the distant future (at least unless you take Marie’s fathers’ comment about being “2000 years old” in the literal sense) and by taking place in a suburban town playing surrogate to what could quite easily be any number of small towns, it brings us down to earth. How many parents would seriously consider this technology, for the peace of mind alone?
Arkangel takes the concept of helicopter parenting to the very extreme, playing on the anxieties that all parents have regarding the general safety of their child. Yet the most fascinating aspect of this episode is the way the technology is presented at first, not as an overbearing evil, but something genuinely useful to a concerned parent, a painless procedure that opens Marie up to a wealth of possibilities for her to “keep care” of Sara. Though initially used for harmless moments like letting Marie watch Sara play in the garden, or telling her to only take one cookie, even early on key moments of Sara’s potential development are stunted by the Arkangel system, as Marie uses a feature that blocks stressful images for Sara when her stress levels rise as she sees an aggressive dog. While at face value, this seems a logical thing for Marie to do to not upset Sara, it’s gaining responses to stimuli like this that contribute to Sara’s later violent outbursts- she even befriends the dog eventually after the system is shut off.
The pacing and editing of Arkangel as Sara grows up is supremely well-done, presenting the passing of time with such mundane moments as Sara on a swing or walking past the dog. It brings a sense of normalcy to what we’re watching. Sara seriously lacks basic responses as she grows. After the first time-skip, her mother is seen mourning her grandfather (who prior was our modern metaphor, from a time when “kids were just left to be kids”, and they’d discover life naturally). Sara is distant, blank- she can’t even see her mother’s crying. She can’t even develop a response to grief. This keeps happening, even at school as a boy called Trick tries to explain violent imagery to her, but the filter makes it incomprehensible and Sara just sits there, squinting. Self-harm is the outcome, drawing blood with a pencil just to see her own blood, such is her fascination. She’s been shielded so much that she hasn’t even seen her own blood.
While Marie as a mother is naturally overprotective, by using the Arkangel technology she has deprived Sara of vital life experiences, and her eventual exposure to things such as porn and violent content are rapid rather than gradual (the expressions from Sara’s actress at this age, Sarah Abbott, are superb, as are the performances throughout Arkangel from her younger and older counterparts Aniya Hodge and Brenna Harding). Yet, how dissimilar is this from the normal discovery of shocking content for many kids? It brings up questions of how easily this content is found on the internet and how so many of us are exposed from a young age, with her childhood fascination watching this “forbidden” content speaking volumes. Denied proper lessons about sex, Sara also uses dirty talk she’d learned from porn as she loses her virginity. Arkangel directly impacts her important formative experiences.
While the “blur” effect is disturbing (very much like the “blocking” from White Christmas) especially when Sara’s grandad has a stroke and she can only see his collapsed outline as he gasps for help, the most troubling aspect of the technology is Marie being able to see directly what Sara can, and access what she’s already seen, ala the Grain from The Entire History of You. It’s this feature that ruins the temporarily normal relationship between Sara and Marie, as Sara lies to her about her whereabouts and Marie sees her having sex, leading to their relationship dissolving again in time, simple things like boundaries are helped to be breached by Arkangel.
This breach of personal boundaries leads to Marie exacting control over Sara gradually again, yet it remains morally grey, as Marie sees her doing coke and discovers her pregnancy. Her taking the choice of the pregnancy out of Sara’s hands is deplorable, but after all, her daughter is fifteen and has already been having unprotected sex and is now trying cocaine with a strange boy, so you understand why she acts, especially to break Sara up with Trick- does she have the right, though, especially regarding the pregnancy? How much of this is the Arkangel’s fault, how much is bad parenting, and how much is simple teenage action/experimentation?
Marie doesn’t seem to have much of a life herself, so she’s obsessed over her daughter. How much of her actions are natural protectiveness for the good of her child, and how much is taking her own daughter’s autonomy away from her? Marie’s decision to hide Sara’s pregnancy from her and worse, to abort it for her, creates the perfect storm that leads to the shocking finale, a twisted self-fulfilling prophecy as the most important part of Marie’s life is taken away from her. How much of this is her own direct fault?
The final confrontation of Sara and Marie is indeed incredibly upsetting, and while I understand some people’s issue with this and its predictability, there’s a sense of emotional inevitability that means it doesn’t lose its impact. Mother and daughter share the same far away look of a life out of their control- Marie at the very end, and Sara as she discovers the contraception, and the climax is destiny. The brutal, distressing beating of Marie is filmed to gain maximum impact, as our view flits between Sara’s filtered view and reality, with Sara unable to see her mother’s face and how badly she’s hurting her until the filter lifts. I understand those who have strong issue with how this plays out- however, I feel it fits, as uncomfortable as it is to watch.
Sara has been so thoroughly desensitised to violence and extremes. She has been so protected, so prevented from the real world, that she must have felt oppressively suffocated, and lashing out was inevitable. It was all leading to this. A crushing ending then, mirroring the opening, as Sara runs away to probably far greater danger and Marie finds herself right back where she started at the moment she needed Arkangel, frantically looking for her daughter. The saddest part is it was all preventable, with a sense of boundaries and communication.
Arkangel is an archetypical realistic Black Mirror parable, which desperately preaches to us the vital nature of boundaries and when it’s right as a parent to let go. When do you hold your child’s hand, and when do you let them spread their wings on their own? When do you let your child find out what is bad, and when do you act? Importantly, Arkangel keeps us sympathetic to both Marie and Sara, making their actions at times even more upsetting and disappointing, given the love between them is so clear thanks to the performances and director Jodie Foster getting the best out of them. While it doesn’t rely on typical Black Mirror twists throughout, it works for that reason- a cautionary tale of technology irreparably ruining our own natural instincts and family bonds.