When I sat down to watch Arkangel, I had an advantage (but also disadvantage) that our other writers didn’t have: I have almost never seen a Black Mirror episode. The only episode I’d ever seen was Be Right Back from the second season. My advantage was that I could judge the episode on its own without comparison to previous ones, but the disadvantage was that I didn’t know how and where the episode stands in the grand universe of Black Mirror (I made up for this by binge-watching the rest). I chose Arkangel as my first episode to start binge-watching the series because I find helicopter parenting such an interesting subject, and an episode directed by Jodie Foster, the first female director of the series, seemed like a great choice.
Arkangel tells the story of a mother, Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt), who decides to insert a chip into her daughters’ brain after almost losing her in a playground. It’s easy to tell that it’s all going to go downhill from there when a new technology allows Marie to not only track her daughter Sara’s whereabouts, but also blur the images that are triggering to young Sara’s brain. Later on Marie comes back to her senses after realising the damage of blurring images to her daughter’s development and gets rid of the tablet that allows the control of the chip. And they live happily ever- Not. Marie doesn’t destroy the tablet but only puts it away in her basement, signalling, like Chekhov’s gun, the disaster to come. Despite her weird childhood experience, Sara grows up to be a healthy, normal teenager and, as every teenager does, she lies to her mother to have a usual teenage experience of sex, drugs and rock’n roll. While any other parent would have to sit down and deal with it, maybe scorn their child a bit, Marie has the tablet and uses it to track her daughter’s very intimate moments, and the disaster begins.
I felt drawn to Arkangel from the first scene. Despite not having any children myself, I felt Marie’s fear, and every parents’ fear, when she gave birth and thought her baby was dead for few seconds. The same fear repeated itself when she lost Sara in the playground, creating a perfect build-up to Marie’s decision, wonderfully played by DeWitt. Mothers losing their children, literally or figuratively, is a subject done thousand times before but in the hands of the right writer and director, it’s a story that can work wonderfully, which why we keep making them. Thus my initial thought, or hope, was that Arkangel with its different universe than our own and touch of technology, could add something new to the narrative. Unfortunately I was wrong. Arkangel doesn’t go beyond a good idea and fails in its execution, not managing to make any substantial commentary on parenting in modern age.
Arkangel loses its magic once Sara turns into a teenager. The rest of the episode becomes quite apparent, thus tedious to watch and there is not much else to save the obviousness of the plot. Arkangel differs from many episodes of the series in its setting. Like Be Right Back, the world Marie and Sara lives in looks just like any suburban place, not futuristic, with some advanced technology here and there. The similarity to our world could make the commentary on the danger of helicopter parenting more compelling to watch but it does not. Once the curiosity of what’s going to happen is gone, Arkangel turns into any other dull parent/child conflict story, with a bit more violence than usual. And the scientifically wrong, and misinforming, part about emergency contraception pills causing abortion makes it worse.
But there are also some good details here and there. Sara, who is made fun of by her classmates for not being able to see the triggering images at first, is shown a series of violent videos and porn by her classmate after her mother stops using the tablet. It’s a small moment that demonstrates the images that children can be exposed to, and the unflustered way they engage with these images. Later on, Trick, the same boy who showed Sara those images, including porn, is the one who tells her that she doesn’t have to act like she’s in a porn when she’s having sex with him. It shows how those images made Sara think she has to act in a certain way during sex, like many teenage girls do.
In the end, Arkangel starts with a good premise that doesn’t make it to the ending. It’s beautifully acted and well directed but still the least liked episode of the fourth series by many.