Episode 2: Arkangel22 Jan 2018
Arkangel is unfortunately not a favourite amongst audiences, with the second lowest IMDb rating for this season. It’s not clear whether this is due to a lack of flashy new technology, a sharp twist, or something else. What Arkangel does have is Black Mirror’s classic bleakness and a disquieting lesson about the dangers of over-protectiveness. I’m no acting critic, but I think Rosemarie DeWitt did a great job as Marie in playing an overly protective mother. This episode has no simulations and limited AR instead of full-blown VR, so that’s a nice change.
I think I most enjoy Black Mirror episodes that play out like parables, and Arkangel makes a great modern parable. The Mirror in this episode is an implant that allows parents to monitor their children at all times, even letting the parents see out of their children’s eyes. For anyone sensitive to security and data privacy this technology is immediately unsettling, something that Marie doesn’t ignore either. Marie is wary of the feature of Arkangel that lets her filter out what her daughter Sara sees, which lends this believability. Most people probably wouldn’t accept all the Arkangel technology right away, and neither does Marie. But it is simply a matter of time before the temptation overcomes her.
That is the Black of this episode—the lengths that we would go to protect (control) our children, and what it could do to them. Initially the level of control seems ok, Sara is three years old, and cannot make many decisions for herself. Arkangel lets Sara’s mother have more control over Sara then she could have normally, but that level of control doesn’t seem overly concerning, any parent would want to prevent their young child from seeing alarming images. When Sara’s grandfather Russ has a heart attack this technology appears to start being problematic, but even if Sara’s vision hadn’t been obscured she probably wouldn’t have been able to do anything. That could be why Marie doesn’t disable the censoring.
It’s not until Sara’s grandfather dies that we really see what the consequences of sterilizing Sara’s life to this degree are. Sara is completely detached from negative emotions, and has no way of comforting her mother while she is mourning. The issue becomes even more apparent when Sara is unable to recognize an image of two people fighting for what it is. Her eventual experience with self-harm is explained on a surface level by the episode as a desire to see what blood is, but a deeper meaning is also clear. Sara wants to feel. Her sterile life has deprived her of a complete emotional experience; emotions that well up like drop of blood. Even though the dam of emotions has now been broken, the pressure behind it is still present even into Sara’s teenage years.
The second critique of this episode is to not equivocate “it’s turned off” with “I won’t use this”. Unless somebody completely separates themselves from the source of their temptation they will always fall back to it. Marie shows this quite spectacularly when she turns Arkangel back on. A rational observer would easily be able to make assumptions about what Sara might be doing at a lake that she lied about going to. But Marie needs to know exactly what is happening. She can’t be satisfied without seeing everything she can. I see this happening in society with data collection by companies. They can never know enough about their users or customers, and are ever reaching to know more about us.
At the end of the episode all of the tension that has building reaches the point of explosion. Sara’s feelings of betrayal are completely understandable, and she lashes out with the ferocity that many teenagers do, although maybe in a more directly violent way. But Sara can’t escape her oppression, even in the act of rebelling against it. Even in the act of rebellion Sara was even sheltered from the magnitude of her own actions. The “parental filter” disappearing after Sara finishes beating her mother is an obvious way of showing that she is finally free of her mother’s protection. However, this freedom has its downsides. Sara is no longer sheltered from the world, and that includes her own actions. She has to live with the sight of what she did to her mother. This level of brutality begs the question, would Sara have lashed out as much if her mother had gone to less extreme lengths to “protect” her? Does trying to push something down cause it to push back even harder? I’m not sure I agree, but there is probably a case to be made here. In the end Sara drives off into the sunset, to face the world on her own. As one commentor says “The ending is beautifully ambiguous”. I agree, I don’t think it’s very important what happens to Sara next. Maybe she meets up with Trick, maybe she ends up on the streets, maybe she is assaulted by the trucker, we don’t know. We will never know what will happen when we shake of our oppressors; all we can do is hope that things will get better.