This is possibly my favourite episode of Season 4 of Black Mirror; the other contender being Crocodile (which I will review next).
The technology involved is perhaps one of the least plausible in the Series, but the themes it represents are, perhaps paradoxically, one of the most plausible. So, what happens, what do I think of it, and what does it all mean? Let’s find out…
After her 3-year-old daughter, Sara, goes missing at a play area and is later found unharmed having wandered off after a cat; single mother Marie invests in a burgeoning technology called Arkangel to keep Sara safe.
Arkangel is an implant injected into Sara’s head that sends data to a tablet that Marie has. This data includes Sara’s location and health statistics as well as an indicator of stress levels. Marie can also view things through Sara’s eyes and set up a filter to shield her daughter from frightening or adult things.
As Sara gets older, this technology presents problems, especially the filter, which prevents Sara from being able to see and hear her grandfather while he has a heart attack. As the technology has been banned in Europe and is to be banned in America (where the story is set), Marie is advised to turn it off and throw the tablet away. Although she does the former, she decides to keep the tablet.
In the future, Sara is in her mid-teens and although not exactly rebellious, is at an age where she keeps secrets from her mother, largely about her boyfriend. This secrecy scares Marie, who, having always been over-protective turns the tablet on again; invading her daughter’s privacy with alarming repercussions.
There are several things that make this episode stand out to me. Firstly, a mother-daughter relationship is not as often explored in TV, especially not in sci-fi due to a history of male-dominance in the entertainment industry. This is a sad indictment of how far we still have to go from 2017 but the fact that I’m less educated about mother-daughter relationships makes this episode more interesting for me as I’m able to learn a lot from it.
Secondly, the two main characters are well-written and acted. As the story revolves almost exclusively around them, they are both fleshed out and realistic. The characters are both very relatable as well, due to their imperfections. Having been sheltered a lot from a young age, you can empathise with Sara’s desire to explore, even if she is behaving dangerously. It’s easy to empathise with Marie too – she’s over-protective, yes, but she’s suffered a lot of loss (Sara’s father is never mentioned and Marie’s father dies fairly soon into the story) and nearly lost Sara as a child, so her actions are understandable even though somewhat unjustified.
The episode works really well because it takes quite a simple concept and creates a very human story out of it. It also lets the viewer explore the morality of the situations rather than preaching any particular ideology.
I am part of the last generation to have grown up before the rise of the internet and so privacy was a lot easier for me and I was expected to learn a lot by experiencing it for myself. With the internet as it is today, not only is it easier to find ways of monitoring children, the spread of information is greater so parents are alerted to far more threats.
Had my parents had access to today’s technology when raising me, I suspect they would have been a lot more protective – feeling that they had to be, and it’s not a far stretch to imagine paranoia and protectiveness in parents leading a lot of people to invest in something like Arkangel, given the chance.
Indeed, only a year after I was born, news broke of the horrific murder of the toddler James Bulger by two children and by my own mother’s account she rarely let me out of her sight when we were in public afterwards. With the greater access to news and information today, barely a week goes by without a report of a missing or abused child which I doubt helps any parent’s paranoia.
But the question posed by Arkangel is how much a parent should supervise their child and how appropriate it is to continue to do so as the child gets older.
Marie is somewhat vindicated in her invasion of Sara’s privacy as she catches her daughter having underage sex – it’s assumed that her boyfriend is older, so this would qualify as rape as she is too young to be able to give consent – and snorting cocaine.
Her morality for doing so is questionable, though, as all teenagers are at least partially rebellious and act irresponsibly. Marie herself has clearly become pregnant at a young age with Sara and although we never find out what happened to Sara’s father, it is easy to think that he could have been a high-school fling, like Sara’s boyfriend, leading to Marie’s fear about how Sara’s life could end up.
Marie delves into a far more insidious form of over-protection when she discovers that her daughter is pregnant, however, as she hides this information from Sara and slips emergency contraceptive into her breakfast smoothie; successfully terminating the pregnancy. Despite being underage, it’s Sara’s body and pregnancy, and really she should have been given the choice herself.
That said, given what we know about Sara’s behaviour, is she in a position to make a responsible choice? She is understandably furious when she realises that her mother has kept Arkangel active, but can she be surprised, given how she acted?
The sad truth of the episode is that this breakdown in trust and communication between mother and daughter completely destroys their relationship and the episode ends with Sara beating her mother violently with the tablet, unable to see the damage she’s causing because of the filter – the link yet barrier between the two, which shatters with the tablet. This gives Sara a freedom of sorts to run away, but at the same time she will always be haunted by what she’s done, and may not be able to face it.
In its essence, the episode warns of the danger of over-protection. Sara doesn’t learn about the world in an organic way and when the filter is first lifted she learns about sex and violence from porn and explicit internet videos. When she’s older, she engages in romance in the way she expects it from this first encounter, and acts like she’s in a porn film and when she has the violent confrontation with her mother, she beats her senseless.