Warning: This contains spoilers for ArkAngel. Not seen Episode 2 of Black Mirror Season 4? Read our spoiler-free review of the whole season.
“It’s important that we do this. You’re gonna be fine,” Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) reassures her daughter, Sara (Brenna Harding), as she sends her off to school on her own. But this isn’t just a normal day of saying goodbye to her child: this is the first day she goes out of the house without the watchful eye of ArkAngel.
The titular software is a monitoring implant that is installed in Sara by her mother, while she’s still a young girl. It records everything Sara sees, tracks her every movement and even tracks her blood and hormone levels. With live-streaming from her pupils to a handheld tablet, Marie can keep a close eye on Sara in every imaginable way – and, if something is distressing to her, ArkAngel can even sensor her senses, blocking it from her eyes and ears.
It’s a disturbing, invasive procedure – one that’s all the more disturbing for how plausible it is. ArkAngel succeeds precisely because it embraces that plausibility, doing away with many of the things we associate with Black Mirror: this isn’t set in the distant future, but in the cluttered, messy present, in a regular American household where the clocks are still analogue and the fridges still plastered in magnets and kids’ drawings.
Director Jodie Foster (the show’s first female director) builds that everyday realism with each frame, only giving us a glimpse of something shiny and clean in the headquarters of the ArkAngel creators – a jarring contrast that makes the whole thing immediately suspicious. (Marie’s dad, naturally, is wary of the notion of injecting unregulated, untested technology into a child.) But Foster and Charlie Brooker’s script builds up to that decision gently, framing it through the fear of a mother separated from her child – an introductory scene sees Sara disappear in the street, in a terrifyingly understated moment that could be taken from any newspaper headline. It only lasts a couple of minutes, but it’s testament to Foster and DeWitt’s work that it feels like much longer, so when Marie takes this drastic step, we can sympathise with her motivations.
It would be all too easy for Black Mirror to present us the strange world of an ArkAngel child from the patient’s perspective – not unlike the shocking rollercoaster ride of Season 3’s Men Against Fire. But ArkAngel’s strength stems from its ability to understand both mother and daughter and switch between their experiences. As Sara grows into a teenager, we gently move from Marie’s POV to her daughter’s, so we also identify with the excitement of teenage discovery, multiplied tenfold by the fact that it comes after years of censorship.
The risks of hampering a child’s full experience of the world are made clear early on, as Sara fails to see her granddad suffering a heart attack – just in case we weren’t already dreading the worse. But the dangers continue to rear their heads, as Sara ends up taking cocaine, which she insists her older boyfriend, who dabbles in drug dealing, let her try. She’s a curious teenager, overly so, enjoying normal life after being called “chiphead” by other kids when she was younger. And Brenna Harding captures that eagerness to grow up brilliantly.
The entire episode hinges on the sincerity of her bond with her mother, and ArkAngel explores it with a moving nuance. DeWitt, who is a veteran of the mumblecore movemen, is just as good as the concerned mother, conveying the intense love of a parent who wants to protect her child (“One cookie! Bad for your teeth,” she instinctively calls, when young Sara raids the biscuit cupboard), but underlying it with the selfish need to be depended upon by her daughter; we open with Marie giving birth to Sara, and that sense of them being attached never goes away. The act of them separating is one of anguish, but it’s necessary for Marie’s child to become an adult – and Black Mirror’s premise uses technology to draw out that rite of passage to tragic extremes.
ArkAngel fosters the unhealthy side of the dependent parent-child relationship, as the company’s scientist prods Marie to consider things like supplements because her iron is “a little low” (not drastically low, only “a little low”). And Foster taps into the unsettling plausibility of the technology with careful compositions – one shot of Marie watching Sara on a swing is tainted by the presence of the tablet on the kitchen counter, offering a far less natural window onto her daughter’s innocent playtime.
As mother and daughter naturally grow apart, as they must, Marie finds herself returning to the ArkAngel tablet – and it’s that reversion to a more regressive relationship that violates their trust. Sara’s discovery of that betrayal arrives in the most personal of ways: it turns out that Marie inadvertently saw her having sex and snuck a morning-after pill into her morning drink, which leads to Sara vomiting at school. The revelation explodes in a moment that is, thanks to ArkAngel, censored, allowing Sara to strike out and attack her mother without realising the damage she is doing: she almost bludgeons her mum to death with the tablet, before fleeing the house.
It’s the kind of violent climax we have come to expect from Black Mirror, as it delivers a cautionary tale of the dangers of over-policing and surveillance in a digital age. With all the polished, gentle authenticity of a slick indie drama, ArkAngel is a challenging meditation on parental control at a time when the Internet has made it harder than ever for adults to navigate the line between protection and paranoia as their kids come of age, as kids always have done. There’s real conflict and compassion to this story of a mother trying to do the right thing – even when that crosses the line into the unthinkable.
It’s a sign of how mature Black Mirror has become that rather than conclude with her bloody death, it lets Marie survive. We watch her wake up and stumble into the streets, calling after her departing daughter: it’s important that they separate, and Sara, as her mother once promised, will probably be fine. But we’re left without knowing if that promise is true – and Marie left with the pain of being alone. Binge-watch the whole of Season 4 and you could underestimate this handsomely crafted episode, but ArkAngel’s low-key nature hides a thoughtful drama about a complex female relationship that will linger in the mind of parents long after the end credits.
Black Mirror Season 4 is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.