Black Mirror: Season 4, Episode 2 – Arkangel

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Parents! You’re worried about your kid, right? Worried that she might be seeing things she shouldn’t. Worried that he might be doing things he shouldn’t. Am I right? Well, what if you could track them every minute of the day, see everything they see as they see it, and even choose to block “unwholesome” things from their vision altogether?

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After the first, fairly fluffy (by Black Mirror standards) ep of the new Netflix season, ep2 took us into reliably darker territory with a thought-provoking extrapolation of child protection issues via tech. This is a pretty sensitive issue; after all, nobody wants to condone children seeing bad things or doing bad things. But conversely, how right is it if you can edit their real life the way a moral majority campaigner might want their social media feed managed?

There’s a real, and merited, concern about what children might encounter given unfiltered access to the internet. It’s still the Wild West of communications media, and alongside all the fluffy cats pics, it’s full of some very unsavoury stuff that quite a few adults, never mind children, may wish they hadn’t accidentally stumbled over. But the arguments about regulating it are faced with two huge problems. Firstly, it’s technologically pretty much impossible. And secondly, even if it were possible, who would have the right, or the unbiased judgement, to decide what people should or shouldn’t see?

This ep took on both of those issues by treating the issue as one that might be applicable to reality. And who knows, as ever with this show that might be a possibility sooner than we think. So it is that young Sara’s mother Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt), spooked by a slightly difficult birth, chooses to install an experimental chip in her brain allowing her to geo track her daughter, see through her daughter’s eyes, and even blur out potentially distressing images.

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If you’re a parent who’s ever worried about their child when he/she was out of your sight, I imagine this would be a tempting prospect. After all, you’re only trying to protect them because you love them, aren’t you? This episode was scripted by Charlie Brooker alone, and as the parent of a young child himself, he proceeds to spend the next hour telling you why, understandable though that urge would be, it would be a terrible, terrible idea.

There’s something almost justifiable about keeping tabs on your child when they’re a pre-teen – after all, they might end up in trouble through a purely innocent lack of experience, and you can save them from that. Isn’t that right?

In Brooker’s eyes, no, actually. I’m not a parent, but I can understand what he’s saying. Yes, kids do end up in trouble, or hurt, or distressed, because of a lack of knowledge and experience. But that’s how they learn, to avoid, or cope with, or process the nastier aspects of life. Without that knowledge, they’re like the kids born without functioning pain receptors, going through life unaware that putting your hand in a fire might not be the best plan.

Brooker’s script went into that in quite distressing detail. It was disturbing enough to see 9 year old Sara (a precocious performance from Sarah Abbott) have her view of the fierce neighbourhood dog blurred out, but a whole new level of nastiness when the Parental Filter blocked her vision of a classmate’s actual face to save her from an unsavoury anecdote about (what else?) the internet.

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And when she ended up repeatedly stabbing first herself and then her mother just out of a desperate curiosity to be allowed to see what blood looked like, we’d gone beyond disturbing to actually horrifying. The direction (by none other than Jodie Foster!) was skilled enough to keep it to implication rather than direct depiction, but however you look at it that’s a horrible thing to see on TV. The question of course being, does it make you feel uncomfortable enough to think it should have been, maybe, blurred out?

The issue was nasty enough looked at from the perspective of a 9 year old psychologically damaged by being “protected”! from the real world. But it took an even darker turn when Sara reached her teenage years, and her worried mother, having learned that being your child’s personal Thought Police might be a pretty bad idea, couldn’t resist succumbing to the temptation to reactivate the system that had caused her child such damage a few years ago.

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Again, this is understandable. If ever there’s a time when kids might be putting themselves in real, sometimes life-threatening danger, it’s the teenage years, when everyone thinks they’re immortal. But on the flip side, it’s when your child’s becoming an adult, and they might be getting up to things that, while normal, you might find yourself as a parent not wanting to see.

Your mileage may vary on whether you want your child to experiment with drugs, as so many do with (usually) no long term harm. You probably don’t want your child to be having sex before they’re ready for it, whatever they may think. But it’s quite another thing to be voyeuristically spying on these very things happening, no matter how good your intentions; after all, vision is subjective, and you might not be getting the whole story.

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Yes, Sara’s bad boy boyfriend (the extremely attractive Owen Teague) should not have been having sex with her at the age of fifteen, but then he can’t have been much older than that himself. These things happen, and with such minor age differences, courts tend to turn a blind eye. It would be rather difficult to teach Romeo and Juliet otherwise.

It also leads you to ask yourself whether Sara should have had to deal with the consequences (ie pregnancy) herself, as part of learning, rather than having her mother surreptitiously dosing her smoothie with a morning after pill just in case. And blackmailing the boyfriend into dumping the distraught Sara was never going to be a good idea. It was clear from the outset that Sara would find out what had been going on, and it would destroy both their lives.

These are difficult questions to ask yourself. Clearly Marie felt real guilt at becoming a voyeur into her teenage daughter’s life; equally clearly, her understandable protective instinct wouldn’t let her stop. In the end (which was not pleasant), this is one of the oldest dilemmas a parent can face – should you keep your child safe from the real world by locking them away from it, or allow them to learn and risk them being hurt or even killed?

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There’s no easy answer to that one (apart from the fact that being a parent is letting yourself in for a lifetime of worry), but Brooker’s reliably dark script, as ever, showed that a technological solution was likely to make the situation worse, not better. As ever, the show’s mantra about technology could be easily summed up by what I like to call Ian Malcolm’s law, courtesy of Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”.