Black Mirror: Arkangel (2017)
Written by Charlie Brooker
Directed by Jodie Foster
Marie is a very protective mother, having almost lost her daughter Sara at birth. Years later, Sara wanders off at a park sparking these feelings of terror again. An experimental new service, Arkangel appears to provide the answer. Arkangel involves injecting a small neural implant into three-year-old Sara and outfits Marie with a tablet computer that allows her to monitor her child 24 hours a day. Sara is also instructed that she can turn on a filter that will pixelate anything Sara sees that sets off her biological stress responses. This block remains as Sara gets into upper elementary and begins to cause problems. It’s also revealed the Arkangel service was banned by the U.S. government and Marie has let her tablet gather dust in the attic. That is until Sara begins to break the rules in adolescence.
Arkangel is not the most technology-centric episode of Black Mirror, despite it using the concept of the Arkangel technology. Criticism has been leveled against this entry into the season as being more about helicopter parenting than the dark intersection of humanity and technology. I would argue that the episode is actually profoundly about technology but in a much more subtle way.
The conflict of the episode comes in the scene when Marie is attempting to figure out where Sara is past curfew. She calls the friend who Sara is supposed to be staying with and discovers she is not there. The audience expects Sara to be confronted by Marie who will sit up late for her, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, Marie dusts off the Arkangel tablet and uses the GPS technology to locate Sara. Even worse she turns on the POV aspect of the tablet and watches her own daughter lose her virginity through her own eyes. What Marie should have done was talk to Sara about her lie, but the technology becomes her crutch.
The episode’s climax comes after Marie secretly grinds up an abortion pill in her daughter’s morning beverage. This comes after her mother, using the tablet, discovers the previously mentioned sexual encounter has left her pregnant. Once again, Marie never has a conversation with her daughter and opts to manipulate her life from behind the scenes. I believe the theme of this episode is that digital forms of connection have caused people to become avoidant and attempt to deal with problems indirectly. The extreme helicopter parenting is a compelling vehicle to speak about this theme. The bond between parents and children is already fraught with the tension of uncomfortable conversations surrounding very crucial life experiences. Arkangel shows that with just the addition of one piece of seemingly unobtrusive technology the avenues of communication can decay.
Marie never sees Sara as an autonomous human being, but almost like a real-life Sim, who is her responsibility to guide and force down the path, she sees as correct. The cost of this breakdown of communication is the ultimate termination of their relationship and the ambiguity of what will happen to Sara. I do think there was a lot of unexplored space in regards to the intersection of tech & parenting. An entire industry of parental spying already exists with hidden cameras and apps to remotely control children’s phones. What could have been interesting to explore is merely the question of what information should a child be allowed to access. If the episode had gone down a path of Fahrenheit 451 for kids, I think the commentary on technology would have been much more pointed.