Black Mirror season 4: Arkangel “parents will do anything to protect”

A spoiler-filled chat with Black Mirror’s creators about this series’ Jodie Foster-directed parenting-themed episode, Arkangel…

Warning: contains spoilers for Arkangel

Jodie Foster directs episode two of Black Mirror season four, Arkangel, a terrifically acted story about the ethical tightrope of wanting to protect your child versus allowing them their own privacy and agency. The episode asks how far is too far when it comes to keeping children safe? And what are the potential ramifications of filtering a child’s reality, even if it’s for their own ‘good’.

Like all Black Mirror episodes, Arkangel is smart, thought-provoking and doesn’t shy away from nastiness. Read our spoiler-filled review here.

Here’s a spoiler-filled chat with writer Charlie Brooker and producer Annabel Jones about the issues the episode puts up for discussion.

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All parents at least consider hacking their children’s Facebook accounts. In a very reductive way, would you say that this episode is about the follies of that?

Charlie Brooker: Kind of, yeah. It came out of a conversation we had about this—we’re both parents, though our kids are too young to… my kids don’t have Facebook accounts.

That time will come though.

CB: I know. Well, already one of them was playing on a PlayStation and it turned out they’d been sending some messages to some person, I had to have the ‘stranger danger’ chat with him at five years old!

I think that came out of there being a desire to protect and we were talking about technological things that exist now that allow you to… you can get GPS trackers for kids now.

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Annabel Jones: You can get wristbands that come with GPS in them and you overhear parents discussing getting them and have to ask yourself what you’re prepared to do. Then of course, as time progresses, what people would have found acceptable five or ten years ago is sort of mainstream now, like having cameras in a nursery that you can access to see your child, which sort of makes you go [mouths] fucking hell! So you have to constantly reassess your position on things.

As a parent, you have that euphoric high of having a baby that you love more than anything in the world and you will do anything to protect, but what is that ‘anything’ that you’re prepared to do? In Black Mirror, the intent of the technology is always good, you welcome it into your world because it’s empowering or it’s making life easier and Rosemarie DeWitt in Arkangel is in a position where she can exercise that power in a responsible way, but how far does she go? And then hopefully, we’ve created a story that you can empathise with both parent and child?

I think I’d still install one.

AJ: That’s what we’re trying to have people ask themselves.

Maybe without the filter though?

CB: That’s the thing. This was where the discussion came from. We were going ‘what if it could do this, this, this, this and this’ and what you’d probably do is think, ‘I’ll get that system just so that I’ve got the medical information to know if there’s some sort of problem, if she’s got a temperature or there’s something wrong, and also the GPS stuff’. Then you’d think ‘I’m not going to use the other stuff. That’s for the paranoid helicopter parents!’ Then as soon as you were worried about where that child was, or as soon as you saw them being frightened by something that you knew you could blot out, you would do it. You would do it.

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Hopefully, as you say, when you’re watching it you empathise with both daughter and mother.

It could be seen as a story in the classic ‘be careful what you wish for’ mode. By trying to protect her daughter, DeWitt’s character ends up pushing her into the cab of a murderous truck driver…

CB: Let’s not judge that sinister truck driver! We don’t know! [laughs]

AJ: Yes, but also trying not to make any judgement, because you can see how tempting it would be. She is reassured when she finds her daughter and knows she doesn’t have to alert the police because she sees she’s nearby, at the lake, she thinks ‘okay, I don’t have to call the police and be worried’. The daughter could have been in a very perilous position and again, that technology would have saved her. So how does one know how to proceed responsibly?

CB: But by doing that she’s massively betrayed her daughter’s privacy and trust, so it’s all quite complicated.

With the idea of the filter, say you’d had one installed as a child, are there images you wouldn’t have had to deal with?

CB: Trying to think. Sometimes if you see something particularly frightening or grisly, you feel sort of changed in some way. I think it was probably easier when we were kids… in 1942 [laughs] when you weren’t exposed to as much stuff as you could potentially be now. There wasn’t 24-hour news, there wasn’t the internet, I didn’t see violent or pornographic images. Someone would leave a dirty magazine in a bush or you might stay up a bit too late and watch a horror film and that was about it in terms of being exposed to disturbing material.

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Whereas today, you don’t know what kids might see. One of our kids, when he was three, I left him watching Youtube—bad parent!—it was on the TV and they’d just updated the App so it would autoplay the next video and I hadn’t realised. He was watching some sort of cartoon and I went out of the room for a bit and came back about fifteen minutes later and the algorithm had worked its way around to showing him a trailer for Jon Carpenter’s The Thing. It was just the trailer, but it was disturbing enough, and he was not happy at all. I thought ‘what the fuck have I done?’ I don’t know how you deal with that.

It also came from talking to parents of older children who were quite disturbed by the stuff that they found their kids were looking at online and then not knowing, and these are quite liberal people who say ‘well, I never thought I was uptight, but I fucking am uptight about that because I don’t want that going in my kid’s head’.

AJ: Parents are already applying filters to children’s screens, so that process is already in place, this is just a much more intimate and immediate application.

There’s a thread in the episode that it’s actually instructive to be exposed to upsetting images at some point. Because Sarah isn’t, it makes her vulnerable and almost monstrous – she only stops beating her mother’s head in when the filter breaks and she can actually see what she’s doing.

CB: There is definitely a thread in there that partly because this stuff is forbidden, it’s more fascinating when she does get access to it, so it probably affects her more. The violent or pornographic imagery she sees comes as more of a shock at that point, because the other kids have already seen all this and she hasn’t and it all comes in one big rush.

You’ve said that [director] Jodie Foster had a lot of thoughts on the material once she read the script. What were they?

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CB: She had lots of thoughts on the mother-daughter relationship and the dynamics there and the relationships that the mother is in and with her father. It’s hard to unpack now because there were lots of little thoughts and observations she had and details on all sorts of fronts.

AJ: She was quite keen to set it in blue-collar America, which I think she felt was becoming slightly marginalised and that felt slightly adrift and unrepresented. I think she wanted to tap into that feeling of Rosemarie trying to have control in her life, a subtext that Jodie brought in.

You talked about there being an expectation that Black Mirror doesn’t “wuss out” with some of the nastiness. Obviously there are many nastier things that one could imagine being forced to watch through a child’s eyes. Did you come up with those things and discard them? Was there a more definite ending for Sarah?

CB: It was more that you don’t want it to get too melodramatic or too neatly concluded. We wanted to leave it fairly ambiguous. That was why. We wanted some ambiguity to the ending, which felt more honest somehow I think.

AJ: You want to leave it feeling nuanced. If you’d known for sure that she was going to go off and be killed by someone, then the fault is with Rosemarie’s character. I think it tips it too far the other way, whereas here you just have two people now apart and estranged because of a violation of privacy that comes from a good place.

You’re always at pains not to be too didactic in terms of messages with this show?

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CB: Generally, hopefully we are!

AJ: Because I don’t know what the answer is!

Read more about Black Mirror season 4 here.