Black Mirror Season 4 Reviews: Episode 3 - Crocodile

in blackmirror •  10 months ago

Warning Spoilers Ahead

Science fiction is often about asking questions about the future and answering them through a creative narrative. The Black mirror episode Crocodile asks "what would happen if you took a Coen brothers movie, combined it with a more by the numbers murder drama and threw in some unnecessary science fiction elements"? The answer is an absolute mess of a story which fails to shock, fails to create a single character we care about and makes no sense on it’s own terms.  

Before we dive in to Crocodile (no pun intended) we need to discuss the movie Blood Simple. It’s unclear if the film directly influenced Crocodile, but the episode at times tries to operate on the same logic. Namely the idea that people don't think clearly in a state of panic, especially the panic related to violence and the commission of crime. People in these circumstances do things that appear utterly stupid to an outside observer for the simple reason that they are temporarily incapable of thinking rationally.  

The most striking example of this in the film is when Ray stumbles upon what he thinks is a murder scene. The victim, is Marty, his lover’s husband. He assumes it’s her that killed him and in a panic tries to hide the body by burying it in a farmer’s field. As it turns out Marty isn't dead yet, just wounded and Ray in an even greater panic proceeds to bury him alive. In the final shot of this sequence we see a wide shot of the field at dawn. Ray's car drives off leaving tire tracks that lead across the neatly plowed rows directly to a misshapen mound. There is no doubt that the body will be found in a matter of days at the most. We never see Ray get arrested, or even detectives investigating because we don’t need to. The shot is almost laughable, yet also serves as a warning that our rational minds might desert us in a crisis when we need it the most and leaves us with the frightening question of what we might do in such a state.    

Blood Simple's approach is a brilliant subversion of more traditional murder tropes. In many murder mysteries the secret to solving the case tends to be a handful of details, perhaps even one single clue overlooked by the culprit in an otherwise meticulously planned homicide. An intrepid and clever detective always discovers the criminal’s fatal mistakes, noticing the scant clues they left behind and piecing them together in order to bring the evildoer to justice.  

In these sort of narratives it is common for a villain to commit a string of crimes, each one in an attempt to cover up the last. Usually these crimes are a series of murders. TvTropes affectionately dubbed this convention "Crime after Crime". The trope is so well known it’s been parodied by shows like Futurama. It appears to date back at least to the 1920s where it forms the bases for the Dorothy L. Sayers novel Unnatural Death. In this particular story trope the killer’s actions become unsustainable as the ever-growing list of crimes accumulates more and more evidence.  

It should be readily apparent that these two story archetypes are wildly incompatible; one requires a killer in a state of visceral panic while the other requires one with a level head. Crocodile switches back and forth from one to the other not based on any sort of logical justification but solely to fulfill what the plot requires.

The episode opens at a sweet rave party as we’re introduced to Mia and Rob. Shortly after the couple are driving on a mountain road and hit a cyclist, killing him. Rob, who was driving at the time, fears he’ll go to jail for this as he’s still high from the night before. In a panic he convinces Mia to help him dump the body in a lake.  

Flash-forward several years and Mia has changed quite a bit yet has managed to remain completely bland and uninteresting. She has a husband and kids, which function as little more then a McGuffin and she’s now a successful professional. What is her career? Why only the most intellectually lazy, cliché, profession known to cinema and television, architecture! It’s the perfect job for a two dimensional protagonist, it sounds cool, has both artistic and engineering elements, can pay well if the plot needs it to and is something the average person knows nothing about. So with these wholly artificial stakes in place the storyline drops a bombshell on Mia’s wonderfully trite and contrived fictional life.  

While Mia’s away on business staying at a hotel Rob wanders back into her life with bad news. Rob’s looked up the man he killed via an old news article and learned that his poor wife doesn’t even know he’s dead. Rob tells Mia he’s going to send an anonymous tip about where the body is.   

Blood Simple” thinking is certainly at plays Mia reacts to this news, creating perhaps the only truly good scene of the episode. Mia is of course immediately distraught, insisting that his message will be traced back to Rob. As we later learn it’s even conceivable that in this world his own memories might be used as evidence which would implicate her as well. On impulse she grabs Rob in a bear hug and starts pushing him around the room. She clearly has no idea what she’s doing and is running on pure panic at the thought of what will happen if they're guilt finally catches up with them.   

In the scuffle she knocks Rob down. He lands hard, hitting the back of his head, which for some reason causes his nose to bleed. Only then does Mia make the snap decision to kill him. The scene has well thought out motivations and emotional underpinnings, unfortunately these are invalidated in a matter of minutes.  

After a short cry and a cutaway scene to Shazia, a character who’s yet to have any connection to the main story, Mia goes from an emotional wreck traumatized by her unintended murder to a cold blooded master criminal. In no time she hatches a plan to hijack a room service cart and smuggle Rob’s body out of the hotel.   

She proceeds to dump his body in the sewer, an absolutely terrible place to try and hide a body as sewers undergo routine maintenance. Worse still she doesn’t even have the good sense to find a neglected manhole in a rundown neighborhood that doesn’t get serviced often. She picks one at what appears to be a central hub near a construction site.   

Her risk of eventually getting caught is high enough at this point, but Mia will soon learn she has another problem. Right after she killed Rob an automated pizza delivery truck, the first piece of sci-fi technology in the episode, hit a man outside. The injured man is filing an insurance claim, and at last we learn the significance of Shazia. Shazia is an insurance investigator who uses the episode’s second piece of sci-fi technology, a “Recaller”.   

The device helps a person recall vivid memories and produces visible images and sounds on a monitor, which are recorded for later reference. Scenes established this as a delicate process requiring olfactory stimulation, a calm head and verbal guidance to help the person focus on the specific memories in question, yet later the episode completely ignores these established procedures and shows the recaller operating in increasingly outlandish ways.  

Shazia’s interviews eventually lead her to Mia, who was seen looking out a window onto the crash site by one of the other witnesses. Mia is legally required to submit to a memory scan to assist with the insurance investigation. Despite her best efforts to control her thoughts flashes of her murdering Rob appear on Shazia’s screen. Mia proceeds to assault Shazia, knocking her out and holding her captive, destroying any sense of credibility the episode had left.

The minute Mia knocks out Shazia she’s toast. There is no way in hell she will not be caught yet somehow the woman who was terrified that a simple message would be traced now thinks if she just murders enough additional people she can get away with killing Shazia.

Shazia insists she never told anyone about Mia, which is the exact opposite of what she should say. What she should say is there are extensive records of her investigations up to this point already uploaded to her company's secure server. This includes the testimony of the last persons she interviewed who saw Mia prompting Shazia to track her down. Shazia is actually shown making these uploads earlier in the episode. In a world of self-driving pizza machines are we to believe they don’t have cloud backup for sensitive files? Does Shazia go weeks on end without backing up any of her work?    

Mia forcibly interrogates Shazia using the recaller and learns that she mentioned her upcoming interview with Mia to her husband. It’s bad enough that forcibly extracting memories under duress shouldn’t be possible based on how delicate the process is shown to be prior, but worse still Shazia’s husband is in fact far from the only person Shazia talked to about Mia. In addition to the aforementioned witness Shazia interviewed she also had to talk to a hotel clerk in order to track Mia down.

It’s understandable that Shazia might have been too distraught to mention the trail of records and witnesses that would easily lead back to Mia but it’s unforgivable that the story ignores it and tries to act like there’s any chance the killer will get away with any of her crimes. The “will they get away with it” element of a murder thriller like this is supposed to be a source of suspense and Crocodile was clearly going for this but there can be no suspense if the crimes are so sloppy that being caught is a foregone conclusion. 

Mia proceeds to track down and murder Shazia’s husband. That the petite, diminutive Mia could overpower and kill this muscle bound man, even armed with a hammer defies believability even more so then the rest of the episode up to this point, so she lucks out and manages to ambush him while he’s in the tub. Again this is an inconsistency. Is she an emotionally compromised individual making snap decisions on pure impulse or a calculating killer capable of pulling off feats of ninja-like stealth? 

In a cheap ploy to insert some shock value to the increasingly nonsensical story Mia also kills Shazia’s infant child. When police arrive on the scene they immediately determine she was trying to eliminate witnesses and in an effort to twist the proverbial knife reveal the child was in fact blind. Fortunately for justice, but unfortunately for anyone who likes a consistent and well thought out narrative, there’s one witness Mia missed, a Guinea pig!  

So we’re now told that the recaller, which at first was shown to work only with a careful procedure that required olfactory stimulation and verbal guidance could also have worked not just on a pre-verbal toddler but also on a damn rodent! Even ignoring the vast differences between an animal and human brain guinea pigs have terrible eyesight and the cage it was in didn’t afford it a view of the killer.  

Putting aside that completely scientifically implausible element lets consider the dramatic (or perhaps I should say un-dramatic) implications. As has been made clear, Mia was screwed at this point. There was no mention of her destroying Shazia’s files or computer and even if she had there would no doubt be a network backup. There were also the witnesses who spoke to Shazia about Mia. It would take detectives the better part of an afternoon to find out that Mia was the last person Shazia spoke too and about five minutes with a recaller, or perhaps we should call it a magical-interspecies-memory-stealer, to extract all the proof they needed of her many crimes. This is to say nothing of the mountain of forensic evidence she no doubt left at every crime scene. The story ignores all this and tries to tell us “And she would have gotten away with it if too it weren’t for that meddling guinea pig!”. It’s absurd beyond all reason!   

Skillful acting, a beautifully stark shooting style and breathtaking locations couldn’t save Crocodile from its uninteresting characters, including a wildly inconsistent protagonist, a nonsensical plot-line, contradictory application of it’s own proposed technology and an disregard for basic logic which deprived it of any sense of genuine drama or suspense. It’s a real waste because the recaller could have been fodder for a better story. Instead it becomes an ancillary element introduced to try and insert some originality into a cliché premise. For these reasons Crocodile receives a rating of F.   

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Loving the thorough reviews, your insight, and your opinions on the latest season of Black Mirror from Netflix.

Just a suggestion but if you added some stills into the post when referencing a scene or character in your reviews I think it would only add some quality to the already quality wiritng content. #minnowsunite #blackmirror

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Thanks I considered that but that takes a fair amount of extra time and I want to get these out before people move on to talking about whatever other show comes out soon.

Release the Kraken! You got a 26.22% upvote from @seakraken courtesy of @krytonika!