Black Mirror S4E2: Arkangel

Black Mirror S4E2: Arkangel

In the year 1150, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Hell is full of good intentions or wishes.” Today, we know that idiom as its more common adage: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” That phrase is all too frequently showcased throughout Black Mirror’s library, but in Arkangel, the second episode of Season 4, director Jodie Foster shows us the somber road that leads us to that horrific destination through the eyes of an everyday parent and child.

In the story, Arkangel is the name of a chip technology which, once implanted neurally into a child’s head, allows a parent to track their child’s location via GPS, monitor their child’s vitals, and see what their child sees. It even saves the sight recordings in a DVR-esque fashion so a parent can go back and review something their child witnessed. When the story starts, Arkangel is in an early adopter release phase, giving free trials for those who are interested in the technology if they allow their child to essentially become a “beta tester” of the product. But as with any new technology, there are bound to be flaws and oversights.

When Arkangel begins, we’re introduced to Marie (played by Rosemarie DeWitt), a single mother who has just given birth to her daughter, Sara. We’re quickly tossed three years later down the timeline,.and we witness what seems to be a normal day as Marie and Sara visit the nearby playground. However, Marie loses sight of Sara and quickly becomes hysterical as more people join the search. In what was only a matter of minutes (but probably felt like hours for Marie), Sara is found and safely returned to her mother without further incident. But this whole event was understandably more than Marie could bear, and she quickly turns to Arkangel to help prevent against losing Sara ever again.

Arkangel is open with Marie about the intentions behind their product, and after the implantation, they show her what the product is capable of doing. All of the features described earlier are showcased as Marie gets the full tutorial, but one specific feature is highlighted – a filter that censors Sara’s focused vision (through pixelation and audio distortion) whenever her cortisol and stress levels elevate. Arkangel goes so far as to call this feature “parental control,” a term that we’re very familiar with in our modern times. Companies like Apple and Google have intricately designed parental controls on their devices, and streaming companies like Netflix have specific “Kids” profiles that only show material appropriately suited and rated for younger ages. But as far as censorship goes, Apple and Google won’t censor something objectionable that a child may find accidentally, and Netflix doesn’t censor their own content – they just curate content specifically for kids.

But we do have profitable companies that exist solely because parents are seeking out this kind of control over what their children see, especially in the realm of entertainment. Two services lead the way in this department: VidAngel and ClearPlay. VidAngel, the subject of many headlines in 2017, is a subscription service that gives its users various levels of censorship – or “filters” – to implement on the films and TV shows they choose to watch. For example, if someone wants to watch the 2017 blockbuster The Fate of the Furious, VidAngel provides 193 filters for your own customized viewing, allowing you to take out all of the violence, language, and sexual content, leaving you with… Well, I’m sure there’s something left to watch, right? It also provides Martin Scorcese’s drama Silence, a historical drama about Jesuit priests who experience temptation and persecution in Japan during the Shimabara Rebellion. Silence’s images of Christians being persecuted and tortured for their beliefs rattled audiences to their core when it was released, but with VidAngel’s 95 filters available, I’m sure a comfortable Christian could get through the film without being convicted or having their soul stirred by what they see take place on their screen. ClearPlay works in the same manner as VidAngel, but instead of being known for their streaming service (though they now have the capability of filtering select films streamed on Amazon), they have a Blu-ray and DVD player available for purchase that has the filtering software installed and ready to go for just about any disc you pop in.

On their website, VidAngel states that they believe in personal freedom, and that families in the privacy of their homes “should have the personal freedom to watch that content in the way they choose.” But what exactly is the fallout of that kind of personal freedom? If we shield ourselves and especially our children from objectionable images or words (which is usually based on subjective taste and not on how said material is actually presented), what are the ramifications of that? Most importantly, what happens when you prevent your child from seeing violence, sexual content, drug use, vulgar language, and more? As Sara grows from a 3-year-old, to elementary aged, and finally to high school, the writing on the wall gets clearer with each passing moment. Arkangel hits hardest when it suggests that if we attempt to block our fears out of existence instead of acknowledging their existence and properly dealing with them, those fears will soon become realized and haunt us for the rest of our lives.

When Sara is in elementary school, we first see her as she looks towards her grandfather’s grave at her mother kneeling over it, weeping. Marie’s face is blocked out, of course, as Sara’s stress levels would be sure to elevate if she saw her mother crying. Because of this, Sara doesn’t seem to be exhibiting the proper emotions someone of her age would have at a grave-site, especially when a relative is the one who is buried. We then see Sara interacting with people on the school playground, who call her a “chip head” and a “walking snitch.” Clearly, her implant is not a secret, and she appears to be socially ostracized. Because of her lack of stressful stimuli which resulted in her peers not accepting her into their friend circles, Sara eventually becomes curious (and rebellious) enough to experiment on her own by drawing violent images (which Arkangel filters out when it becomes obvious what she’s drawing) and even turns to self-harm just so she can see blood. When Marie catches Sara stabbing herself with a pencil and attempts to stop her, Sara fiercely slaps her mother. Marie decides to take Sara to a child psychologist, who reminds her that Arkangel never successfully launched – it was banned in Europe and soon it will be banned in the United States as well. The psychologist recommends that Marie simply throw the parental unit – the tablet that shows all of Sara’s information, sight, and memories – away.

Of course, in the familiar manner of our technological addiction, it’s hard to throw the screen away, isn’t it? Especially when it means no more supervision or potential protection for your child. We soon see that Marie meets the psychologist only halfway – she turns the screen off and packs it away, but she doesn’t get rid of it. On her first day to school with true sight (no filters enabled), Sara gets so scared of an aggressive dog that was filtered away from her vision since she was a toddler that she almost runs out in front of a moving car in the street. Once she gets to school, it gets even worse. Sara receives an overload of once-prohibited information, mainly stemming from her schoolmate Trick who shows her a flood of obscene material, including pornography videos (“They can’t make babies that way. They have to do it different for that.”) and extremely violent images (“So, the terrorist guy – keep an eye on the knife. See? He’s gonna take his whole head off!”). We as the audience do not see these videos on Trick’s tablet but instead hear the audio and see Sara’s emotionless reaction, her eyes glued to the videos as she takes it all in.

We soon see a time passage montage of Sara walking past the neighborhood dog who once scared her on her daily walks, but as she gets older – still Arkangel free – she befriends the dog. Now in high school, Sara (played by Brenna Harding) has a small group of friends but is doing what most teens generally do at that age – exercising her free will to make some pretty bad decisions. She’s still friends with Trick (the Aladdin to her Jasmine, who showed her a whole new world years before) and spends an evening with him and his group of friends while keeping it a secret from her mother. She ends up losing her virginity to Trick that evening, but while she had never had sex before, she reverts back to the only things she knew about it – from porn videos – and the words she says during the act are like those one would hear in a porn film. Trick, obviously uncomfortable about that specific development, tells Sara afterwards that she doesn’t have to say the things she did during sex. Later on, we see Sara asking for drugs from Trick and persuading him to let her try them.

As the audience, we never see these events taking place except from Sara’s own POV via the screen of the parental unit – the tablet that Marie was told not to use again. Because Sara didn’t tell the truth to her mother about where she was going to be the night she lost her virginity to Trick, Marie went to the attic to find the Arkangel parental unit so she could find her daughter once again. Needless to say, what she saw on the live feed from Sara’s vision left Marie aghast. When Sara comes home late that evening, she keeps the event a secret from Marie, and doesn’t tell her where she was or what happened to her. Just as Marie had filtered out life for Sara, Sara filters her life for Marie.

This is a relationship featuring two people that cannot be honest with each other. Communication isn’t just sorely lacking – it’s essentially nonexistent. For her own daughter’s safety (and for Marie’s peace of mind), Marie would rather have a computer program blot out real-life features instead of sitting down and asking Sara about her day and talking to her about things that may have come up. Because Sara is doing things she knows she probably shouldn’t be doing but can’t trust her mother enough to confide in her, Sara in return refuses to answer Marie’s inquiries about her life. As a new father myself, I understand why a parent wouldn’t want their child to go through something that would scare them, make them uncomfortable, or even be harmful to them. The last thing I want is for my child to be hurt. But I also know that life cannot be lived inside of a bubble. In order to fully mature, children need to experience uncomfortable things, and they will, regardless of parental involvement. Some of life’s greatest lessons are dished out with a healthy dose of pain and fear, and while it’s unfortunate that Sara didn’t have this learning opportunity earlier on in life, at some point we will all have to deal with our fears. Fear catches up to us, no matter how long we’ve put it off, and Sara and Marie are no different.

When Marie finds out about Sara’s relationship with Trick, Marie takes matters into her own hands, tracking down Trick and warning him to stay away from her daughter. It’s only natural to Marie’s character that she doesn’t talk to Sara instead of Trick; Marie has lived vicariously through Sara so much that Sara has become an extension of sorts to Marie. Marie doesn’t have a life outside of Sara. She has literally become Arkangel, taking it upon herself to block out what she deems as negative influences in Sara’s life. With all of the previous protection that she’s given Sara through Arkangel, Sara couldn’t be the one at fault, because that would mean that Marie had failed as well. The bad decisions have to be someone else’s fault. But as the story illustrates, Marie is at fault, even though her rationale at first had the best intentions behind it.

To make matters worse, Marie takes it upon herself to clean up any potential lingering “problems” that Sara and Trick’s relationship could pose. In a truly sinister move, Marie chops up an emergency contraception pill and mixes it in with Sara’s daily smoothie, which Sara unfortunately drinks. When her school nurse reveals to Sara that her baby – a child she didn’t know she was carrying – was killed by the emergency contraception pill, Sara begins to put the pieces together in her grief-stricken state. Marie, Sara’s own mother, has literally filtered the life out of Sara’s womb – a stark contrast to how the episode began, with Marie birthing Sara into the world.

When Sara returns home she finds evidence of the EC pill and confronts Marie, who she finds is still using the parental unit tablet. What we see next is the culmination of all of Arkangel’s and Marie’s wrongdoings, pitted against Sara’s sinful nature – the nature that lies within all of us. Sara takes the tablet and attacks her mother, beating her over the head with it. As the technology is literally used as a weapon against its own user, the parental filter gets flipped back on for a brief period of time, censoring Sara’s eyes – and the audiences’ – from the violence Sara is inflicting upon Marie. When Sara finishes, the filter is disabled for the final time, letting the veil down and showing Sara the true, horrific consequences of her actions. Sara leaves, and when Marie comes to, she immediately tries to locate Sara via GPS on the monitor, but the monitor is beyond repair. Marie, truly a broken woman at this point, stumbles into the street, calling for her daughter’s name, but Sara is long gone. In one last gut-punch, we see Sara hitching a ride on the side of the road, flagging down a random truck driver. Sara opens the passenger door and climbs in. All of the recorded history stored in the Arkangel databases (which have probably shut down after Arkangel’s failure to launch) and locally on the tablet (which was now destroyed) cannot be retrieved. Sara has truly departed from her mother.

Arkangel may have appeared clean and pure on the inside, with a welcoming, minimalistic font and shades of white painting the interior of the building, but appearance never gives us a clear indication of what something (or someone) actually is. Arkangel was built with the best intentions, but maybe, just maybe, censoring software like the extremes we saw in Arkangel or even the ones we have in today’s world aren’t the way to go about protecting one’s child. Arkangel shows us how a parent’s need to keep their child safe has the ability to destroy both the lives of the child and of the parent. Without communication and mutual respect we can accurately forecast a rebellion to take place, and this is especially true with families. You can’t control the uncontrollable, and as Arkangel shows us, you can’t control what your kids see or experience. But as parents, what we can do is open up the lines of communication with children and show them that you respect their boundaries enough and that you truly are concerned for their well-being. Parents do not share the same omniscience as our heavenly Father, and if we do come across a system that grants us a certain level of omniscience, it’s in our nature to twist it into something nefarious.

In Ephesians, we’re told the following: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (6:4)

This instruction is repeated in Colossians: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (3:21)

This is an instruction to fathers that issues a personal charge. It’s a charge that shouldn’t be passed on to someone – or something – else. But while the Bible tells us that a father is the head of the household and thus these passages hold a certain degree of importance to fathers, they hold importance for mothers as well, especially in the case of Marie – a single mother with no father for Sara in the picture. Marie certainly provoked her daughter to anger on more than one occasion, and there was no work on her part that showed her bringing Sara up in any discipline and instruction, much less discipline and instruction from the Lord. Sara’s parenting was enforced by Arkangel – not her mother.

I can’t help but think that this same kind of faux-parenting is performed by services such as VidAngel and ClearPlay. By filtering out questionable or objectionable content, children don’t see what’s going on or hear what’s being said, so there’s no room – or reason – for them to ask questions about said content. Proverbs 22:6 tells us that we should train up a child in the way they should go, and that by doing so, even when they are old they will not depart from what they’ve learned in their training. What’s interesting is that in the verse right before verse 6, it states,

“Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse;

He who guards himself will be far from them.”

When I think of filtering services in relation to Proverbs 22:5, I have to ask – how does one know how to guard themselves against thorns and snares if they’ve never seen or heard of them?

Films allow for excellent opportunities to teach your children. While I’m not advocating that one show their six-year-old Schindler’s List, as much of the content is written and filmed with adults in mind, maybe a viewing of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas would resonate strongly with a child and teach them about an important time in history, even in light of its frightening themes and horrific setting. Experiencing content from films and television shows with your children gives a perfect opportunity to discuss the merits and faults of what is performed on-screen. These opportunities vanish when they’re taken away from us, and with chunks of the film missing thanks to “creative” edits, kids are bound to ask questions regardless (“What did that man say, Daddy?” “Why is he laying on the ground, Mommy?”).

Training a child up in the way they should go is much easier when they have examples of what they need to avoid or defend against. Parents, especially Christian parents, need to take an active role in the lives of their children in the way of instruction and training, and not be willing to let automated programs – which have no understanding of context for the content they’re filtering – hide things from their kids. Be active and in-the-know of what your child can handle (ie. do you really think your young child can watch and comprehend The Exorcist?), but in the things that they can handle (which would hopefully be a film like A Dog’s Purpose), refrain from cleaning-up the work they’re experiencing to your own subjective tastes – you’ll be missing some excellent opportunities to strengthen communication ties while teaching your own child to prevent themselves from becoming stained by the world.

Arkangel is available to stream on Netflix. And yes, VidAngel does have 60 filters available for it, just in case your stress levels elevate during your viewing experience.

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