A protective parent goes too far in this Jodie Foster-directed episode
We’ve all had that moment of primal fear where we thought the very worst when we couldn’t track down a loved one. They’re not picking up their phone; they must be taken hostage! They didn’t respond to my text last night; they must have died in their sleep! They didn’t come to my party last night; they must have gotten run over by a car on the way over! But what if there was a way to prevent yourself from ever having those moments of panic? Would you take advantage of it?
Plenty of people already do take advantage of it, in some way — just think about the microchips veterinarians regularly implant in dogs and cats or the GPS trackers pet owners attach to their pups’ collars. It almost seems silly not to use that technology, to essentially say, “I’m willing to go through days of stomach-turning anxiety if my pet goes missing, no big!” But those are pets.
This episode of Black Mirror, directed by Jodie Foster, proposes a device called ArkAngel that you can have implanted in your human child’s head. That implant is then connected to an iPad-like tablet, where parents can monitor their child’s vitals and exact location — basically like Share My Location function on the iPhone, except you can’t turn it off. The creepiest part of ArkAngel though is that the device also lets parents see from their child’s point of view — and it lets them censor what their child is seeing. One function monitors when the child’s cortisol levels rise and then filters out whatever is causing that child stress. So, for example, if a barking dog is terrifying the kid, the filter applies pixels over the dog and mutes the barking sound so all the child sees is a blurry blob. It’s like an extreme trigger warning, preventing those with the implant from ever having to experience anything that might upset them.
And Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) decides to get one for her 3-year-old daughter, Sarah (Aniya Hodge), after she goes missing at the park one day. She’s gone for less than a couple minutes, but that’s enough to sufficiently freak her mom all the way out. Off to the ArkAngel offices they go.
The implant process is simple: The doctor (Jenny Raven) has Sarah watch a fun cartoon on a tablet, and then pricks her with a needle. Sarah doesn’t even flinch as the chip enters her brain. Within seconds, Marie is able to see basically everything there is to know about her daughter via her own new tablet. The doctor then switches Sarah’s cartoon to a live-action, violent scene to show off the filter function, which Marie seems hesitant to use at first. That changes when the two are later walking by that aforementioned barking dog, a gigantic monster as far as little Sarah’s concerned. With one tap, the dog is blurred out. Sarah’s no longer stressed — and she’s not going to be as long as Mom keeps that filter on.
Maybe this sounds like every protective parent’s dream. Thanks to ArkAngel, Marie never has to worry about violent video games or raunchy movie scenes destroying her daughter’s innocence. She never has to wonder if some kid is going to say something at school that traumatizes Sarah forever. She never has to block certain websites from their home computer. ArkAngel takes care of all of that. But it also has many flaws — one being that this filter works, as previously explained, by turning disturbing images into abstract pixelated images, something that seems far more alarming to experience than even the most vicious dog, both because it promises that something scary lies underneath and because it’s… an abstract pixelated blob. And what happens when the child realizes what’s happening, that she’s being prevented from seeing much of life because of this filter? Plus, what happens when the filter stops her from realizing that something terrible is happening before her that she could help stop?
That last concern comes into play when Grandpa (Nicholas Campbell) and Sarah are painting together while Mom is at work. Grandpa holds his hand to his chest; something is clearly wrong. Soon, he’s fallen on the ground, having a heart attack or stroke or something equally bad. But when Sarah turns around from her easel to look at him, all she sees is that blurry blob. Because of this, she’s not panicking — actually, she’s not doing anything at all. Luckily, Marie is alerted to her daughter’s cortisol increase and is able to see Sarah’s point-of-view. She rushes home, and takes her dad to the hospital. Here’s the point in the episode where it becomes clear that this censoring — sorry, filtering — isn’t just a protective measure; it’s dangerous. Yet Marie doesn’t turn off Sarah’s stress filter: The episode jumps forward, and we see a slightly older Sarah (Sarah Abbott) watching her mom cry at Grandpa’s grave. Her mom’s face is blurred out.
At this point, Sarah’s aware of the filter — and so are her classmates. One boy, Trick (Nicky Torchia), is telling a story about a fight and tries to describe blood to Sarah before the filter kicks in and muddles his words. Later that night, she pricks her finger with a pencil to see blood firsthand. She can’t. It’s blurred out too. And because Marie knows everything that her daughter does, she busts into her room and finds her basically trying to mutilate her own hands out of curiosity. The next day, they visit a doctor (Matt Baram), who points out that ArkAngel has been banned in Europe and will probably be banned in the U.S. soon. He notes that you can’t remove the chip, but you can turn off the tablet. This whole incident is somehow, inexplicably enough to get Marie to finally do just that: say goodbye to her obsessive stalking of her daughter and let her truly live her life.
It’s scary at first, for both of them. Sarah sees that barking dog for the first time since she was 3. She gets to school and Trick shows her all kinds of R-rated things: porn and Saw and a video of terrorists beheading someone. It’s all shocking, but, unsurprisingly, she’s fine. Kids are resilient. People are resilient.
More time passes, and now, Sarah (Brenna Harding) is 15. She’s in high school and doing things high school kids do — lying to her mom, smoking weed, having sex. She’s getting away with it until her mom finds out that she’s not at her friend’s house watching movies like she said she was. Marie starts trying to figure out where Sarah is by first calling seemingly everyone she knows, and when that doesn’t work, she digs up old faithful: the tablet.
She turns it on and sees that Sarah is by a lake. Then she turns on the optic feed and… catches her daughter underneath a naked, panting Trick (Owen Teague). Marie freaks out, as anyone probably would after witnessing their teenage child having sex, but when Sarah gets home soon after, Marie doesn’t say a word about what she saw. Fast-forward to a new day, and Marie turns on the optic feed once again, this time finding Sarah doing coke with Trick. Trick sells it, and tried to keep Sarah away from it, but she pressures him to let her have some. Marie doesn’t see this though — she just sees this bad influence with a line of white powder in front of him. She takes a screen grab of his face, does some sort of reverse-image search, and finds out that he works at a furniture warehouse. The next day, she barrels into the store, fuming. Once she finds him, she tells him that he has to stay far, far away from her daughter, or else she’ll go to the cops with the video of him and the coke.
All Marie wants is to protect her daughter from ever getting hurt, and she doesn’t seem to realize that what she’s doing — forcing Sarah’s new boyfriend to ghost her — is going to cause Sarah plenty of pain. And it does wreck Sarah when Trick suddenly stops responding to her phone calls and texts. She even confronts him in-person, and he lies, saying that he doesn’t want to be with her. It’s the kind of conversation the filter would have censored.
She’s heartbroken, and then later, she starts puking at school. After doing some tests, the nurse (Edie Inksetter) finds out that she’s taken an emergency contraception pill and is no longer pregnant, a surprise to Sarah, who didn’t know she was pregnant and didn’t know she took an emergency contraception pill. Marie snuck it in her smoothie that morning, which an angry Sarah figures out once she gets home and digs the pill box out of the trash. She then rummages through the house, eventually discovering the tablet. She sees what her mom’s been seeing. And she is pissed.
Sarah frantically packs a bag, and then her mom comes home and discovers the tablet’s been found. Sarah comes in, takes the tablet, and starts hitting her mom’s head with it. The filter is on, though, so she just sees pixels until the device craps out from all the smashing and reveals to Sarah what she’s been doing. This doesn’t really add up — like, if you see pixels on a butt on TV, you still know it’s a butt under those pixels. Sarah knew exactly what she was doing, filter or no filter.
Yet she seems shocked when she sees the blood, but not shocked enough to stay, apparently. She’s off, and the last we see of her, she’s hitch-hiking and getting into a truck with her bag. Meanwhile, Marie comes to on the floor of her bedroom, splattered in her own blood. She runs outside, screaming Sarah’s name — just like she did when they were at the park 12 years ago.
This episode easily could have made Marie seem like a monster, and maybe some people will see it that way. But watching it, I only saw her concern, and how this concern was partly a result of her loneliness. She doesn’t have a partner, her father dies early in Sarah’s childhood, and she spends her days at home alone or at her physical therapy job, where she meets with a guy with a girlfriend who she sleeps with sometimes. Sarah is all she has, so it makes sense she is going to do whatever she can to make sure she doesn’t lose her too; even if Marie did have a partner and family present, it’s likely she’d still be like that — worrying is a function of caring deeply about someone, no matter how self-sufficient that person may be. Through Charlie Brooker’s character-driven script and Foster’s thoughtful directing, this is all clear from the beginning of the episode. Marie’s actions might seem extreme, but they really aren’t all that different from the tabs we keep on relatives and friends and partners and crushes on social media. She’s using the tools she has to be part of her daughter’s life; if we had those same tools, we’d probably be using them too.
“Arkangel” is obviously not advocating for the kind of censorship its titular device supplies; it instead proposes that witnessing trauma and experiencing stress, to some degree, are what breed growth and strength and, perhaps most importantly, empathy. That’s what’s missing when Sarah’s bashing her mom’s head in with the tablet — an outrageous response for even the moodiest teen — or when she’s standing far away from her crying mother at the cemetery. Pain is a part of life, as so many inspirational quotes tell us, and Sarah was missing that part of life for many, many years, so it’s no surprise she has no idea to respond to it. Technology is often meant to make lives easier, and ArkAngel fits that bill, but, as this episode warns, there is such a thing as making life too “easy.” Just ask Sarah’s mom (once she wipes off the blood, of course).