Like many episodes of Black Mirror, “Arkangel” deals in ambiguity.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the “Arkangel” episode from Black Mirror’s fourth season.]
“Arkangel” is an intimate story that follows the life of a mother named Marie (Rosemary DeWitt) who enlists her young daughter Sara in an experimental surveillance program. As traditional for Black Mirror, we’re left to wonder if it was the correct decision.
We’re also forced to speculate about the people we’ve been watching as the episode progresses. Is Marie a good mother? Is she a victim of the technology at the core of “Arkangel,” or is she to blame for the events that unfold?
At a Netflix press junket in October, 2017, both DeWitt and Foster agreed that there was something relatable about Marie’s dilemma.
“You have this fierce desire to protect [your children] and you understand this character's leaning into the technology that's available,” DeWitt, who is the mother of two young girls, said. “I can understand the impulse as a mom.”
While the episode was written by creator Charlie Brooker and features many of the motifs of other Black Mirror episodes — science fiction, dystopian technology eerily similar to our current reality — director Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards) said what she was most interested in was ensuring “Arkangel” wasn’t just about the technology. Foster wanted it to be about an environment that transforms Marie into somebody that would realistically use it and become corrupted by the technology available to her.
For one, the audience can see who DeWitt’s character was before she had a daughter. She has a strained relationship with her own parents, and doesn’t have the highest opinion of herself, which in turn affects how she raises Sara.
“What was interesting was how it highlighted all these foundational, feminist problems that we have as women and who we are,” Foster said. “She's ashamed of who she's been in the past and what her life ended up being and [she’s] dominated by a very somewhat nasty dad who didn't have a lot of respect for her and weird messed up relationships with men. But here she's found a vessel.”
Since the episode takes place over the course of several years, we see how both Marie and Sara are affected by the technology, with Marie as the primary focus. Wee watch her become more paranoid and consumed by the power she can have. It’s what Foster loves about the 90-minute episode Black Mirror structure; she can watch Marie change.
“For me, that was really exciting, “ Foster said. “That [DeWitt] brought to the table [a story] of watching a woman who starts off with these great intentions of what she's trying to do, but then the darkness of what her own fears starts taking over and she changes and becomes somebody that is a darker self.”
Both DeWitt and Foster also noted that her behavior is relatable just based on current politics. The experimental equipment in “Arkangel” is completely about control, which many parents long to have for their children, but it’s also about how many women would want to protect their daughters, projecting their own fears about society on to them as they grow up, according to DeWitt and Foster.
The recent wave of sexual harassment and abuse allegations against men in politics and entertainment is evidence of what DeWitt and Foster are talking about. At the time of this writing, NBC News reported that 38 high-profile men have been accused of anything from making women feel physically uncomfortable to outright rape. That number doesn’t include those that have been accused before the recent string of allegations but still continue to work, and lesser-known figures that have also faced consequences.
“Arkangel” is about raising a child, but it’s more specifically about raising a daughter in a world that may be too dangerous for her. Or at least, Marie has the perception that she must protect Sara.
“When you have daughters, you look at ‘how I can protect them,’” DeWitt said. “We used to think that it was just protecting them from the boogieman, but it's about how to protect them from their seventh grade peer or their boss. We've just been in denial.”
That, along with just the technology itself, all ties together to create a complicated situation for both Marie and the audience. The technology in Black Mirror isn’t always benevolent but at it’s core, most of it is about having more control over something. Here, it’s about fear.
“The fears we have for our daughters is wrapped up in our own fears about sexuality, in our own issues with self-determination and the, gosh, the messed up pasts that we've had,” Foster said. “The heightened fear and the heightened need for control — those two things are becoming more and more prevalent in our culture.”