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'Black Mirror': ‘USS Callister’ is Our 21st Century Underdog Story

Season 4, Episode 1

Quite possibly the best episode of Season Four, “USS Callister” is an underdog story for the ages. Its heroine, Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), is one desperately needed in the flood of 21st century male-driven narratives. She’s a brilliant programmer, fiercely determined, and the perfect person to break her and her coworkers out of one man’s deeply misogynist fantasy.

Nanette wakes up in an artificially lit chamber one day, confused about her “Star Trek”-esque surroundings. She then learns that she is onboard the USS Callister, a virtual starship programmed by Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), one of her sci-fi-obsessed managers from the real world. Robert has taken the DNA of Nanette and some of his coworkers, and replicated their consciousness in this virtual landscape, with him as their god. He forces them on his own ego-stroking missions, using them as objects to play with and torment.

This is a lot for Nanette to take in—Robert has robbed them of their lives, their free will, and even their genitalia. A coworker points out that in this virtual world, a Barbie-doll-like blankness exists where their reproductive anatomy should. There’s a lot of weighty symbolism involved in this scene pertaining to the sexual entitlement Robert feels in this imbalanced gender-power dynamic, but Nanette sums it up best: “Stealing my pussy is a red fucking line,” she says with bared teeth. “We’re going to get this bastard.”

It’s so refreshing to see Nanette turn the tables on Robert, but social relevance isn’t the only virtue of “USS Callister.” “Black Mirror” commits to its story as much as it commits to the “Star Trek” aesthetic, pulling no punches when it comes to Robert’s imagined cruelty. It’s difficult to find a show that can stride the line between necessity and excess, but “USS Callister” manages this well. It finds the spots where narrative anguish is needed, and pushes its boundaries so the plot doesn’t lose its edge, but not to the point of theatrics.

But perhaps the most brilliant part of “USS Callister” is its switch of narrative authority. The episode’s exposition is purposefully misleading, fooling us into believing that Robert will be the hero of this story. But the true heroine emerges just six minutes into the show, a seemingly inconspicuous side character who ends up wielding control over Robert’s own fabricated science fiction. At the end of “USS Callister,” Nanette sits in what used to be Captain Robert’s old chair with earned confidence, reminding us of the tricky thing about narratives—fiction or otherwise. Narratives are meant to be read, reread, revised, and sometimes tossed away in hyperwarp. It’s a new era, Nanette’s sly smile seems to say. And not just for the crew aboard the USS Callister.

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—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at grace.li@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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