Why “U.S.S Callister” (Black Mirror Season 4 Episode 1) Is A Feminist Masterpiece

Much like every other Black Mirror fan, I’m patiently awaiting new episodes and binge-watching all of my old favorites. And while the show’s creator (Charlie Brooker) hasn’t been in a hurry to create another season, even after a 2-year hiatus, we can still hang onto the television masterpiece that is Seasons 1-5. Since 2011, Black Mirror has been bringing us cultural and societal commentary on how technology can negatively impact our lives in a near future. With nearly everything at the touch of a button on our smartphones and computers, Black Mirror feeds on a very real fear that we all have; even if we don’t admit it. Black Mirror shows us what we’re really afraid of–the unknown.

Let me be clear; every episode of this show is iconic. Truly, I’ve never watched a show that so consistently brings greatness in every single episode (especially when the program is in a 60-minute format). Among all the royal gems that Brooker and his team have created, “U.S.S Callister” might just be the crown jewel. Not only does the production and cinematography of this episode soar above its predecessors, but it packs quite the feminist punch. Set those phasers to stun, ladies; this one’s for us.

Let’s start with Nanette Cole. She’s a fresh face at the office, being brought on as the newest coder. She’s highly intelligent, headstrong, and unafraid of her own opinion. While the rest of the crew accepts the fact that they have to obey Daly, Cole rejects that. It’s obvious that she’s our heroine; the only one who is truly brave enough to stand up to Daly. Then there’s Walton. He’s the very first clone that was ever made in Daly’s computer, and as such, he’s resigned himself to this existence and is the most comfortable aboard the Callister. We find out later on that Daly has the DNA of Walton’s son, Tommy, and made Walton watch as his son was thrown out into the vacuum of space. There’s two other women aboard the Callister, Shania Lowry and Elena Tulaska. Lowry is shown as kind and caring for Cole, while Tulaska is indifferent and unbothered by the new arrival. Lowry sacrifices herself for Cole later on in the episode, displaying just how far Lowry is willing to go if it means saving another woman from Daly’s harm. Tulaska, on the other hand, is a silent observer, but you can tell she feels guilt. The two helmsmen of the Callister are Nate Packard and Kabir Dudani. Dudani is a quiet and intelligent guy, having been the lead programmer of the game in the real world. He is shown as shrinking under Daly’s rule, never daring to step out of line. Packard follows a similar protocol for different reasons. He obeys Daly’s direction because he’s afraid of what will happen to him (in contrast to Dudani obeying out of concern for the entire crew). Every crew member represents the type of people you will find in a toxic and misogynistic workplace. With that in mind, let’s break down a couple key scenes.

Cole Wakes Up Aboard The U.S.S Callister

When Cole is greeted by the other crew on the bridge, she’s obviously shaken. Immediately, Lowry takes on a position of care and comfort, offering Cole her own chair and telling Walton to fix Cole a drink. Lowry speaks slowly and calmly, trying to ease Cole into the new reality. The rest of the crew, including Tulaska, are completely indifferent and start divulging all of the secrets of this reality; mentioning there’s no escape. Cole takes off in a frantic sprint, trying to find an escape, much to the dismay of a concerned Lowry. Packer mentions that if “she doesn’t play along, they’ll all be dead”. Upon the arrival of Daly on the bridge, all of the crew members put on a fake smile and pretend to be happy-go-lucky. Cole, who was still running around trying to find an exit, appears at the teleportation station on the bridge, cowering in fear the moment she sees Daly. Lowry is seen with panic in her eyes, gesturing to the empty seat next to her, trying to coerce Cole over. Cole doesn’t move, and Daly approaches her saying, “Lt. Cole, take your post, that’s an order”. When she refuses and remains stubborn, Daly chokes her out by removing her mouth and nose. He offers up that he can keep her there, in that state forever, never dying, because he’s in charge of the game. Lowry is seen wincing at a choking Cole, along with Dudani. Meanwhile, Tulaska looks away (which is important, I’m getting there). Walton and Packer are disturbed, but they’re used to this, so they aren’t as bothered.

This entire scene is a perfect representation of what being a woman in a toxically masculine workplace feels like. Each member contributes to the toxic atmosphere in their own way. Cole is the type of woman who would rather die or lose her job than obey the orders of a misogynistic bully. Lowry is shown as an empathetic woman, who wishes she could do something, but thinks she’s unable. The only way Lowry thinks she can help is by providing counsel and comfort to Cole. Tulaska is the type of woman who has accepted the landscape around her. In accepting that, she finds resistance futile (sorry, had to drop a Star Wars reference in here), and chooses to ignore the more unsavory bits of Daly’s behavior (instead of standing up for Cole or showing her kindness like Lowry). Tulaska is practical, and she doesn’t believe there’s anything she can do, so why bother?

Walton, as the oldest crew member aboard, has completely settled into this new reality. He recognizes that Daly’s behavior is disgusting and controlling, but he chooses not to speak up or act out because Daly has his son’s DNA (therefore can clone and murder Walton’s son as many times as he pleases, forcing Walton to watch). Dudani is shown as a kind but quiet guy, the type that doesn’t think he has the power or authority to speak up about Daly. He’s not trying to upset the delicate balance around him, afraid of this reality becoming even more miserable than it already is. He doesn’t believe that Daly can be defeated. Lastly, we have Packard, who seems to be so afraid of what Daly will do to him, he doesn’t even bother fantasizing about defeating Daly. These situations feel wildly reminiscent of real-life dynamics; a woman who doesn’t think she can make a difference, a woman who chooses to ignore, and three men who will never say anything because they’re afraid of what Daly will do to them. Such is harassment in a misogynistic workplace.

Lowry Defends Cole

After discovering that none of the crew members have genitals (since Space Fleet was a family friendly brand), Cole looses her patience. She decides right then that no man will take away her autonomy; a direct parallel to men taking advantage of women’s bodies, not allowing them bodily autonomy. She decides that she’s going to devise a plan to get them all out. The first step in her plan is to send a friend request (the only communication they have with the outside world when Daly is gone) to her real-world self. Dudani said that there’s no way she’ll be able to hack into the mainframe and send the message, because he’s tried. Cole responds simply, “I haven’t tried yet.” After successfully hacking in, the message is sent. Ok, Cole, we see you. Go ahead and flex on these underachieving men!

In the real world, Cole receives the message and friend request, but is confused by the content of the message (which was basically an SOS about how people were trapped in the game). Seeing as it came from Daly’s computer, she asks Daly if he sent her a friend request, to which he gets a little embarrassed and says no. Immediately, we see him gathering the things from his office and heading home.

In the Callister, lights begin to turn back on, much to the confusion of the crew. It’s too early in the day for Daly to be back. He storms the bridge, in a fit of rage, asking who sent that message. Daly threatens to start choking people out, and Cole confesses that it was her. Daly has an unreadable look, a mixture of shock that she is capable of that and rage that she would betray him. Just before he can do anything, Lowry steps in front of Cole. She begs Daly not to hurt Cole, saying she’ll keep a close eye on Cole. Lowry makes an emotional case, unable to sit by and watch Cole die. Daly pretends to show remorse and understanding, before turning Lowry into a giant bug and dropping her off on some random desert planet. Again, this may feel like a familiar situation. Cole chooses to speak up, and when Lowry tries to defend her and protect her, Daly makes an example of Lowry; reminding the crew that he’s in control and there’s nothing they can do about it. While no one is happy to see this happen to Lowry, the men stay silent, Tulaska purposefully looking away, and Cole cowering on the floor. Once Daly is satisfied with their broken spirits, the crew continues on to another adventure.

Cole Leads A Coup

Cole stares longingly out one of the Callister’s windows, finally accepting the fact that she’s trapped in this nightmare. In the far distance, she sees a wormhole opening, and suddenly remembers that the update is scheduled to be performed on Infinity‘s mainframe. She runs back to the bridge, telling the crew she has a plan to set them free. If they can escape out of the wormhole, they’ll be on the main and public server. They’d still be in the game, but they’d have their freedom and finally be rid of Daly’s control. She manages to talk everyone except Walton into it, who then reveals the details about having to watch Daly kill his son. Cole then promises that she can get all the DNA out of Daly’s mini-fridge in the real world, which would mean their true and total autonomy inside Infinity. Additionally, Cole reveals that there’s actually a way they can trap Daly in his own game, so long as he’s still in his secure and modded version of the game when it updates (since it’s cut off from the main server). Now fully convinced, Walton agrees to go along with the plan.

In short, the plan is to lure Daly into a swimming hole with Cole (who now has a fake positive attitude as well), have Dudani hack Daly’s communicator (while he’s swimming with Cole) and use the connection to blackmail Cole in real-life with some scandalous photos Cole had saved on her iCloud account. Real-life Cole is then given instructions by Walton over the communicator as an untraceable phone. With Daly on pause and answering a fake pizza delivery, real-life Cole is able to steal all the DNA from his mini-fridge and swap out his game receiver with a broken one. She heads out, thinking the plan is done. Back on the Callister, Dudani teleports the digital clone of Cole onto the ship. Now with full control of the ship and Daly unable to get back in, they head for the wormhole, but it’s going to take a minute.

After fighting with the pizza delivery guy, Daly returns to his desk and tries to re-enter the game with the broken receiver. After fiddling with it for a few moments, he pulls out a backup receiver and re-enters the game. Once he’s back in the game, he realizes he’s been left stranded on a desert planet without his communicator. Nearby, there’s an abandoned cruiser, which he promptly fires up, and begins to chase after the Callister. Daly uses the cruiser’s comms to talk to the crew on the Callister, promising that they are all about to be punished to the harshest extent of Daly’s grotesque imagination. Panicked, realizing her plan hasn’t entirely succeeded, Cole directs Packer to fly through a dense asteroid field. He advises against it, but she demands. Very girl boss of you, Cole.

They barely make it out of the asteroid field, but their systems are all fried and they have no power to thrust forward at the closing wormhole. Daly begins gaining on them, hissing insults over the comms. In a moment of defiance, Tulaska turns off the comms (as well as spewing some ‘choice’ words for Daly). Now in silence, Cole is pacing, trying to figure out how to fix this. Dudani mentions that there is a backdoor power supply, but it’s manually operated and would require someone to sacrifice themselves. Walton volunteers, heading off to flip the switch before anyone can stop him. In his final moments, Walton pretends to apologize to Daly, buying the crew some time, but has some more ‘choice’ words for Daly as he flips the lever.

On the bridge, the power is back, and Packer hits the thrusters. They barely make it through the wormhole, leaving Daly in the dust as it closes. Now offline, Daly can’t escape or exit the game, and is trapped in his secured private mod forever. In the final moments of the episode, we see the crew of the Callister in updated and modern outfits, the dead crew members returning to the bridge to reunite with the rest of their crew. We see Cole sitting down in the Captain’s chair, a smile on her face, leading the crew into the new Infinity (Daly quite literally stuck in an earlier time, with no way out).

Keep girl-bossing, Cole. You’re an icon.

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