Until Dawn is a choose-your-own-adventure horror video game where your every decision begins a series of butterfly effects resulting in events as benign as a spurned kiss or as serious as a decapitation. The message is clear: Actions have consequences. That idea—driven, of course, to its darkest technocentric conclusion—is what Black Mirror creator and writer Charlie Brooker tackles in “Crocodile.”
A couple, played by Andrea Riseborough and Andrew Gower, drive along a deserted tundra road singing along to the club music which, along with their cigarettes, is the only reminder of their strobe-lit soiree. Then these two, linked superficially, share a harrowing connection welding them in trauma.
The pair are party to two accidental homicides fifteen years apart, with their aged guilt resonating narratively (their absence from each other’s lives since the first incident) and in character developments (the male driver has since begun attending Alcoholics Anonymous). The makeup, hair, and postures of both convey time’s passage without excess, allowing emotional exhaustion to do the heavy lifting.
While nothing is thicker than the blood they’ve spilled, their brogues come awfully close, so their conversation is less important than the visual storytelling accompanying them. Gower’s character is a mess of mismatched layers, while Riseborough’s has shaped up and moved on, with a husband, child, and accelerating career.
Her clean, modern home and workplace directly combat the physicality of what she’s done and, when a scruffy reminder of her past wanders in, it’s removed with clumsy (yet efficient) speed. While two doesn’t necessarily fall into the “serial” category, there certainly is a proficiency for dumping bodies on display.
This proficiency, as well as a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, begins to involve an insurance agent (Kiran Sonia Sawar) who uses a Corroborator (a device accessing the memories of claimants, witnesses, or whomever, basically) to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. The memory of an accident and the memory of a crime may be chronologically close, but the agent doesn’t know that as she starts her investigation.
This agent seems to have a lot of power at her fingertips (finding people, reading minds), but if anyone was going to spend the money to get this dystopian technology, you bet your ass it’d be the insurance companies. Sawar brings an endearing one-two of professionalism and personal touch that you want in any good TV detective, but with the softness of someone that, at the end of the day, just wants their bonus and their husband. (Also, quick sidebar. Sawar’s character receives a pet guinea pig for her birthday, which aside from leading to the episode’s silliest moment, prompts me to release this PSA for all would-be gift-givers, now and forevermore: A guinea pig is never a good birthday present for an adult. Actually, a guinea pig is never a good birthday present for anyone.)
Back to the action. Remember that mix of professionalism and personal touch? Well, Riseborough’s ragged murder mom possesses exactly none of those and is beginning to wonder—like the superb suburbans of Big Little Lies—if all her potential problems could be solved with a bit of killing. And perhaps they can be if everyone’s minds are at the discretion of whatever government or corporate body deems them fit for perusal. It certainly drives up the stakes of every crime cover-up from “intimidate them” to “gotta kill them, just to be sure.”
Directed with unflinching, up-close grotesquery by John Hillcoat, the moment the inevitable collision occurs in the mystery is panicky chaos that allows both actresses ample opportunity to impress while we desperately wish to be anywhere but with them. The twist twists, and in Black Mirror fashion, the episode follows its logical conclusion down a dark alley—where it promptly bludgeons it.
It’s written well enough that the dread precedes the groans, with dominoes falling in perfectly-timed acceleration. However, there’s still enough overkill that this cautionary tale about slippery slopes gets more than a bit silly before it ends—especially the bleak usage of “We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted To Be” from kid crime-musical Bugsy Malone. The unrelenting pessimism at the heart of the story, that our choices damn us and we are complicit in our damnation, becomes so suffocating that the story becomes less “Oh, no!” and more “That, too?”—especially if the episode’s title is in reference to the tears spilled by Riseborough’s killer.
Read all of Paste’s episodic reviews of Black Mirror here.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.