A Guide To Binging ‘Black Mirror’ (If That’s A Thing You Really Need To Do)
Hope you like crippling anxiety!
A recurring theme in Black Mirror is punishment. Punishment for breaching social conventions, either ones familiar to us or faintly dystopian extrapolations; punishment for minor slights and enormous betrayals, imposed by the state, by loved ones, by anonymous strangers behind a screen. Most episodes establish the social codes and habits, usually dictated by an emerging or established technology suspiciously similar to one the masses are currently fond of IRL. Then we have the dread-filled countdown to someone fucking up horribly.
A recurring theme in criticism of Black Mirror is that it feels a bit punishing to watch. It’s as though writer and creator Charlie Brooker is standing in your living room as you watch with one eye, absentmindedly swiping through dating apps and Instagram. You can feel him tutting at you for double-screening, then raising an instructive eyebrow when his characters go awry as if to say “See?”.
Though the show gets technology spectacularly right in a time when so few productions do, it’s kind of seen as a scolding — a Debbie Downer morality play about how fun new stuff is actually bad.
next on black mirror: what if phones but too much
— Mallory Ortberg (@mallelis) January 17, 2015
The new season is six episodes long — twice the length of the previous two — and I watched it all in one hit on Sunday afternoon. There’s certainly no reason to swallow the new instalments whole like that, particularly at this point in a very soul-crushing election campaign/year/existence (and there’s also no reason to overlap the long dark teatime of the soul with that feeling either). But they are all sitting on Netflix, and sometimes that’s just the way things go.
The good news is that most of the episodes do have something going for them, even if it’s just well-built suspense or an outstanding young actor. But your ability to get through the whole thing will depend on your tolerance for creeping dread and/or undergraduate wake-up-sheeple techno-paranoia. Good luck!
That First Episode Is A Bit Of An Outlier
The first episode, Nosedive — which makes a little more sense tonally when you know that the script was written by Parks & Recreation creator Mike Schur and star Rashida Jones, from a story by Brooker — is basically the MeowMeowBeenz episode of Community, only much more stressful and with a Stepford-pastel Instagram filter.
In this world, any time you interact with someone — a phone call with a friend, a polite elevator chat at work, buying a coffee, as well as standard social media posts — you rate them out of five, and they rate you back. Your rating determines your social (directly) and economic (slightly less directly) status. Almost everyone seems to be on board with this system, in which five-star ratings are mostly given out of social obligation and anything lower is pissy, pointed and/or punitive.
The problem with premises where basic online-specific behaviours — like rating everything, blocking people and recording everything — are brought wholesale into the real world is that there needs to be a benefit, a reason why enough people would be keen on the idea. The recording grain from ‘The Entire History Of You’ makes sense as a sort of dashcam for your eyes, crossed with the life-storage habits of smartphone owners; the terrifying ability to block a person from seeing you from ‘White Christmas’ would certainly have applications in cases of extreme harassment to begin with, and it’s plausible that its use would spread with broadening acceptance.
“What if Uber-rating anxiety, but everything?” I wrote in my notes five minutes in — unconsciously echoing Mallory Ortberg’s joke that inspired some of the season itself. It reminded me of guys on Tinder who jokingly (?) list their Uber rating alongside their height and Myers-Briggs types like player stats, apparently unable to muster an actual sentence to recommend themselves.
But it makes no sense whatsoever to have an entire society — including legal negative discrimination by private companies and punishment for antisocial behaviour — built around a metric so easily manipulable and subject to the whims of humans in all their shittiness. And it’s such a lazy middle-class fantasy to imagine that the poor and other social outcasts have a privilege and a freedom denied to wealthy folk trapped in the pastel hell of comfortable normalcy — when the protagonist finds herself surrounded by scoreless or low-scoring citizens, they’re lousy with grime and working-class signifiers. Simple, happy, dirty people, free to be themselves! It’s just gross.
Bad People, Muddled Morals And A Whole Lot Of Stress
After the stress of Nosedive, there’s very little time to breathe as the next two dig into the anxiety-inducing “future, but too much!” sandbox some more. ‘Playtest’ and ‘Shut Up and Dance’, both anchored to intense and winning performances.
Alex Lawther, as the young protagonist of the latter, is absolutely stellar, and his performance is both the only reason the episode works, and the reason the ending is such a punch in the guts. Wyatt Russell is similarly winning as the bro at the centre of ‘Playtest’, which squanders a cool premise (and a sly Bioshock reference that got my hopes way up) for an ending with so many twists it kinks the story like a garden hose and stops it up completely.
The less said about episode five, ‘Men Against Fire’, the better — the cast is great, but like ‘Nosedive’, it feels like it was based on the kind of snarky, lazy joke people make about Black Mirror’s on-the-nose satire. All three play with themes of guilt and agency — how the things you have done (or haven’t) can haunt you and be used to hurt you — and the characters are trapped in various hells the show implies they’ve either chosen or earned.
The closer Hated In The Nation is a morally muddled, conceptually whelming thriller about Twitter hate mobs that might be one of the most fundamentally misanthropic things Brooker’s written, and the reveal turns it into a turducken of topical tech-threats. But in execution (as it were) it’s surprisingly effective, with a classically suspenseful middle section that nods at Hitchcock and John Carpenter, and Kelly MacDonald’s charmingly jaded, blunt detective keeps it grounded.
“Didn’t expect to find myself living in the future, but here I fucking well am,” she mutters to her optimistic, tech-savvy offsider. It’s satisfying to see characters acknowledge the weirdness of this world.
This episode has an opportunity to make an actually insightful comment on the mindset behind social media pile-ons, but apart from a very effective beat that drives home the all-consuming terror of being at the centre of such an attack (even one that’s “just” online) and the opportunity to imagine what it would look like if law enforcement actually took Twitter death threats seriously, it slides past the social analysis in order to tell the story.
To be honest, it’s kind of a relief. One of the grimmest and most cynical things about Black Mirror is its conviction that we are all terrible people, and that the blankness and distance afforded to us by technology lets that nastiness spew out at the slightest provocation. It focuses largely on “normal” people; ones we are supposed to relate to either for their crushing mediocrity, their apparent decency, or the humiliating ease with which they give in to temptation and authority. “You would too,” it seems to sneer at the audience. “You’d let the government wipe your brain, you’d bay for blood on Twitter, you’d rob a bank, you’d brandish new knowledge like a weapon at your lover. Look at you, you’re on your phone right now!”
The One You Need To Watch
All this is one of the reasons the best episode of season three is the show’s most hopeful and forgiving one ever. If you only watch one instalment of the latest six, ‘San Junipero’ (episode four) is it. It’s the most focused on technology as simply a means to an end — the thing that makes the story possible rather than the thing the story is about. The sci-fi element reveals itself very patiently (unless you read the Netflix summary) and, like all the best sci-fi, the tech that’s imagined pushes emotional boundaries as much as scientific ones.
‘San Junipero’ is about the possibilities technological advances can offer us in terms of making life better, longer and less painful — a bright, sweet companion piece to last season’s gutting opener ‘Be Right Back’, which also explored the emotional ramifications of technological intervention in grief and loss. Like that episode, ‘San Junipero’ hinges on two understated, pitch-perfect performances — Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw make their characters’ connection feel completely real, which is not only a joy to watch but also sells the premise with a minimum of exposition.
There is no satire, no judgement, only an emotionally wrenching choice between the old way of doing things and the new; and for once the new is presented as a genuinely good thing, complicated not by humanity’s wretchedness but by its enormous capacity for love. For once, Black Mirror’s vision of the future offers not punishment, but a reward. While ‘Hated In The Nation’ ends the season on a grimly satisfying note, ‘San Junipero’ is the one that will send you off into the sunset (or the bedtime backlight settings of your chosen device) with a sense of possibility and hope.
Black Mirror is on Netflix now.
Caitlin Welsh is a freelance writer who tweets from @caitlin_welsh.