Disclaimer: This is a review filled with spoilers.
Black Mirror is the modern-world’s answer to the analysis of the social and human conditions of Western life brought to us by The Twilight Zone in decades past. Charlie Brooker, much like Rod Serling, is the public face for this series and delivers a message to his audience that is both personal and dark. But perhaps its lack of levity comes from its personal angle and the contemporary nature of the subject matter explored.
In an interview with the Guardian, Brooker stated, “If technology is a drug—and it does feel like a drug—then what, precisely, are the side-effects?” And it is this obsession with technology, how people are obsessed with it, how it manipulates society as a whole, is the focus Black Mirror. And like the best works of cyberpunk fiction, this explores not a future that is improbable, or one decades or centuries into the future. What we witness in these probable tomorrows are direct reflections of today.
The National Anthem
Princess Susannah, a beloved member of the British Royal Family, has been kidnapped and the demands for her safe return are broadcast publicly on YouTube for the world to hear. In return for a safe and unharmed princess, Prime Minister Michael Callow is to have sexual intercourse with a pig on satellite feeds to be broadcast throughout the United Kingdom and the Internet, accompanying this ransom video are demands that he is to meet in order to assure that the video is authentic.
The UK media, who has already been made aware of the video prior to the government’s attempts to purge it from the Internet, fight over the pointlessness in heeding the government’s demands for censorship as they attempt to locate the princess prior to the humiliating deadline. Soon enough, public interest reaches a new high and American cable news broadcast the story. The UK media must play catch-up, and the entire British public finds themselves glued to television sets to await the humiliating act.
As attempts to locate the princess through reverse look-ups of IP addresses and attempting to authenticate servers through which the video had originally traveled yield nothing, and they fail to insert an actor into the Prime Minister’s place, Callow is made to realize that he has no choice but to have sex with the animal—to “completion” as pointed out in the demands. This does result in the princess’ release, but that takes place nearly half an hour before the broadcast went up, taking advantage of empty streets and people sat to watch the spectacle.
One year has passed. Susannah is back to her public life, and Callow is a more popular politician, though his marital life is in shambles. It is then learned the man responsible was Carlton Bloom, an artist who wanted to make a point of the distractions people have in their lives through the Internet and mobile devices and their oblivion towards the real world.
Were David Fincher to adapt Pattern Recognition by William Gibson into a film, but alter it to reflect his irreverence and slant towards the obscene, it would probably look like this. This obsession with gossip between nonentities could be used to cause true damage should anyone take the time to apply it that way. At present, what’s shown here is usually an argument between two nonentities we deem “celebrities” or “personalities” that have found a way to consume time by discussing vulgar nothings. And while these distractions don’t present a problem when consumed in moderation—if there is such a gauge—the possibility it has to cripple the world is nothing short of fascinating.
Fifteen Million Merits
Bing is a pedaler living in a complex of millions of pedalers, and drones through life in this complex of screens and sensors. All day he pedals on an stationary bike, staring directly into a screen, swiping through offerings of reality TV, game shows, pornography, video games, and a plethora of offerings one might find on cable or the Internet. One day in the bathroom he overhears Abi singing in one of the stalls. This touches in a way that nothing has before and develops a true affection for her talent. Using 15 million merits he’d inherited from his dead brother, Bing encourages Abi to compete in Hot Shots by promising to purchase her a ticket. She’s reluctant at first, but as he explains that she’s the most “real” thing he’s ever witnessed, and that she should be free of the complex they call home, she agrees.
Bing escorts her to the show where dozens are gathered for their chance to compete. Abi is selected right away for her looks, is given a juice box of “Cuppliance,” then shoved on stage before three judges—Hope, Charity, and Wraith—where she gives a performance that stuns the crowds of millions watching via an Intranet wired throughout the complex. But despite her talent, the judges crush her dreams, and the men—Hope and Wraith—coerce her to agree to a life of being a porn actress, entertaining people in a different way but still escaping the life of a pedaler. Drugged and egged on by millions, she agrees.
Back in his room, Bing stashes the empty Cuppliance box and an origami penguin—all he has of Abi—and is locked away with cycling advertisements he can no longer skip through due to a lack of merits. He suffers through them until he sees a porn preview of Abi getting manhandled prior to a hardcore sex scene. This prompts a descent into rage and depression, and at the bottom Bing decides to starve and work himself pedaling in order to get the 15 million merits to purchase his own ticket to Hot Shots.
After weeks of work, Bing walks past the Hot Shots staff, showing an empty Cuppliance box so he can approach the judges sober. They have him perform for the crowd, and after a dance number, Bing unsheathes a glass shard from one of the destroyed screens in his room. He threatens to kill himself if security approaches, then convinces the judges to give him a space to speak. They do, and Bing delivers a message of the emptiness of their lives pedaling to power these judges and their shows and all the garbage that they are fed through screens on endless loops. His anger reaches a new high when he thinks of Abi, how the judges had perverted her, stolen her talent, and turned her into an object. The message resonates with the pedalers and with judges. Judge Hope, the assumed leader of Hot Shots, then offers a deal to Bing, a show where he can speak like that to the public to deliver something “real.”
Bing now lives in a penthouse. From there he delivers anti-establishment speeches about consumerism and waste, and he receives a moderate following. But as he walks through the penthouse, looking out to a forest where birds are seen rising towards the sun, it is shown that they are merely taller monitors in a larger room.
This is Thx 1138 and Idiocracy in equal measure, and that’s a great thing. Both are great cyberpunk works, the latter being a thoughtful drama and the other being a low-brow satire, and to see them merge into a scene that could very well play out on a television set in the US, Canada, the UK, or pretty much anywhere else in the Western world should give us pause. It’s not so much a commentary on purchasing, the obsession with the flotsam that swims by in the climbing ocean of media content, but the theft of humanity, true humanity, that is the focus of this piece. How many things can we purchase under the guise of interconnectedness and communication before we must ask ourselves just whom we are communicating to and what are we discussing? Is any of it worth it? And who’s to blame for robbing us of this focus of our humanity? I don’t have the answers, and neither did Bing. It’s why something he honestly felt could’ve been taken from him and manipulated to force him into the same cell he hated.
Of all the episodes in this season, and pretty much everything else I’ve seen in recent memory, nothing has quite the performance as the one found in Bing’s speech to power before the masses.
The Entire History of You
Liam Foxwell is a lawyer whose future with his firm is uncertain. In order to know how his last evaluation went, he accesses his memory through his “Grain,” an implant that records all memory for the purposes of playback and analysis viewable though eyes or projected onto glasslike monitors. Meeting up with his wife Ffion and a group of their old friends, Liam feels out of sorts as his wife stiffens around him and loosens up only around Jonas, a man that Liam instantly dislikes. He endures dinner where he becomes the center of attention, talking about sex with women and preferring to go through better “sexcapades” while the real woman waits. It’s something that makes Ffion uncomfortable and Liam takes note.
On the ride home, Liam is confident he doesn’t know the man like his wife said and points this out to her. The discussion continues at home, intercut with memories of the dinner they just attended. Through playback and conversation it’s learned that Ffion had met Jonas on holiday in Marrakesh, a romantic fling that she said lasted only a week and long before she met him. Through poking and prodding, it’s learned that it was a formal relationship that went on for six months. Later into the night, Liam apologizes for his jealousy and the couple have sex. It’s as lazy affair they both opt out of viewing and prefer to view memories of other encounters. We see that Liam remembers another moment with his wife, but we aren’t shown what Ffion is viewing.
Still bothered by the lies and his own jealousy, Liam returns to the living room to drink and search his memories. He finds more evidence, tells of Ffion’s behavior, and decides to show up on Jonas’ doorstep. Liam accuses him of continuing an affair with Ffion and they fight. Liam overpowers Joans’ with a broken bottle and forces him to delete all of his memories tied to Ffion, and Liam continues to drive in a drunken stupor until his car crashes. When he wakes, and vaguely remembers what it was that had happened, he rewinds his memory of the fight, watches it several times before returning home to Ffion. Having seen the icons of video Jonas had deleted, he questions Ffion’s honesty one last time, this time particularly interested in the paternity of their daughter Jodie. Ffion is shown the evidence and admits that she slept with Jonas around the time Jodie was conceived, but promises that she made him wear a condom. Liam demands to see the memory. Ffion attempts to delete it through her own eyes, vindicating his jealousy and possibly the true father of their child.
Liam is seen alone, the house gutted of furniture and Ffion’s favorite painting. As he walks through the home, he can’t help but switch on memories of Ffion moving about where they once lived together. Deciding not to endure the torment any longer, he cuts the grain out of his neck with a razor blade.
If “15 Million Merits” was the most powerful episode this season, “The Entire History of You” is the most frightening. Whether you consider smartphones, Tweets, Facebook posts, or Internet search history, people now have detailed timelines that kings of entire nations would consider ostentatious. What this does, this meticulous record keeping of all things, is it breeds insecurity in all things and not just our sexual relationships. Of course, there are times our jealousies are confirmed as seen here, thus making the records justified and their importance validated. Round and round the wheel goes, and the invasion of privacy from partners and friends to know all things about you from all times is seen as normal. It’s the need for basic privacy that is seen as a deviation from the norm and thus a threat to the social norm. But we’ve brought it upon ourselves, which is the point made throughout this piece. Whether it’s Liam’s obsession with knowing everything or Liam’s need to hold onto the past that led to her infidelity, they each hold a degree of responsibility keeping and exposing these things they intended to keep private.
In addition to the invasion of personal space from friends and lovers, the “Grain” is very similar to SenSen from DontNod’s Remember Me, in that is an implant that is commonplace in all people, and is even checked by airport security before permitting travel, replacing traditional ID. In fact, it is so common it is seen as irresponsible to rely on organic methods of storing memories for the purposes of introspection, further investigation into the “need” for constant data collection of our own person.
In reviewing Black Mirror I didn’t want to continue the chant of praises it had already received from everyone that has viewed it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was one of the most high-brow and entertaining snippets of drama I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a long time. Not only does it contribute more to present-day cyberpunk, something I think writers and directors should be more focused on rather than trying to rebuild Gibson’s wheel, but because it’s validation for a genre which has been limited to talking robots and big guns. There’s so much more to explore when it comes to technology, our obsession with it, and how we allow it to destroy us in the name of betterment despite all the evidence to the contrary. Not necessarily to deliver answers to problems from lecterns—I don’t believe Black Mirror has done that nor do I think it’s the “point” of any form of art—but to remind people that the things we own truly hold ownership over us. It’s a lesson delivered that will always ring true: we get the future that we have earned.