Taking an odd turn, the second season of Black Mirror features less high-tech scenarios than its predecessors, but Brooker’s focus is still centered on the social implications of social order gone askew thanks in large part to the adoption of technology. Though this season came after a hiatus, and another sits between this season and an eventual third, Black Mirror continues to arouse the interest of fiction giants like Stephen King. But are these episodes more predictions from a modern-day oracle, or has the concept failed to keep up momentum after more than a year off the air?
Be Right Back
Martha and Ash, live in a small house in the remote country, where she works as a graphic designer and he sinks all his time into sharing and interacting via social media. After an accident kills him, Martha, at Ash’s funeral, talks with Sarah who suggests that although she’d lost the love of her life she could find him again through the Internet. Later in the night, after receiving an email from deceased Ash, Martha is furious, and finds out Sarah had signed her up in secret.
As grief overtakes her, and Martha discovers her unplanned pregnancy, she reached out to the digital Ash. It responds as he would and so she agrees to feed it more of Ash’s data in order to get a more complete simulation. This allows her to talk with it, and she does so for days on end, unable to separate from it until she accidentally breaks her phone while getting an ultrasound performed. After having it replaced, the simulated Ash tells her not to fear of harming him and she expresses the dread of losing him a second time. It then suggests that she can take its development one step further.
Martha purchases a blank, a body made of artificial flesh, and, following the simulated Ash’s instructions, prepares the body to take form. When it awakes, an android Ash, seen void of facial hair and a distinct mole, startles Martha with the realness of its existence. They form a sexual relationship, and though she is satisfied for a time, she is frustrated that this thing isn’t a replacement for the man she’d lost. After an argument that leaves her rattled, she walks the android Ash to a cliff, telling it to jump off. It is agreeable and Martha’s frustration and anger grows, explaining that the man she’d love would’ve wept and never agreed. It responds by mimicking the emotions she’d described in an attempt to please her, but it only proves to her that she cannot order it to die.
Years later, Martha and her daughter live in the same house. It is her daughter’s birthday, and she asks to go up to the attic with a piece of cake. Though her mother expresses such privileges are only for the weekends, the girl coerces her. The two go up to the attic where android Ash lives. The girl interacts with it unaware that it is a reflection of her father. Martha is reluctant, but eventually goes to join them.
The idea that permanency is a promise made to us feels real in the digital age. On average we check our mobile devices more than 150 times daily, and in that activity we share more than 500 million photos across the world. With such a long history us, one that is constantly updated with the most inconsequential information, we feel that we are connected to one another, and, perhaps more damaging, we feel our place in another person’s life is fixed. But it isn’t so.
Nature, despite our taming of her, acts as it sees fit. People die. Memories of loved ones wither away. Those we leave behind move on. These are scary truths to contend with, and as animals capable of contemplating such a final destination we’ve always wanted to find ways around it. And I believe we will. Science has created wonders once relegated to the whims of gods, and one day we will conquer death and make permanency a part of human life. But should we?
Victoira Skillane wakes up in a chair, both weary unable to remember anything about herself. All around the house are signs of a failed suicide attempts and photographs of her with a man and a small girl. On the television she sees an odd polygonal symbol and hears a high-pitched whine that harms her ears. Once outside she sees that she isn’t alone as she had feared—there are people watching her from a distance, recording her with their smartphones. She asks these people for help, if they know who she is or what had happened to her. Before anyone answers, a man in a mask emerges from the car, the polygonal symbol is over his face. He shoots at Victoris, causing her to run until she reaches a gas station where she finds Jem and Damien, the only other two people to acknowledge her existence. Jem is able to escape with Victoria in tow, but Damien is killed by the gunman. Once they find shelter, Jem explains that there’s a transmitter in a place called “White Bear,” and it’s that signal that has turned the people into drones and those left unaffected are either killing or running for their lives. Jem has a plan to destroy the transmitter and return life to normal.
When they’re cornered by new masked killers, Baxter, one of the unaffected, picks the women up in his van, but when they stop he holds them at gunpoint. Jem manages to get away, but Victoria is restrained and is menaced with a power drill as a crowd gathers. Then Jem returns, kills Baxter, and takes Victoria back to the van intent on destroying the transmitter. And when they arrive, Jem begins to douse the facility in gasoline in order to burn it down. Victoria aims to help but is slowly regaining her memory and is forced to stop. When two masked killers arrive, she’s able to wrestle the shotgun away from one of them, but when she pulls the trigger only confetti is fired.
Walls part and the complex it shown to be a theater. Victoria is bound to a chair and the audience applauds as Jem, Damien, and the attackers take a bow. Victoria is bewildered as Baxter reappears, and to the audience explains that the girl Victoria—Jemima Sykes—had seen was the victim of a heinous murder she’d committed with her fiancé—the man in her pictures. Victoria had coerced her fiancé into setting Jemima after holding her captive for several days. The white bear, it is revealed, was Jemima’s stuffed animal and a surviving piece of evidence that led police to the killers.
All throughout the presentation, Victoria sobs, still unaware of what she’d been accused of. She is then driven in a clear car, subjected to be pelted with sponges by the angry crowd, all the way to the house where her day began. Baxter places her back in the room and redresses it with signs of a suicide attempt. He exclaims that she cries and begs for mercy every night, and places a white crown over her head that purges recollections from her mind. On the way out of the house, Victoria still screaming in agony, he marks off the 18th of October, suggesting she’d been subjected to this every day of the month thus far.
As the credits roll, it’s revealed that Victoria has been kept in an enclosed space called “White Bear Justice Park.” There Baxter, Damien, Jem, and the attackers are seen interacting with the crowd explaining the rules of the “show” they will all be participating with and their restriction from interacting with Victoria. The episode ends with Victoria waking in the chair, once again oblivious of who or where she is.
Of all the episodes in Black Mirror, none was more difficult to dissect than this one. Despite some glitch art used to portray memory and people walking about with smartphones, there is no presence of innovative technology up until the last ninety seconds of the episode. Yes there is the presence of a “mysterious signal,” but it is in no way innovative as far as what the series has presented thus far. And near the end it becomes clear why.
Unlike all the other installments, “White Bear” is about the spectator community of the Internet and how nearly all of us are complicitous. If ever you’ve visited a chatroom, forum, or the comment section of any site, you have witnessed the bravery with which people type when they feel themselves protected by distance. If you’ve ever followed the birth and growth of a scandal, you’ve been a spectator in the destruction of a human being by a digital mob of millions. And while you may have never been to a “justice park,” you might have enjoyed yourself like it was a day activity.
If you consider yourself part of the “gaming community” or peruse and websites that attract geeks, nerds, or anyone attracted to that culture, you’ve no doubt heard of “Gamergate”. I’ll sum it up shortly: a game designer and a former lover have a public dispute over the end of their relationship and the following success of the designer’s career. What with most everyone’s professional and sex/romantic lives being made public it would seem inconsequential, but what ensued was a torrent of abuse and spectating at the expense of one party and for the entertainment of the masses. Much like Victoria, one party is left in the center of attention and abuse, unable to respond to all that’s thrown at her and hoping that one of those just watching reveling in the deconstruction of another human being would help, only to see that they are a villain unawares.
There is a philosophical question presented in this episode: if a person is innocent in recognition of a crime are they guilty? This point is made with the use of a criminal for the sake of storytelling, but in its real-world reflection it isn’t the case. Should someone’s infidelity be the center of ruining their reputation, making them the center of threats of rape and murder? Has breaking the social bonds of a relationship, or transgressing in some way cause for you to be gawked at like an animal while others giggle at what the “brave” few are willing to type? Is there anything you do that makes it morally right for others for form a mob for the purposes to hunt you? The answer is no. Any decent human being would think this to be right. But trolls—those designated as the kind willing to harass and threat or take glee in someone’s shame or pain via the Internet—exhibit personality traits deemed psychologically unhealthy. And so the question arises—does the Internet make people and this behavior manifest or does it merely allow a natural practice to finally be acceptable?
I think the point being made here is how emboldened people have been made by the Internet. White Bear is given three distinct identities: the name of the transmitter compound, Jemima’s toy, and the park. This leaves the audience guessing as to the truth of Victoria’s crimes and the possibility that the people, Baxter, and Jem, are merely people enjoying themselves torturing someone who’s done nothing wrong.
Jamie Salter, a failed comedian turned performance-capture voice actor, takes control of Waldo, a blue bear that quickly gains fame by humiliating politicians during an election cycle. Jamie is sick of his work with the character, and depressed in his personal life, but is forced to stick with it as Waldo’s popularity increases and he’s asked to shoot a pilot for his own series. Jack, Jamie’s producer and Waldo’s creator, suggests that Waldo should run for office with all the attention they’re getting, and is further enticed by the idea when he is convinced they could beat Liam Monroe, the Conservative candidate. Jamie is reluctant, but with nothing else going right in his career he agrees to drive around in a van as Waldo harasses Monroe from a large screen viewable to the public. During this time, Jamie meets Gwendolyn, the Labour candidate looking for a steppingstone to her next appointment, and they develop a sexual relationship. When her campaign manager discovers she’s sleeping with Jamie, Waldor’s voice and operator, she cuts all ties with him, dropping Jamie into a deeper depression and developing a serious disdain for all politicians.
During a political debate, Monroe mocks and reveals Jamie as the failure he is, being better remembered for Waldo than anything he’s done on his own. Angered further, Jamie goes into a tirade about the feckless policy and obsession with personal glory both Monroe and Gwendolyn exhibit, and suggests that no politician is worthy of people’s faith nor their votes. Though he regrets it, Jamie’s words carry on YouTube and the world is obsessed with the idea of Waldo as a viable candidate for office.
Later into the night, Jack and Jamie meet with an unnamed American man who describes himself as representing the interests of “The Agency.” He claims that Waldo’s stance on undermining politicians and the politics could be used as a weapon of propaganda in despotic nations, and Jack talks them into an agreement of setting up campaigns in Latin America in the near future. When Jamie tries to apologize to Gwendolyn, she rejects him, claiming that while she may have only wanted this position to better her chances at higher office, she could’ve done good while Waldo is merely mocking the political process. Jamie tries to discredit Waldo to the public in an attempt to correct what he’s done, but Jack continues to operate in his place. When the results are tallied, Waldo is seen to have come in second, just behind Monroe. In keeping with his aims to disrupt, Jack urges the crowd to riot over his loss.
Years in the future, Jamie is seen living on the street in a despotic London, shoved out of the way by black-clad police returning to a heavy military vehicle. On an interactive screen, Jamie sees Waldo on political adverts all over the world, spreading the same message he’d used in the last campaign. Angered, Jamie assaults the screen with a bottle, then is assault by the officers.
This was perhaps one of my favorite episodes of this series. Despite cyberpunk really only coming to the forefront in the epilogue, it’s the consequence of something at the center of American politics. And I touch on American politics not only because it is the most familiar to me, but because it’s where I feel the kind of buffoonery Waldo displayed would be the most celebrated. As someone who tries to stay on top of current events and the activities of elected officials, I could rant on for hours on failed policy and the cartoonish characters elected to manage billions and decide over the fate of lives at home and in foreign countries. But rather than name and shame people who need to be in office—something Brooker could’ve done by making Waldo a flesh-and-blood person—I think it’s important to focus on the role of the voter.
In refusing to make a decision between politicians, all of whom were presented as gender-swapped versions of the same character, voters threw overwhelming support for the one who took nothing seriously and appealed to the lowest common denominator amongst voter through dick jokes and grumbling “fuck” or “cock” every third word. Waldo was likeable, entertaining, and easy to relate to. And that should’ve been a sign that he was unfit for office whether he was real or not. He earned his votes not because the voter is stupid—although average intelligence is just that, and voters should expect more from those chosen to run an entire country—but because the voter did not make an effort to understand the circumstance in which he was voting nor the consequence of his disinterest.
In the final scene, where we see the UK is militaristic and black but still Waldo the cartoon is vibrant and bouncing, promising political action with the same gimmick. The juxtaposition between light and dark, and seeing the bright colors as more inviting and frightening reminds me of a Carlin bit on fascism being something that will invite all into its fold with smiles and promises. And when you look closely, it’s easy to see that too many in office fit this profile.
Though the tech is downplayed in this series, with the exception of the last episode, season 2 manages to be even more socially aware of the world it exists in than the last. And, in a way, the reduction in tech has made it bite just that much deeper into the change in social order and interaction between people. We are exploiting ourselves with these devices and interconnectivity in a way that’s perverse, and it feels as though we are forced to choose a life with a mob or one in serial isolation.
I find myself walking away from these four episodes with more questions than I had viewing the first three. Black Mirror is no longer a warning of futures that might be, but a current summation of our placement in time. And as technology progresses, so does the social norms it helped to create. So, where does that leave us?