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Reflections on Black Mirror

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A recent news story revealed that Netflix may take over production of the British show Black Mirror. This follows previous rumors that an American version may be in development. Leaving aside a discussion of why this may be a bad idea (see the American remake of Broadchurch), Black Mirror is clearly still making its mark on American viewers despite the fact that the last episode aired more than two years ago in Britain. This is especially remarkable because of the stereotype that Americans can’t accept anything other than a happy ending.

Black Mirror manages few happy endings. Instead futility, hopelessness, and cynicism are the name of the game. And the game is played on a smartphone screen, or computer, or Facebook profile.  Some might accuse the show of only showing the pessimistic side of technology, but that would be mere euphemism. Black Mirror doesn’t just see the glass as half empty. Instead, it shows you a half empty glass, you pouring water in to fill it, but the more you pour the emptier it gets. The interplay of horror and technology in the recent Virginia shootings has been compared to something out of the show’s universe.

I highly recommend you jump on the bandwagon before you accidentally stumble on the American remake without first appreciating the original. Since each episode is a completely independent story, you can watch them in any order. Perhaps the order of my ranking below…

 

6. “White Bear” (Episode 5)

An amnesiac woman wakes up in a house full of strange symbols. When she runs outside, she sees people filming her on their cell phones from windows and across the street. They follow her around but won’t respond to any of her questions. Eventually she is attacked by some sort of hunters before running into other “survivors.” The rest of the story is a combination of running and figuring out what’s going on.

This one was the weakest episode of the lot. In part because the ending was something I had a seen countless times before. And although the story presented some interesting questions about guilt, it didn’t really put forth any unique answers.

“White Bear” reminded me of a classic Schwarzenegger film. Even with its flaws, had it featured the Oak himself, it would be a lot higher on the list.

 

5. “The Waldo Moment” (Episode 6)

A satirical and crass cartoon character goes from a late night novelty to mocking politicians to running for office himself. This a classic story of a creation getting out of control of the creator. As one article pointed out, anyone following the Trump train will see a lot of relevance here. Unfortunately, the episode fails at the end by not addressing the consequences of the resolution it presents.

Even though I’ve ranked this one second to last, I thought it was significantly more entertaining and deeper than “White Bear.”

 

4. “Fifteen Million Merits” (Episode 2)

This episode shows a dystopian future based on our constant need for distraction and entertainment. Residents of this society power their world and earn money by cycling on exercise bikes while distracting themselves with inane and exploitative TV shows. In addition, they are bombarded with constant ads that cannot be skipped without financial penalty. People too fat to peddle are viewed as less-than and work by cleaning around the cyclists or degraded on game shows.

I liked this one because it really digs into our need to stay busy and entertained. Considering how we seem to be get bored more and more easily and alone time makes us strangely uncomfortable, there’s a lot of sense to this story. It also takes a fantastic turn by showing how a cause can be subverted for financial gain and entertainment. Social justice hashtags beware.

 

3. “The National Anthem” (Episode 1)

“The National Anthem” could just as well be at the top of this list if not for the emotional impact of the following two episodes. This one is the simplest and probably the most realistic of the bunch. Something like this could happen today.

Specifically, a popular Princess is kidnapped. The kidnapper makes one request for her return: the Prime Minster has to have sex with a pig on live TV. He also provides a list of technical specifications that make it impossible to fabricate the broadcast.

In one of my college philosophy classes we discussed the ancient question of whether one should save a 100 people by intentionally killing one or let the group die through inaction. Here the hundred people are replaced by one Princess and the instead of murder we have bestiality. It’s a grotesque take on an old dilemma and makes for an engaging episode.

 

2. “Be Right Back” (Episode 4)

This episode actually reveals a more balanced vision of technology, particularly social media. The story is about a young couple who move to the country side. The husband is constantly checking in or updating on social media. Soon after the move, he dies in an accident and the widow is presented with an opportunity to “resurrect” him by way of a tech company that uses his online presence to reconstruct his personality.

This is one of the two most emotionally powerful episodes and explores a fantasy most have us have considered. My only quip with the story is that it would have been fascinating to see the widow consider the differences between the technological clone and her real husband beyond the obvious question of whether the imitation can ever replace the real thing. Since her husband appeared to be more active in his online life than in the one with his wife, why not make the clone more present than her husband ever was. Or if the clone was meant to be as accurate as possible, a nice twist would be to have him eventually become a social media addict as well. Nevertheless, this was a touching piece about love and loss.

 

1. “The Entire History of You” (Episode 3)

My favorite episode takes place in a reality that takes Instagram and Twitter to the extreme. In this story most people willingly have an implant which records everything they see and hear. The technology also lets them play back their memories into the wearer’s eyes or on a screen. There are a few hold outs that are viewed as curiously as we view our non-Facebook brethren.

The main characters are a couple who appear to be generally happy until the husband becomes suspicious of his wife’s interactions with another man at a party. As the story progresses, the husband becomes increasingly obsessed with his her fidelity. He uses recorded memories to dissect and re-watch various scenes from their life. One of the reasons the episode stuck with me was because it had one of the creepiest scenes I’ve ever seen in TV or movies. It wasn’t particularly explicit, but the scene struck a chord that left me contemplating it for long after I watched this episode.

The wife’s fidelity isn’t really as important here as the obsession. It reminded me of “”—a tale told within Don Quixote about a man so fixated on testing his wife’s fidelity that he talks his friend into attempting to seduce her, with a devastating fall out for everyone involved.

Interestingly, this episode has been optioned by Robert Downey, Jr. for a potential film. Mr. Downey, Jr. and I are clearly on the same page, so if he’s reading this, I can help dig up more great material to option into box office gold.

 

Given the dystopian themes of Black Mirror, one question a lot of people probably ask about these types of futures is how could people let them happen. Why didn’t anyone stand up? In the case of Black Mirror, we see dark reflections of Western societies still well fed and well entertained. It’s hard to revolt when you have a DVR backlog and food delivery on the way after a long, mind numbing day at the office.

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