Charlie Brooker explained the series' title to The Guardian, noting: "If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone."
It's going to sound like typical Lauren hyperbole when I say that Black Mirror
is the most important television show I've ever watched. But it isn't exaggeration. I mean that.
Are y'all familiar with Charlie Brooker? I'm sure my British friends are. He's a comedian--sort of--he's extremely funny, but that isn't his endgame. He's a writer and a social commentator. He's cynical and smart and more than one TV show where he talks about TV and how it's messed up society (is there a better name for a television show than </i>How TV Ruined Your Life</i>?) but he also loves TV. And in Black Mirror
, he uses a TV show to ask huge, important questions and do it with really, really great style.
The show is...like The Twilight Zone
for the 21st Century. It's speculative fiction in its purest form--by which I mean built around speculation, asking "What if?" I actually can't say much about it, because the best way to watch it is knowing next to nothing about it. But I can say that each episode is a stand-alone story, a mini-movie, and that the through-line of the show is the 'black mirror'--the screens in our lives: TVs, computer screens, phone screens, whatever.
It's a show about our relationship with technology, actually. A show about how we use technology and what our using it does to us and reveals about us. And it's far and away the most disturbing show I've ever seen.
I am not usually a fan of disturbing. Too many creators use it as an end unto itself; they think 'edgy' means 'important' and so they make things as edgy as possible for its own sake. I hate that. But there is a way to craft stories that are disturbing because they have
to be. Because they want us to think
. Because there's no other way to ask the questions we really need to ask, no other way to create the urgency that needs to be present in these conversations. And Black Mirror
is so adept at doing that that I can't think of another piece of art that even comes close.
And this is art: from a technical perspective, the show is flawless. Perfect casting, perfect acting, perfect production, perfect music use, perfect direction. It uses the potentialities of the television medium to the utmost degree. But what really makes the show so important
(I keep using that word; if you watch it you'll see why) is the content. It's the ideas. Each episode takes one central idea (sometimes a very simple one) and fully explores one potential manifestation of it. That's about all I can say without getting into spoiler territory.
I don't recommend this show to everyone. If you're the kind of person who prefers your media intake to be escapist or even just thought-provoking but not to this extent--and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; we all use media for different reasons--then you will not want to watch this. You need to know going in that it's going to upset you, and that every episode (except perhaps the last, which is definitely messed-up, but not as much so as the others) is...horrific.
But if you're willing to go there, you should watch this. It's available on DirecTV now, as well as findable on the internet, and I really invite those of you who are intrigued to check it out. I'm going to talk some more under a cut, but if you're thinking of watching it DO NOT READ WHAT'S UNDER THE CUT. It will spoil you, and I have never, ever seen anything that would lose so much power by viewing it spoiled as this show. DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU THINK YOU MIGHT WATCH IT.
I think the thing that impresses me most about this show is that it is so completely about how we choose to use technology. Brooker (who wrote or co-wrote 5 of the 6 episodes) is no Luddite. He likes technology. He thinks it's great for a lot of things. He's just super super super aware of the potential it has for evil.
But that potential is always the result of human choice. This isn't "we created robots and the robots adapted and now they're killing us all!" (not that that can't be good). Every episode--even the ones that don't seem like it for most of their running time--explores the horrors that can result because of human choices of how to use technology. Sometimes those choices are on a very individual level, one single person making decisions that (supposedly) impact only themselves. Sometimes these choices are on a macro level, a result of society making choices collectively. Always they're not the result of one single decision by anyone. Both the ones that are based around individual choices and the ones that are based around societal choices are always really about a series of choices, usually small ones, that pile up, leading in one direction. Several of the trajectories feel almost inexorable, inevitable, like there was no way any other series of choices could possibly be made. Others feel like tiny, conscious concessions that someone makes thinking things won't be so bad.
Technology (in this show and, I would argue, in the real world) is not an outside force, the man-made equivalent of 'acts of God' like a volcano or an earthquake or something we can't control. It is a tool, always a tool, neutral in its morality, only possible as a source of evil when human beings choose to make it so. Brooker seems to think that some of these nightmares are inevitable, and I agree with him the sense that I think that when it comes to technology, humans will always choose to use it for terrible things. Always. And yet that's still a choice. I'm not quiet about my belief in free will. I find the idea of destiny or even providence morally insulting. But what's so scary for me, and what this show underlined for me, is that even though human choice is the most important force in life, individual human choices doesn't always matter, not in the face of collective human choice. This is why we have systemic injustice. And sometimes it would be so much easier to throw our hands up and say "That's just the way things are; this is destiny" because the force of inertia in culture is so unfathomably heavy. But we can't do that. Because it's always human choices. Change for the better is always possible. It is. But sometimes it is so, so, so unlikely, and that's one of the most tragic things of all.
Some of these things could happen tomorrow--"The National Anthem," "The Waldo Moment," heck, even "White Bear' could happen now if there was enough money put into it (and laws were changed). Others, like "The Entire History of You" and "Be Right Back" aren't possible just yet, but are clearly coming down the pike; I think it's very possible we'll live to see a world like "The Entire History of You" and the first part of "Be Right Back" (even if the second section--the body grown in the bathtub--is probably quite a distance in the future). "Fifteen Million Merits" is the most obviously sci-fi episode, the only one where the bulk of the world the characters are living in doesn't really look like our world, but the thing is that all the elements of it are already in place. They haven't been assembled all together in this way, and it's entirely possible they never will. But they could, and I think this vision of a possible future for us is a realistic, if improbable, one.
I really admire the way that each episode commits to one central premise and pursues it completely--unrelentingly--to its inevitable end. And that end is inevitable. By which I mean: we can't have a world in which people will contribute money to Stephen Colbert's SUPERPAC and that world not also be a world in which people (if provided the option) will not vote for a cartoon character for MP. We can't have a world in which we have the potential to record each and every moment of our lives and not have people do just that. We can't have a world in which people have the possibility of creating a synthetic version of a dead loved one and not have people take advantage of that possibility. This isn't because, again, technology is a force of its own. It's because of human nature. And human nature is such that, when a possibility exists, at least some people will choose to embrace it. Not everyone would vote for that cartoon MP. Not everyone would grow a synthetic version of their dead boyfriend in a bathtub. But some people would. And that's horrifying enough all on its own.
One of the things that scares me most about human nature is how we're always, always pushing forward when it comes to innovating. This is also one of the things that most delights me about human nature. We don't need to go to the moon. We can get along perfectly well without it. But like George Mallory said of Everest: it's there. And because it's there, we'll pursue it. When people figure out that they can invent something, can achieve something, we always then do so. There may be individuals who look to the future possibilities of this invention and say, "The risks are too great. I'm passing on this one." But someone else is always going to choose to do it anyway.
This is why we need bioethicists and scientists who try to think of all the ways in which new innovations can be used for evil. Sure, those who originally worked to split the atom may have just wanted to do it to see if they could--or they may have wanted to use it for good, for nuclear energy that will help people. But as soon as it became a possibility, anyone with a brain should have known that it would eventually be used to kill people. If something can be used for evil, it will end up being used for evil. By someone who makes a choice. This is what people do.
I'm not sure what to do with that. I'm not sure of what the answer is. When I watch something like "The Entire History of You," my reaction is to tell myself, "If you ever have that option, the option to record every single moment of your life, don't do it." And I think that I could hold to that. But other people will choose it. They will. And so does that mean that the people who are working to make that technology possible are not supposed to make it? Should they just stop working on it because they know how it will be used to twist people? I wish they would, honestly. I think there are areas in which the risks outweigh the benefits. And yet people don't stop. They still do it.
What Black Mirror brings into clear relief is that human nature doesn't change because of technology. The ways in which we can exercise human nature do, but people have always been and always will be people. There is nothing new that a technology creates inside humans. It only creates new ways for people to flex their will. The desperate ugliness of humans using other people's suffering for entertainment in "White Bear"--and exonerating ourselves of anything like blame because, hey! the person was a bad person! this is just justice, you know!--is just exactly like people throughout the millenia throughout the world gathering and watching public executions like they're entertainment. The human desire to cling to what we've lost instead of learning to live without it, like in "Be Right Back," is equally present in parents turning their dead children's rooms into shrines or ancestor worship. All of these things are in us already, and we display them generation after generation. All that really changes is how we do that. And Black Mirror knows that more than any other show I've ever seen.
Sidebar: At first glance "Fifteen Million Merits" appears to be the odd man out. It's the most "futuristic" looking, the most sci-fi-y. But I really think that "White Bear" is the anomaly. All the others were horrifying because you knew exactly what was coming (if not in the particulars, certainly in the generalities). You had a clear view down the road of the episode, and you knew the darkness you were headed for, and that is its own kind of horror. But "White Bear" pulled the rug out from under me. I don't think it's my favorite episode or even the most important one, but it is the one that shocked me the most. I was deeply confused during the first 2/3 of the episode; up until now, the show had been all about, as I said, individual choices, not technology as an out-there force, but technology as a tool used by human souls. "White Bear" seemed not to be. It was terrifying, sure, but it didn't have that overwhelming sense of Free Will hovering over everything that the others did, and that created a sense of distance between me and the episode: I could not figure out how this fit in with the others.
As it turns out, it fits in with the others perfectly, but you don't know that till the big twist 2/3 through the episode. It was a positively shocking plottwist. I did not see it coming. And yet it was not a plot twist for its own sake. There's nothing wrong with those, but the majority of huge plot twists in our media are there for drama's sake. This one served a completely different purpose, and that was purpose was to get past our prejudices.
When Ursula LeGuin was writing her Earthsea series, she purposefully didn't reveal till well into the first book that the main character was a man of color, not white. She wanted to give white readers a chance to live in this guy's head before she revealed that fact; she knew that if white readers had known Ged wasn't white right off the bat, they would have manufactured a distance between themselves and the character that didn't have to be there. By choosing to hold off on letting us know that conversation, she ensured that by the time we found out he was a man of color, we were already so close to him that we couldn't manufacture that distance.
That was a 'trick' created to sneak around prejudice. "White Bear" does the same, only it's much more vital here. If we knew from the beginning that Victoria had helped to murder a child and that this was all just a perverse 'justice' operation, we would have been grossed out at people turning it into entertainment--A THEME PARK. BROOKER IS A GENIUS--but many of us would have been thinking, "Well, the entertainment stuff is gross, but it's actually a kind of fitting punishment for this person since she's bad." It would have allowed us to label Victoria from the beginning as bad, creating a distance between us. By not telling us who she is, we don't have that 'bad' label creating distance between us: we identify with her immediately, plunging fully into her perspective in a way that we would never allow ourselves otherwise. If we'd known she was a criminal, we would have held back. We would have been observers. Since we don't know that, though, we could relate to her, latch onto her, and enter into the action and emotions completely via her perspective. That was vital not only to making the episode work emotionally, but it also ends up raising a question that would not be as pressing in other circumstances: are there punishments so terrible that not even people who have done horrific things deserve to go through them?
If we had been viewing Victoria at a distance for the whole episode, our focus would have been on the audience and how gross their actions are. Victoria would have become a cipher there instead of a person. But because we see her as a person before we see her as a murderer, the question then becomes: is it wrong to have this be her punishment? You can argue that it's far less than she deserves--she doesn't have to die like the girl she watched be killed. Often when I think of evil people, I wish the sort of things they'd done would happen to them, so they would have to suffer as their victims suffered. This seems like justice: the punishment fitting the crime on a very literal level. And yet because we see Victoria as a person, it seems wrong. Inhumane. It's a stunningly-crafted episode, and I'm going to be turning the questions it raises over and over in my mind for years.
Sidebar number two: I think the one misstep the show made was the little coda at the end of "The Waldo Moment." It became too futuristic and made Waldo's untouchableness too literal. That was the one part of the show that didn't work for me.
Frankly, I think Charlie Brooker is a genius. I think this show is genius. I think it should be required viewing for any and every media studies student. While my reaction to the stories it contains is usually revulsion or horror, my reaction to the show itself is sort of giddy, because it uses media so brilliantly to critique media. That's hard to do. But that's the essence of this show. And it's amazing.