A while back I watched the most recent episodes of Black Mirror– the third in a series of dark and unnerving tales depicting the unfortunate endeavors of individuals living in a dystopian future, written by Charlie Brooker. Here are my thoughts.
Having seen the two previous series, I knew what I was getting into preparing to watch these six new episodes released in October on Netflix. I was excited for the scenarios Charlie Brooker had concocted and what kind of insidious technologies would be implemented as a catalyst to unravel his sadistic tales. For it’s the undeniable trademark of this series- there are rarely happy endings.
This is a refreshing deviation away from the sucrose and vapid mainstream media productions usually offered to us for consumption. Not to sound too cynical, there is a lot of thought provoking and original content being produced, but I consider Black Mirror to be engaging in a unique way.
I think that this stems from the fact that the characters in most episodes are typically relatable people whose actions and emotions seem justified regarding their horrific circumstances at the mercy of sinister technologies. You can’t help but empathize with these people in a world so similar to our own, but with an underlying unease which as it manifests itself through promising futuristic innovations, seems all the more unsettling against the stark realism of their environment.
This is definitely the case in the episode “Shut Up and Dance” in which a young man is blackmailed by anonymous hackers who access and threaten to release incriminating footage of his online browsing habits to the world. This episode shines when it comes to brilliant writing and acting for although the premise is fairly simple, the ramifications pack an incredible punch. As we’re introduced to the protagonist- a teenager called Kenny- we can’t help but empathize with and pity the character; he works a menial, unrewarding job and is picked on by his colleagues. His attitude and general demeanor imply a sense of hopelessness and I was curious as to how this character would develop throughout the episode.
A major theme of this whole series is the loss of control over actions or consciousness at the mercy of a malicious, usually anonymous antagonist with access to invasive technologies. In “Shut Up and Dance” the empathy we feel for Kenny developed in those few opening scenes draws us into his dilemma as he is held ransom for a relatively and seemingly benign act. As he is coerced more and more into following orders and carrying out requests against his will, there builds an evocative sense of dread for what might come next. The acting in this episode is superb. When Kenny meets Hector, an older man also being blackmailed who makes a concerted effort to regain control of the situation, he gains a disturbing perspective. While driving Hector describes the extent of the blackmail and the access the hackers have and Kenny, realising the scale of his predicament and its consequences, gradually falls apart. This is subtle but exquisitely acted and powerfully demonstrates the urgency and desperation of the character, and in terms of losing control, further escalates the feeling of helplessness opposite a world shattering revelation and a faceless foe. This comes to its precipice at the end of the episode when Kenny tries to take his own life by shooting himself in the head. However the gun he’s been given has no bullets and its apparent in this moment that even the sovereignty of his own existence, the deal of death has been taken off the table and the ultimate escape he craves is gone. He must remain in this hell that has befallen him. He must face the consequences of his sins.
This is one take on the idea of losing all control and characters being manipulated into performing egregious acts against their will (the episode “The National Anthem” a grim example also), but Black Mirror also explores the dangers of tampering with the human psyche and the vague conditions under which people are willing to hand over control of their consciousness. The episode “Playtest” approaches this through the use of virtual reality in gaming. VR is becoming more popular as the medium of gaming evolves and the immersion aspect of the pastime is becoming more complex in its innovations. The ill-fated protagonist in this episode- a man named Cooper- hands over his mind to be tested for a VR horror experience. In this case though, it is not the human element but the technology itself which hijacks its victim, taking the character prisoner.
What’s so interesting about this episode in my opinion is the way in which it exposes the fragility of the human mind and how we handle our anxieties and fears. At the start of the episode, Cooper leaves his home and travels the world, ignoring his responsibilities regarding the relationship with his mother who is constantly trying to contact him. Virtual reality is in a sense an escape, a way in which the player can distract themselves, putting off the problems and stress of real life through a purely immersive experience. What this episode demonstrates beautifully though is that those problems and insecurities are still there, lurking in the subconscious mind demanding resolution.
Cooper is implanted with a small device referred to as “the mushroom”, which interprets his own fears and projects them in the form of a horror gaming experience. What struck me is the idea of the mushroom as a symbol for exploring consciousness and dissolving internal boundaries, getting to the root of the psyche and stripping away all sensory illusion. People who have experimented with psychedelic substances often say that mushrooms (specifically psilocybin) has the overwhelming effect of indescribable introspection, a literal journey to the core of the human experience. Virtual reality as it is imagined in this episode parallels this idea in the way that it uses fear to force the character to come to terms with his own reality by manipulating his mind through a horrific ordeal. At first, small visual cues subconsciously picked up early in the episode manifest themselves in the form of apparitions and grotesque beasts, then progress into deeper and more tangible hallucinations until finally the character is met with his greatest confrontation and underlying fear- returning home to his mother. Although all is not as it seems and the effect of the experience is much more complex than we suspect, with disastrous results.
This episode is an interesting one to re-watch, to take note of details that present themselves significantly in retrospect, but the fascinating element is of the mind in relation to reality: how we interpret time, the lasting effect of negative experiences and the ways in which we avoid emotional responsibility. Virtual reality may be a form of escapism and immersion into another world, but our mind is ever present whether we like it or not; a complex, perpetual maelstrom of fear and doubt trying to come to terms with itself, one which we can never truly escape.
Except in death.
When it comes to the idea of control, of how we strive for security and safety in the knowledge that we are in control of who we are and what we do, the one unknowable mystery that eludes us is death.
The episode “San Junipero” has its characters battle with this concept in a beautiful display of romance as they dance on the line between life and death. It takes place in a simulation of a beach town and party spot in the 1980’s. A shy and hesitant girl named Yorkie slowly becomes entranced by the place, its sounds and sights and people; a girl named Kelly shines on the dancefloor of a local club and in time they become lovers. As we learn that the place is indeed a simulation- a place in which people have the opportunity to relive their youth and prolong the arrival of death- the scope of their situation is made apparent and the difficulty of the choices they’re forced to make becomes clear- to remain comfortably suspended in time together or submit to the finality and uncertainty of death.
I’ll cut to the chase as to what my reaction was to this episode. I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to feel, but what I did feel was an unsettling sense of angst, and what surprised me was other people’s reaction to the ending. In the end, Yorkie and Kelly remain together in the heavenly simulation, lovers forever whose fates are interconnected beyond the physical realm. Great.
Or not, because during the end credits there is a short clip of a robotic arm placing Kelly’s “hard drive”- her consciousness in San Junipero- next to Yorkie’s. What we then see is a warehouse filled with these capsules, blinking lights stacked upon one another, each a soul residing in their own humble ideal- their version of heaven. To me, this was a wait, what? moment at the end of a feel-good episode saturated with the sounds and styles, fashion, colours and vibes of a time long gone, but fondly remembered. It’s evident in the response to the episode that there is a yearning for nostalgia and the idea of traveling back to what seems like a perfect moment in time. But to take that further to the point of rejecting death- handing over all control of your afterlife to an entity created by man and controlled by man, and for this to be considered an appropriate outcome, a “happy ending”- is absurd and telling of people’s fear of the unknown. None of us knows what occurs when we cease to exist on this earth- what happens when the universe takes over- but what we choose not to acknowledge is that death is a natural part of life. Denial doesn’t change this, and I can’t think of a worse hell than reliving the same moment continuously, eternally, contending with the same issues and human folly in limbo, my soul contained in a hard drive under the control of a faceless corporation. Even if they do serve booze there.
Is the ultimate control- that of immortality- worth never knowing what awaits us on the other side?
So that’s my long winded ramble on the third series of Black Mirror. I do love this show and I think its genius is in exploring these major themes and asking a lot of the viewer in the way it relates to our use of technology and our reliance and trust in entities that we don’t fully understand. I saw an interview with Charlie Brooker in which he stated his love for tech and its uses and that the series isn’t supposed to be disparaging of technical innovations, that he welcomes the inevitable evolution of ever more pervasive and pioneering invention in all its forms. This series presents the human element in the formula, takes our worst fears and vulnerabilities and exposes them; reminds us that they’re real and that no matter how advanced the technology or complex the distraction, the true terror lies within that reflection when the screen goes black.
If you are reading this then I assume you took the time to read all of the above, and if you did then thank you! I really do love this series and was inspired to share my response, but in getting started I realised it wouldn’t be easy. I had some trouble articulating some of the thoughts I’d intended to elaborate on but I’m happy with the outcome. So if you did take the time to read my ramblings then thanks again, I appreciate it, and I intend to produce more towards this little blog of mine. Until next time!