The title of this post is a bit of a lie. I did not binge Black Mirror. In fact, I never watched more than one episode per sitting. The reason for this is that the show disturbs me so deeply that I could only handle it in small doses. A few times I put on an episode of Friends right after, just to take me back to an innocent, happy place where phones were gigantic and life was less terrifying.
Black Mirror is a British anthology series that is essentially a satire of modern and future society, specifically focusing on the dark side of technology. Some episodes could take place today, while others focus on specific technological advancements that, if we’re being honest, may not be too far off. There have been seven installments thus far, all unrelated to each other. The show is expertly made. It is disturbing on a psychological level and each episode features a very high-quality crop of British (and in a few cases not British, oh hi Jon Hamm!) actors. While a few episodes fell a bit flat for me, others knocked my socks off so thoroughly that it made up for it.
My favorite episode is “The Entire History of You,” which features technology called a “grain,” a tiny device implanted behind a person’s ear that records everything they do, see, and hear. People also have the ability to rewind and play back these memories, either in their mind or on a screen. The episode includes several examples of practical applications of this technology- for example, TSA agents can ask passengers to rewind their last couple of days before allowing them to board a plane. All of that is just fine, but when it comes to people’s personal lives, this ability to obsess over the past even more than humans already tend to do can be catastrophic. We see these consequences play out for a man who becomes convinced his wife is cheating on him. For me, the entire concept of this episode just blew me away. If this technology existed, I can clearly see how it would cause most productivity to cease because people (likely myself included) would spend all of their time revisiting past transgressions, happy moments, questionable decisions, seemingly mundane interactions- all of it would be at everyone’s fingertips to analyze to death. The reason this episode hit so close to home for me is because it played into an existing human flaw- the tendency to live in the past rather than in the present.
My second favorite episode is “Be Right Back,” in which a young woman whose husband is killed signs up for a service that “recreates” her husband by compiling everything he has ever posted on social media in order to provide her with an entity who speaks just like him to communicate with. As you can imagine, this quickly spirals out of control, and the final scene from this episode has stuck with me more than anything else from the series. This one made me think about a few different things. For starters, so many of us DO have such extensive presences on social media that is is not implausible that a passable imitation of the way we communicate could be created from analyzing that data. One of my favorite points the episode makes, however, is that there are certain aspects of a person’s personality that cannot be duplicated with any technology, and any imitation is always going to be slightly off. The other thing is that I can imagine many people choosing to utilize a service like this if it existed. Once again, it plays into a very human thing, which is grief and a reluctance to let go of what is gone.
Much has been written about the episode “White Bear,” which I am specifically going to avoid discussing in detail since it relies heavily on a few key plot twists I do not wish to spoil. While I understood what it was going for, this episode does not rank among my favorites because I felt it relied primarily on shock value rather than on exploring how technology could potentially fill a psychological need. The first episode, “The National Anthem,” features the Prime Minister of Britain being blackmailed into performing a highly disturbing act on live television to ensure the safe return of a kidnapped princess. This episode does not involve any technology we do not already have. Although unrealistic, it is technically possible that this scenario COULD happen today. It is about the public’s obsession with media frenzies, and perhaps the most abstract, non-specific exploration of the effects of technology the show has to offer. While there is something to be said for the relatability of this approach, I also felt this one relied a bit too heavily on shock value.
My third favorite episode is probably “Fifteen Million Merits,” which takes place in a society where people have been reduced to drones who pedal exercise bikes to generate power. The only real way to escape this mundane lifestyle is to earn enough points to buy a ticket to audition for an X-Factor-esque reality show to have the chance to become a star. This episode is rooted in a very human story, is simultaneously sad and sweet, and also features Sybil from Downton Abbey singing. The two most recent episodes are “The Waldo Moment,” which features a fictional animated character running for office, and the Christmas special “White Christmas,” which stars Jon Hamm and explores, amongst other things, terrifying technology that allows people to “block” others in real life as you would on Facebook. Just take a moment to imagine if that really existed.
Black Mirror should perhaps begin every episode with a disclaimer that what you are about to see may make you want to throw your cell phone in the toilet, unplug your computer, and go live off the land a la Ron Swanson for the rest of your time on this earth. Technology can be damn scary, folks, and this show is an expertly crafted examination of just how scary it already is and could become. It was recently announced that a US adaptation is in the works, which I find to be the most ridiculously unnecessary idea ever. Just go watch the British version, but don’t blame me for your nightmares.