Through the dark glass
Netflix’s ‘Black Mirror’ is ‘The Twilight Zone’ for our tech-obsessed times
In the opening moments of the first episode of the first season of Black Mirror, the British prime minister, Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear), is woken in the early hours, and the news is bad. Princess Susannah, a much-loved member of the royal family, has been kidnapped, and she will be executed unless one very specific event occurs: the prime minister must fuck a pig, live on television. Black Mirror is a series that announced itself.
Created by Charlie Brooker (Dead Set, Screenwipe) and first broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2011, the show was in a sense a modernisation of – or at the very least a hat-tip to – the original Twilight Zone (1959–64). That series broke free from the theatrical stiffness of much of 1950s television drama fare, offering a new flexibility and a willingness to let its writers go to audacious places. Some of those episodes are considered iconic: in ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, air traveller Bob Wilson (William Shatner) thinks he sees a gremlin interfering with the wiring out on the wing of the plane – everyone else thinks Wilson is insane. In ‘Time Enough at Last’, timid, put-upon bank teller and bookworm Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) emerges from the bank vault, where he spends his lunch hours reading, into a city suddenly razed by nuclear war. His only solace is the endless reading time that now stretches before him – until he breaks his glasses.
Black Mirror inhabits a similar temporal realm to The Twilight Zone – it’s the present with a twist, or the very near future. Where The Twilight Zone (like its descendant, The X-Files) leaned regularly into the supernatural, Black Mirror’s purview is to stick very close to matters technological. Its episodes exhibit a wide diversity of storylines, yet the show is quite specifically, and consistently, about a revolution: the one we’ve been engulfed in since 20-somethings Bill Gates and Steve Jobs started tinkering in garages and giving birth to the motherboards that would change the earth, and us on it. We’ve been hurtling towards the Singularity ever since.
In its three seasons thus far, Black Mirror takes the form of an archipelago of tonally similar standalone dramas. Each is distinct, with its own rules and features. Yet each episode, each island, sits in the same waters: technology and the ubiquity of social media – all pushed forward, often by just a fraction. It’s good television, in the sense that it’s coherent, rounded, well written. Some episodes really sparkle and surprise, and even the ones that linger less in memory are in no way failures. ‘White Bear’ (season two), in which a woman who wakes with neither memory nor context has to piece together her bewildering circumstances, is a nicely calibrated exercise in paranoia-ratcheting. ‘White Christmas’, the 2014 standalone episode that ran after an 18-month hiatus and is perhaps the most fully realised episode so far, stars Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as two men seemingly holed up in some kind of Arctic research station, sharing a Christmas lunch, as well as something of their personal histories. The operative word, with Charlie Brooker, is “seemingly”. As in many of the other episodes, we’re in a brave new world of realities – augmented and otherwise – and psychological experiences wrought by neural implantation and manipulation.
For the third season, now airing, Netflix has taken over the running after an apparent stoush (read: bidding war) with a now-disgruntled Channel 4. Judging by the first four episodes, the transition seems smooth enough, with the same overall Brookeresque intelligence governing proceedings. The first episode, ‘Nosedive’, a status anxiety nightmare, turns the dial of people’s increasing reliance on social media from 10 to 11 and lets loose a well-paced, if slightly broad and over-obvious, “cascading catastrophe” narrative. (At times in Black Mirror you can’t help but wonder if some of the ways that it parodies and pillories the new technology will one day date, like a 1940s comedy about the zany problems that ensue from the opening of a new small-town telephone exchange.)
Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a young woman with a decent enough tech job and, like everyone else, a hyper-awareness of the smallest downward or upward trends on shared media, whereby even the tiniest interactions with strangers result in people pointing their devices and rating the other from zero to five, as part of an interpersonal user-review system. Lacie hovers around a 4.2, and yearns for greater popularity, which in this world, of course, really means visibility. She’s looking to rent an apartment in a new “lifestyle development” – it’s expensive, but there’s a 20% discount if you’re a 4.5 or above and can thus join the “Prime Influencers” program. (Lacie’s brother, scoffing at the images in the development’s prospectus: “A two-year-old with a fucking balloon isn’t this happy!”)
Lacie’s problem, according to a consultant at the scale-upping firm Reputelligent, to which she rushes forthwith, is that most of her friends are 4.2-ish types like her. “Ideally you need up-votes from quality people,” the consultant says. “But don’t try too hard – high-4s can smell it a mile off.” Lacie opts for a fallback that anyone who’s ever looked at an Instagram post will be familiar with: curated authenticity. Carefully posed photos of her childhood doll Mr Rags give Lacie a little aww, cute!-style upward trending, but it’s not enough to move the needle to where she wants it to be.
Hope arrives in the form of Lacie’s childhood best friend, Naomie (Alice Eve), a 4.8, who asks Lacie, for old times’ sake, to be maid of honour at her wedding. A series of small events will compound into a rapid downward descent for Lacie, of course – a kind of nosedive with nosebleed. It’s a pastel society – literally, in the episode’s colour palette, as well as metaphorically – and actual interactions in this world (all overtly fear-based, and subject to crushing status penalties) tend to be docile, careful.
“If I do well,” says Lacie, midway through her fall from grace and panicking at the loss of face, “I’ll hit high-4s. So that velocitates my arc, and once they lift the point penalty, well then my average goes way up. Yeah, it’s going to be OK.” The episode’s screenwriters, Rashida Jones and Mike Schur, enjoy playing with this kind of non-language. The episode might carry a slightly too clichéd vision of a passive-aggressive, anodyne future that will suffocate us all – it’s a very privileged-looking world, too – and in the early stages director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) seems to be trying to find his rhythm. But in the end his voice breaks through, and the episode delivers a beautifully surreal, language-liberating payoff.
In the second episode, ‘Playtest’, Cooper (Wyatt Russell) – a backpacker in need of some cash – signs up to test a new “immersive” gaming platform. “Nothing you see can touch or harm you,” he’s told, before entering the mock haunted-house “set”. “It’s purely audio-visual. There’s no physical sensation.”
Well, yes. Until there is. ‘Playtest’, less earnest than some of the other Black Mirror episodes, is fun because of and not despite burying its technology narrative beneath a satire on horror-movie tropes. “He’s going to be right behind this door when I close it, isn’t he?” says Cooper, raiding a kitchen cupboard, communicating via earpiece with the observer. “Yeah. That’s how this works. Knew it.” And later, trying to follow instructions to get to an exit point from the game, fearing what’s around every corner: “Oh, fuck – more stairs? Come on!”
The third episode, ‘Shut Up and Dance’, offsets the humour of ‘Playtest’ with a dark and disturbing tale about malware, in which a tawdry blackmail scam cuts its victims very little slack. “We’re talking years,” says Hector (Jerome Flynn), a seedy businessman, to Kenny (Alex Lawther), a gormless teenager, about why they must do the untenable thing they’re about to do. “The pictures hang about on Google like a Gypsy fucking curse. There’s no cure for the internet. It would never go away. It would be glued to your name. Like a fucking stain on you.”
At moments the episode feels like an updated version of Harold Pinter’s one-act play The Dumb Waiter (1957), in which malign forces offstage unhinge and unsettle, degree by degree, the characters onstage. In ‘Shut Up and Dance’, the scam’s targets propel the episode’s urgent, complex plot. Characters must pass on information (or contraband, or logistical help), and everyone becomes enmeshed in a daisy chain of complicity from which the unseen perpetrators stand apart. “I’m an all right bloke, really,” says Hector to Kenny. “I swear I am. When stuff’s normal.” “Normal” is a place Black Mirror likes to visit only very sparingly.
Episode 4, ‘San Junipero’, presents itself as a 1980s teen drama. It’s quite some way into the episode before you realise that the teen-relationship angst between shy Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and sassy Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is merely the surface under which Brooker (who wrote this episode) explores a far more interesting submerged narrative of neural nets, belief in an afterlife, cloud uploading and “immersive nostalgia therapy”.
But the shy girl–confident girl tale is not a false narrative; it just takes on, as the fuller story unfolds, layers of added poignancy. Brooker has many talents, not least of which is that he’s a very good breadcrumb man, a disperser of subtle hints to help us find our way. (The problem in ‘Nosedive’ might be that writers Jones and Schur are not scattering hints so much as planting signposts.) “Hey – golden age, right?” says a young man to Yorkie while playing Pac-Man. You could almost miss the line. But why would someone say something like that in the ’80s? “Please tell me you’ve got your pain slider set to zero,” says Kelly to Yorkie, elsewhere. These little jarrings of the surface narrative are like, yes, glitches in the matrix of Black Mirror’s plot lines. When they work – when they pop ever so gently, and make you do a little double-take – they are part of this series’ subtle satisfactions.
Brooker can keep you so focused on the density of the plot and its forward momentum that you forget you’re experiencing a nagging unease – as if an imminent toothache is hovering just outside your consciousness. Hitchcock made that unease the background radiation of his films.
This season’s episodes burrow into our globalised, technologised imaginations, aiming to overturn, presumably, a little of the furniture in there, and in this moment of deep disquiet following the recent US election they have an unexpected new resonance. Brooker’s special skill, like Hitchcock’s, is to give form to our inchoate fears and fantasies.