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The Shallow Reflection of Black Mirror

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I don’t know why I keep watching Black Mirror. It’s a well-produced show with unique story ideas that attracts ace talent for some fantastic performances. But nearly every episode has been a wholly unpleasant viewing experience.

Black Mirror is an episodic anthology series that, in the vein of shows like the Twilight Zone, tells a different story each episode, each taking place in a slightly different version of the near future. It explores repercussions of technologies that we’re not far from developing today and what effect they may have on our relationships, our culture and the way we experience ourselves and the world. In particular, it’s preoccupied with the evolution of social media, and the dark turns it can take us on.

Let me say first, I am all about the integration of humanity and technology in stories. I’ve been into cyberpunk since before I knew what it was called. I love robots, artificial intelligence, people who aren’t really people, cybernetics, cyborgs, if your show’s got it, I’ll watch it. But with all of Black Mirror’s speculative abilities, it says very little about man and technology. It’s mostly about man and how awful we can be, and when we’re given the opportunity through technology, we’ll become, well, even more awful.

Jealousy. Longing. Isolation. These are the recurring themes that run through Black Mirror, and I find myself reminded of the patronizing think pieces about “selfies” and “the Me Generation” that have been printed in the past couple of years. Implants that allow you to record your entire life, software where you can block someone in the real world, a pickup artist coach who literally watches his student’s attempt to get a date through his own eyes – all of these are exaggerations of social media and our culture today. And like the claims that Facebook is isolating us from each other, and Instagram is allowing us to portray a false version of ourselves, Black Mirror seems to insist that the furthering of these technologies will only drive us further apart, and into a hole of ethical decay.

(Spoilers ahead)

In the third episode of the first season, The Entire History of You, we see a world where everyone has ocular implants that record everything they see and experience. Briefly, a very interesting conversation occurs between two dinner party guests, where one woman explains why she didn’t get her implant replaced after it was stolen. She said she felt happier and freer without it. Another woman seems downright disgusted at the notion, asking her how she can trust her own memories when she doesn’t have an objective record. It’s a fascinating discussion about the malleability of our own memories and how technology affects the structure of our minds.

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But it doesn’t last long. The episode centers around a husband who becomes obsessed with his wife’s relationship with an ex-lover of hers, replaying the recordings of their every interaction, overanalyzing each moment she glances vaguely in his direction. One could argue that despite the objective recording of this man’s life, he still was overwhelmed by his biases and saw what he wanted to see, and thus we have our story about how even with advanced technology, there is no objective experience. Except that it turns that he was right. His wife was stepping out on him, and not only that but his child wasn’t his. So his paranoia and violence blows up his marriage, and with the reveal of his child’s true parentage, he loses his family entirely. Yes, I chose to spend an hour watching this.

The technology, the supposed objectivity of the implant, didn’t destroy this marriage – it was the character’s own anger and paranoia. The technology was merely a vehicle to which he used to justify his actions, but the story could have easily played at out the same without it.

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That’s another thing that I’m starting to notice about this show – a recurring pattern of unfaithful, nagging women, and explosive barely controlled men. Repeatedly men’s possessiveness over the women in their lives is justified in some way or another, while the women eventually just vanish as a part of the consequences of men’s actions. In Fifteen Million Credits, one of the few stories that doesn’t rely on narrative tropes like jealousy and possessiveness, there is still a heavily paternalistic slant. It features a young man who lives in a strange isolated world that is nothing but media consumption and creation who attempts to help a young woman who he cares for. He gets her onto a talent show, but instead of becoming a singer like he hoped, she gets pulled into pornography. Her fate becomes his punishment, as he’s forced to see advertisements of her work, until finally he figures out a way to become a media creator himself. The fact that he doesn’t save her elevates the episode, proving his desire to control and change her situation was feeble and naïve. But even so, her story is mainly a consequence of his, and while they both have little control over their lives, her autonomy is minuscule within the narrative.

Undoubtedly the show’s standout episode is Be Right Back of the second season, which stars Haley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson as a young married couple, Martha and Ash. Ash dies suddenly in a car accident, and Martha in her grief begins to rely on a digital recreation of him based on data collected from his social media accounts. The relationship between Martha and artificial Ash progresses from texting, to phone calls, to eventually her ordering a physical manifestation of him with the AI programmed in. She gets her husband back. Except that she doesn’t. This is an episode that actually explores personhood in an age of artificial intelligence, as well as how AI affects people emotionally and psychologically. It’s also the only episode that’s entirely from a woman’s perspective.

The only other episode that’s centered around a woman is White Bear, my least favorite episode. In White Bear, a woman wakes alone with no memory in a dystopian world where a mysterious signal has turned everyone into constant voyeurs, wandering around with their smartphones in front of them recording everything, while those unaffected are brutally hunted down. It’s the most Twilight Zone-esque of episodes, aside from Fifteen Million Credits, as its pure satire, or it seems to be at first anyway. But as it turns out this “dystopia” is actually a ruse. The entire ordeal is a form of bizarre punishment for the woman at the center of it, who apparently once was involved in the killing of a child which she recorded on her phone. Every day her memory is wiped, and every day she is put through the ordeal again, while people look on and get off on her torture.

I honestly do not know what the point of an episode like that is. Repeatedly, throughout Black Mirror people are met with punishments that are inhumanly cruel. The show does seem to be keenly aware of how incensed people get when crimes are committed against children, but the show’s creators do not seem to be commenting on society’s tendency to crave cruel punishment for heinous crimes. They just seem to be giving us an outlet for it.

I understand the desire to create a show like Black Mirror, and the premise of it is fascinating. However, instead of using speculative fiction as a means to push against today’s social mores, it seems to be using our most basic instincts and prejudices to tell overly bleak and cynical stories. I hate to ever accuse a piece of art of going for the “shock factor” but I absolutely think that Black Mirror is disturbing just for the sake of being disturbing. The questions it raises about technology and social media are mostly shallow, and each episode seems to just put the viewer through grueling trials with little emotional or philosophical pay off. Bluntly put, its patriarchal trash dressed up like art house.

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If you want to watch a show about social media, technology, isolation and loneliness I cannot more highly recommend Mr Robot, instead. It is an exquisite, exciting, deeply moving show with excellent female characters, honest portrayals of mental illness, queer representation, and a lead that is a person of color. Not to mention jaw-dropping twists. On the speculative fiction side, Humans is another great alternative that’s also from the UK. I have some issues with Humans, in that I don’t think it takes the autonomy and individuality of robotic consciousness far enough, but it is a thoughtful, well-crafted show.

Television is getting slicker, more sophisticated, and more ambitious every day. Great directors and writers are moving to the long form medium and doing extraordinary things. There are a lot of pretty faces out there right now and Black Mirror may look the part, but ultimately it’s a juvenile attempt at creating thought-provoking art. It relies on old-fashioned, sexist story tropes and shock factor to titillate and make its audience think it has watched something profound, because why else would you make a show so unsettling unless it had something to say?

Seriously, if you’re going to watch something that fucked up, you might as well have some fun with it and watch American Horror Story instead.

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2 thoughts on “The Shallow Reflection of Black Mirror

  1. This commentary is so relevant, especially in light of the new season. The seeming arbitrariness of the inclusion of child pornography in the 3rd episode of S3 is a perfect example of what you’re talking about, something that robs the show of the profoundness of ambiguity and makes it a celebration of merciless vindictiveness.

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