WARNING: NOTHIN’ BUT SPOILERS AHEAD.
Credit where it’s due to Nerdwriter for pointing this out so succinctly, but the beauty of Black Mirror has always been that it doesn’t deliver catharsis.
His video explained it better, but it appears to have been removed from the internet. In short, Black Mirror is a tragedy that intentionally subverts the point of tragedy to make you feel super messed up, instead of the kind of emotional relief you would otherwise get.
Characters have flaws. They are punished for them. But the punishment does not fit the crime, and the punishment is not an inevitability of the flaw.
Tragedy also works best when we, the audience, have more information than the characters, and we can see them make decisions based on their incomplete information that we know will end horribly.
Ultimately, they make you say; “If only”. To know how things could have gone a different way.
If only Romeo knew Juliet had faked her death, he wouldn’t have ridden to her tomb to be with her. If only Juliet had woken sooner, then she could have stopped him. If only Romeo hadn’t killed himself for her, she would not have followed him.
It’s a tragedy and it feels awful, but from knowing and experiencing that awfulness you come away feeling… cleansed. Like the emotional equivalent of a massage that hurts like a bitch, but makes you feel great a few hours later.
Black Mirror doesn’t give you that, and it’s brilliant for it.
The ultimate Black Mirror episode for me, as a guide, is the episode “The Entire History of You”, the finale of the first season.
A big component of Black Mirror at its best is that technology is neither good nor evil, but a tool. It’s how that tool interacts with humanity that drives its stories. The stories themselves are inherently tragic, and the tools simply… change it. Make a familiar tragedy unfamiliar to us.
The tool of this episode is a recording device which, at will, allows you to recall anything you’ve seen with perfect clarity. You can re-experience your memories perfectly.
A man suspects his wife is cheating on him. At a dinner party, she laughs at another man’s jokes, but not his own. He proves it to himself by playing memory of a dinner party to himself again, and again, and again, picking up small details each time, showing her.
Then he starts analyzing other memories, older ones, and scrutinizing them more intently, more self-destructively.
He’s obviously obsessive and paranoid. His obsession and paranoia drives him to stalking the other man, invading his home. He holds a knife to the other man’s throat and forces him to show him the memories of his wife where… it turns out his wife was cheating on him for a long time. Then he notices the colour of his eyes.
He drives home. He gets in a confrontation with his wife. He forces her to play the memories back for him. Looks into the other man’s eyes.
They’re the same colour as his infant son’s. And the times match up.
He is not his son’s father.
It’s tragic, but it’s not a tragedy. But where’s the “If Only” here?
If only he hadn’t… what? Hadn’t obsessively, in his paranoia, comb through his memories and studied them and scrutinize them, hadn’t driven himself to self-destruction… His wife still cheated on him. His child was still not his child. That dinner where he finally picked up on the clues still bothered him, and would have damaged the trust of the relationship over a much longer timescale.
The character’s flaws do lead to the destruction of his relationship and his happiness. But it’s not his actions that instigate this downfall, merely reveal what has already happened, completely removed from his flaws.
There is no catharsis. If he had done anything differently, if he hadn’t been obsessive and self-destructive, his story would still end in the same misery, maybe drawn out over long years instead.
That is Black Mirror at its finest. That story sits heavy in your gut and leaves you unsettled and awful for years after watching it, and I say that to its utmost credit.
After the near-universally beloved “San Junipero”, Black Mirror appears to have gone for a lighter touch this season, which I believe will give it far more mainstream appeal but has… well, blunted its pointed shards. I don’t think that’s for the better, if you’re a fan of the show’s original ideal.
San Junipero worked because it provided contrast against the rest of the series. The positive twist worked because of how starkly it stood out against the larger body of work. The expectation that the show couldn’t do that, even. It’s not something that’s effectively repeated, because you’ve forever changed the context that made it effective.
Let’s start with the first episode, USS Callister
The USS Callister is… honestly, kind of a retread of an earlier episode, White Christmas, done dumber. I mostly enjoyed it watching it, but it falls apart like crete paper under a running tap when I spend any time thinking of how to explain it.
There is a brilliant programmer who designs an immersive VR MMO called ‘Infinity’, based on his love of classic Star Trek. Huge nerd. In real life he’s quiet, reserved, but intense. No spine, can’t say how he feels.
At home he has a DNA scanner hooked up to his own bootleg modded build of the game, an offline singleplayer version, that’s entirely modded to be Kirk-era Star Trek. Except the admin guide is a copy of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which is homaged liberally.
You see, when he doesn’t like someone in his office, he takes a sample of their DNA, uploads them into the game as a full virtual-mind copy of themselves, and then tortures them into complying with being an NPC in his game.
The next list of problems should not be considered plotholes, but what I personally believe are representative of either lazy writing, or just… opportunities to have told a much better, more interesting story than the one we’re presented with from the same setup.
First, all their memories, their personages, he’s getting from saliva samples. Bullshit.
Second, why does he torture them? Why is that fun for him? I get that it’s a power fantasy, but it’s such a shitty, inefficient way to have a power fantasy. It’s not even good power fantasy. He’s trying to roleplay as Kirk. That’s real unfulfilling roleplay when you know your crew despises you and your enemy just wants to be let to die.
It’s not even that I don’t get it. It’s just that it frustrates me how boring and one-dimensional the direction they chose to take this was.
Third, why doesn’t he just modify them? Like, they’re virtual minds stored on his desktop and he’s a brilliant coder. Why can’t he tweak values? If this is a petty bully with a power fantasy, choosing the brute force route just seems…
It makes the villain here unrelatable. It distances you from the actual nightmare of the situation somewhat by making him so comically, unnecessarily cruel. When you can’t really empathize with his motives so much, because of that, it makes the episode way more boring.
And what, is the idea of a virtual mind being edited in real time, knowing it’s being edited and being powerless to stop the eradication of its free will, not worse?
Fourth, the virtual minds continue when he’s stopped the game. Why?! What’s the point of them running in the background? It’s never explained.
Fifth, he has a crush on a girl in the office and he fucking puts her in this torture box and No Mouths her… That is the least interesting way this could have gone. Why didn’t he make a VR dating sim with copies of her, to see what did and didn’t work? Why didn’t we see a story about him falling in love with a copy of her, that was totally divergent to the real her? Or just emphasize he’s just creepy and lonely as opposed to cartoonishly evil. Juxtapose that to the torturebox even, to show that it’s power fantasy as opposed to just “Shitty Human Being is Shit”.
Sixth, or making virtual copies of himself to help him figure out how to have more of a spine and grow as a person. Honest and frank conversations with virtual versions of himself that are identical, but outside the situation and aware of their Meseeks-like existence. God that’d be so much more interesting.
Seventh, after the reveal of the twist, he starts being an asshole in real life when he wasn’t before. Why not show the conflict by having him be nice and kind in the real world, and only an asshole to his virtual stressballs, to show the ethics confusion of it, reinforce that he just thinks they’re ‘not real people’, and it’s no less morally dubious than burning a picture you drew of someone.
Eighth, he’s a God with admin rights in his game, but the ending hinges on him having to act like a regular player and not having any admin powers.
But ninth! Ninth! It has a happy ending. The virtual minds pilot the ship out through a wormhole which was a connection to the new update, which scours his mods clean.
The offline, not connected game, which is a major plot point. And the confirmation of patch is piloting the ship to a physical in-game location.
Whatever. The asshole God is left sitting in a dead program unable to exit because… I dunno the game didn’t actually close to patch or something? And he can’t Alt-F4 out? Or whatever?
But the virtual minds escape. The asshole is punished. And the virtual minds now live in the Cloud. Because of course they do. “The Cloud” is to the late 2010’s what “Nuclear” was to the late 50’s and “Cyber” was to the mid 80’s. Magic.
God the more I think about the holes in the episode, and the wasted potential, the angrier I get.
It’s not a Black Mirror episode, though it shares a series. It’s just… it’s there.
And because of the sanitized approach, it has a fantastic IMDB score.
Let’s be far more positive though.
Arkangel, the second episode of the season, is perhaps the best Black Mirror episode of Black Mirror I’ve seen, in terms of how strongly it shows the ethos. It also has the season’s lowest IMDB rating.
There is a technology you can install in a child’s brain that hooks up to a tablet with parental control settings. You can get live feed from the child’s eyes, you can choose for their brain to censor out harmful or stressful things.
Already you start seeing tragedy elements. Ah ha! So they’re going to see something stressful and not know how to deal with it! Or grow up messed up, because they didn’t learn important tools, or-
Less than fifteen minutes in, the child’s grandfather has a heart attack in front of her. She censors it because it’s so stressful. Your brain starts screaming, oh no, she isn’t helping, her grandfather is going to die, and it’s going to be because-
The tablet alerts the single mother that her daughter is stressing out a lot. She checks the alert, can see the uncensored feed, and immediately calls an ambulance, which saves the grandfather’s life. The daughter didn’t have to fully experience a traumatic moment.
Oh. Well that’s… fair and reasonable.
The daughter gets older. She starts stabbing herself with scissors because she’s furious her own blood is censored to her because it’s so stressful, so the mother…
Turns off the parental controls and promises not to use the tablet again. The daughter grows up fairly great and well adjusted.
So what causes her to start using the tablet again?
Her daughter sneaks out to a party, and isn’t back long after midnight. She told the mother she’d be at a friend’s place, but the mother calls that friend’s place and they never arrived… living nightmare.
So she checks the tablet to see she’s okay, and she is, and she’s about to leave it at that and not snoop and respect her privacy when it goes off with a narcotic warning.
Oh yeah that’s great.
Oh and then she gets a recording of her daughter’s first time with a well-meaning bad boy who comes from a broken home.
Things keep escalating from that point. Because they didn’t wear protection, the mother sneaks Plan B into the daughter’s morning smoothie. The daughter half beats the mother to death because she catches her with the tablet and when they get into a fight the censoring locks on, and she can’t see the damage she’s doing.
The daughter hitchhikes out of town, leaving the mother with the broken tablet, which were discontinued over a decade ago so no replacements, and no way to contact her ever again.
So who’s the villain here?
The daughter? Why? For making dumb bad teenager decisions and feeling invaded on the deepest level one can imagine?
The mother? Why? For not wanting her sixteen year old to become a pregnant cocaine addict?
What could have been done better? Who could have acted more rationally with the information provided?
What punishment could possibly fit the crime?
What flaw was truly being punished?
Who even was the protagonist of the two?
It’s a huge gutpunch. Everyone, from the designers of the technology to the mother to the daughter, acted in what they believed their own best interest. They were… well the daughter was an idiot, but she felt compelled to be a bit rebellious after the nature of her sheltered childhood.
This is Black Mirror at its best. It’s a deeply human story facilitated by a new technology. It’s believable, and all the more harrowing for it.
And that ending leaves you wondering about the if onlys, and worst, finds all of those other routes as worse outcomes. Maybe if the mother had told her daughter she was pregnant… but she was too scared to admit how she knew, to admit to that betrayal of trust.
It’s dark. It’s bleak. It’s the best episode of the season by far. It’s the least popular.
And here I thought… yes. Yes. Black Mirror is still capable of being the thing that it is.
It was the only truly Black Mirror episode this season, I was crushed to find.
Crocodile followed up almost so strongly. A couple drive down an icy highway, drunk and distracted, and kill a cyclist. So far so bleak. She helps him throw the body into the bordering ocean, they agree to never talk about it again.
Fifteen years later he walks into her hotel room, saying he wants to come clean. He’s sober, he wants to make amends, it’s been so long… she doesn’t want him to, doesn’t want to admit to it, so she kills him and hides his body now. Outside a pizza truck hits a concert violinist.
An insurance collector is trying to see who’s at fault before paying out the extraordinary amount for his wrist injury. She has technology that lets you see people’s memories, sort of. It’s imperfect in the same way memories are, and it’s very cool pseudoscience. I enjoyed the moments of her playing detective immensely, and the actress had an Indian/Scottish hybrid accent that made me fall in love. I have such a crush on this actress now I swear.
Here’s where it falls apart. Here’s where the rot of happy endings runs through.
A chain of logic leads the insurance investigator to see the memory of the woman killing the dude. So she kills the insurance investigator. And then goes to her house and kills her husband, because the husband knew where she was going. Then the baby watches so she has to kill the baby too because of the memory technology.
Fucking awful, but she’s desperate.
Then she’s arrested because they watched the memory of a fucking guinea pig in the child’s room. Catharsis! Yay!
What the fuck?!
It was almost so good. It was almost so great. It’s a story that could easily have ended with one murder, but an innocent family was caught in the crossfire because of a technology. This was not their fault, the actions of the desperate murderer are abhorrent, but it could have been a tragedy nonetheless because there’s already a gutpunch.
The baby was born blind, and didn’t see anything, and didn’t have to die. But she didn’t know that.
But no. You needed a happy ending. You needed catharsis. So apparently we can just read the memories of guinea pigs now like they’re fucking security cameras. She gets arrested. You, the audience, have resolution and catharsis.
This episode is rated higher than Arkangel.
Then you get Hang the DJ, which was distressingly predictable.
The characters are revealed to be virtual minds because a dating app runs simulations of you hundreds of times against other people to see how compatible you are for each other. We saw the instance of one such simulation which showed compatibility.
The real life equivalents meet in the real world at the end.
It’s a pretty good episode. It’s just not a Black Mirror episode, and by this point, the virtual minds gimmick is becoming a cliche and a crutch. It totally killed the suspense and the impact the twist could otherwise have brought.
Now we get to Metalhead.
Oh my God do I hate Metalhead.
Metalhead is the single worst episode of Black Mirror ever made, and I will actually, without hyperbole, fight anyone who disagrees with me on that.
It has a higher IMDB score than Arkangel.
Once I wrote a parody of an Apple commercial that was so bad, Apple bought and used it for a commercial because they’re too rich for irony. This watched like that read.
Someone essentially watched the Terminator movies and said… what if we killed all ethos and motivation, and just based it entirely on the idea of building suspense?
Brilliant. The terminator robot is doglike, and the whole thing is shot in hyper dramatic black and white.
There’s a thing I’ve noticed. When people know they’re boring and have nothing interesting to say, they’ll try to say it in the most gimmicky, flashy way possible. The kind of person who manually signs their real name off at the end of their every forum post.
Metalheads is beautifully shot and directed, to hide the fact that it says nothing, means nothing, accomplishes nothing, goes nowhere, has no point, no moral, no deeper meaning, and takes fifty minutes of your life to do so.
It has two seperate five minute long “Tell my family I love them” monologues which are as vague and ambiguous as possible to give the illusion of a deeper emotional meaning, all crammed into exposition dumps because they couldn’t think of a way to show it organically for the other fifty minutes of show.
It was like watching the Fifth Estate again, that Julian Assange movie? Every now and again they realized Assange was getting too unlikable, so they had him give a monologue about his childhood out of nowhere and then went right back to not actually… incorporating it into the character. Just paying lip service to the idea that he was an interesting character by way of mentioning his tragic backstory.
That movie has a 35% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
It is not a flattering comparison I am making here.
The rest of the movie a woman runs from a metal death dog. The dog almost catches her but she escapes. The dog almost catches her but she escapes. The dog almost catches her but she fights back and breaks the death dog. But it kills her and then it reveals that the world is filled with hundreds of these death dogs.
Why? Who made them? Who sent them? What were they made for? What was their purpose? How did they survive this long in a post apocalypse filled with impossible murder machines? They only died because they went out to find, and this is the big dramatic twist, a teddy bear.
It’s a disgustingly cynical, empty, hollow gesture to stab at your heart strings, but me and my viewing buddy ended up bursting out laughing at the solemnity of that reveal.
Utterly abhorrent. It didn’t have a happy ending, but it didn’t have a goddamn story to end, just a string of suspenseful things happening.
it is a tale told by an idiot, full of arthouse and robots, signifying nothing.
And here we get to the finale.
Gods, the finale. Black Museum.
So this is an anthology, again very reminiscent of White Christmas, which was just better. It just was. Best social-horror nightmare fuel ending I’ve ever seen. Guy gets censored out of reality, becomes a living non-person. Holy shit.
This one takes place in an American roadside museum with an American playing an allegory for Satan and it’s all very Needful Thingsy and the aircon’s broken so he starts sweating more and more and it’s all very on the nose but it’s at least clever about it so that’s okay.
It’s been pointed out to me, since the first version of this draft, that the subtext of this episode is rather brilliant. It’s an episode about Black Mirror itself. About trying to show people the future, but only having an audience as you show them more horrible, twisted stuff. About how he feels about his role in it.
In terms of that, it is brilliant subtext. But I wished the text itself had been… I don’t know, a little more.
The first story is brilliant, it’s a cinematic telling of a Penn Jillette short story, and I enjoyed it immensely. Very surprised to see his name in the credits, but it was perfectly Black Mirror.
Second was also fairly brilliant, but it was devoid of… again, I keep coming back to Arkangel, but remember what I said about Arkangel being brilliant because everyone made sensible, logical, clever decisions?
That doesn’t happen here. Everyone is kind of an idiot.
There are still fantastic moments and a lot of nightmare fuel that sticks with you, but it just lacks the depth of cleverness and sensibility that really makes the horror pop. Horror doesn’t really work when the decisions to avoid those situations are too… common sense.
The idea of someone forcing your hand down on a hot stove is far more compelling than you just putting it there yourself because you’re an idiot. The solution to the second one is just… what if I chose not to put my hand on a hot stove?
It’s basically that level of moral quandry.
Then virtual minds stuff and a happy triumphant ending and the bad guy is killed and it’s all very… triumphant and American.
It’s very American is what it is.
Black Mirror has stopped being the niche product that it is, and is more leaning towards mainstream appeal, becoming a more sanitized, salable product. It’s still extremely high quality British television, but the sheer… intensity of it is lost.
And something precious is lost with it, because art needs someone to take risks, and Black Mirror has the platform built around taking them.
 Apparently this is no longer true, but was true when I wrote this. New order, thanks to a helpful editor, is now
Hang the DJ -> Black Museum -> Callister -> Arkangel -> Crocodile -> Metalhead
It’s at this point that I’d like to advertise a new feature of commission I’m offering.
$8 an hour, and I’ll watch anything, anything you make me.
This list of requests so far includes the entire original Sailor Moon, and Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd century.
If you want me to have a pop culture awareness I am otherwise not going to expose myself to, and maybe form a cogent opinion on it… or just enjoy seeing nerd rage, or making me suffer, it’s now dirt cheap to do so.