Black Mirror Cracked Smiles

“It’s Easy To Lose Sight Of What’s Real” – Black Mirror Series 3

I understand that some of you may have heard about this series called Black Mirror that’s been getting Guardian readers all hot under the collar; that it’s this “amazing” series that makes people throw around  words like “dark”, “twisted”, and “disturbing” more frequently than the track listing of a My Chemical Romance album.  “So what…”, some might say whilst rolling their eyes, “the show’s creator has read Brave New World, the works of J.G. Ballard, and listened to OK Computer a bit too many times – we get it! Technology is bad! Move on! It’s getting boring!”.

On the contrary, hypothetically apathetic person – it is anything but boring.

I’ve always been a fan of Charlie Brooker; his writing contributions to the genius Brasseye, the underrated Nathan Barley, and the superbly acerbic Screenwipe* (And his other Wipe series) have proved, beyond a doubt, that he’s a witty and incisive mind; an illuminating beacon of clarity, self-awareness, and irony that can guide you through the discombobulating swamps and bogs of bullshit that envelops the majority of our sad, media-smothered lives. Although usually commenting on the nature of our media dominated reality from a comedic standpoint, with the emergence of Black Mirror, show-runner, lead writer, and creator Charlie Brooker has produced something that replaces laughter with an intense, gut-based knot of unease and anxiety. Needless to say, Black Mirror isn’t a “chill-out on a Sunday afternoon with a pizza” type of Netflix show.

*(Even though new episodes of Brooker’s Wipe series comes back around Christmas time ever year to summarise and mock the previous year, you can fill that year-long void by checking out the Youtube channel H3H3 Productions; think Screenwipe but the mockery is aimed at Youtube and various Youtube channels and trends instead of TV. It will scratch that itch – trust me).

Although a tad reductionist, The New Yorker described Black Mirror correctly as “Twilight Zone for the digital age”; a dystopian monster that, with each episode, gives us a disturbingly dark glimpse into the future at what the worst aspects of humanity are capable of when living in a technological age of electronic wizardry, thereby allowing us to see – like the mirror to which the name of the show alludes – frightening, but unnervingly real, reflections of ourselves that we didn’t necessarily want to see, looking back at us on the plethora of computer monitors, and smartphones we all have, the second the screens turn black.

Series 3 (which “dropped” as they say on October 21st in its entirety) not only explores new ideas (and worries) that weren’t explored in previous series, but also expands on ideas that were once touched upon but demanded elucidation. And don’t worry, no spoilers ahead (although I recommend watching the series first).

Black Mirror Nosedive

We start off with the episode ‘Nosedive’ starring Bryce Dallas Howard (Terminator Salvation, The Twilight Saga, Jurassic World). Visually, the episode marks a new departure for the series. The rustic, kitchen-sink realism of the show during its Channel 4 era is replaced with an eerily pretty, sharp, filmic quality that is utterly reflective of a bigger production, bigger cast, and bigger budget (no doubt caused by Netflix’s takeover of the show, and the bread they must be printing themselves by now). The world in ‘Nosedive’ in particular is sickeningly sweet – and not in a good way. Watching the people, and the reality in which they live is like being forced to drink a galleon of honey. The houses, the streets, and the gardens are of that pastel-coloured, “idealistic” American suburbia ilk that creeps under your skin – like the town in Edward Scissorhands – and is populated with pristine, “perfect”, plastic-looking people, wearing crocodile smiles – like The Stepford Wives.

The fake, hollow nature of the world of ‘Nosedive’ seems reminiscent of series 1 episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, whereby people value surface-level appearence and vapid facades more so than realism and authenticity. The similarity is furthered in ‘Nosedive’ with the importance of your internet presence, as aspects of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have mutated into the ultimate social network that can be accessed via lenses in everyone’s eyes. Your finances, your privileges – your life in fact, is entirely dictated by what “rating” you have out of 5; a rating that is created depending on what ratings you receive (and give) for every single social interaction you have. As a result, people rated a 4 or higher are seen as the upper class, but if you’re lower than a 3.3? You’ll be denied service at a myriad of shops and businesses, close friends will stop returning calls, and people will try to avoid you in the fear that, by interacting with you, they’ll be given negative ratings by tutting onlookers. Not only that, but the second you look at someone, you can see their rating, and thus see their social status. As a result, everyone looks and behaves like an Instagram photo with a pulse; aesthetically pleasing, whilst devoid of any substance or meaning.

Black Mirror Nosedive Street

This is epitomised by Bryce Dallas Howard‘s character Lacie, who – despite being a well-regarded 4.3 – wants to breakthrough to the upper echelon of society, and is willing to sell her soul to do so. This idea of social networking detrimentally affecting real-life interactions with humanity was partly examined in Black Mirror’s haunting 2014 Christmas special ‘White Christmas’. However, whilst one could soothe one’s concerns about that special by muttering reassuringly “that won’t happen, that won’t happen” to yourself, the instant cyber-judgement occurring in ‘Nosedive’ unfortunately isn’t too far away, what with the existence of the driver/passenger rating paradigm of Uber, or the rating system for Airbnb. There’s even an app available now (albeit in other countries) known as ‘Peeple‘ that allows you to “recommend and be recommended by the people you interact with in your daily lives”. Just marvel at the reality wherein the philosophy and message behind shows like The Kardashian’s has infected nearly every facet of our society – albeit watch through the gaps of your fingers.

The third episode (titled ‘Shut Up and Dance’) provides a perverse antidote to the sugar-drenched nature of the series opener, with a “back to basics” gritty story set in the present, in the same vein as series 1 episode ‘The National Anthem’, and series 2 episode ‘White Bear’ – and make no mistake, none of the horrific, vomit-inducing, terror and panic has been lost in this one. Kenny, played by Alex Lawther (X+Y, The Imitation Game), is a shy and timid teenager who, after getting malware on his computer, has his freedom, relationship with his family, and his entire life at the mercy of an anonymous, malevolent hacking group. The muted colour palette adds to the horror show, appropriately reflecting the utter bleakness of Kenny’s situation.

What is most troubling about Shut Up and Dance is how plausible it is. In fact, something similar has no doubt happened already, whereby sick people, with ominous intentions, utterly destroy a person’s life by utilising blackmail via “sensitive materials” obtained through nefarious means. The episode escalates, in a manner not to dissimilar from the 2016 dare-based thriller Nerve, culminating in a cocktail of conflicting – but equally unpleasant – emotions. Fair warning though: this episode is emotionally, and psychologically exhausting. Cheese, red wine, blankets, loved ones, and some Seinfeld or Friends are recommended immediately after viewing.

Black Mirror Hated in the Nation

Brooker seems to cast his condemning but satirical eye on the notion of mob justice, hashtag culture, witch hunts, and the noxious SJW (Social Justice Warrior) movement online with the final episode ‘Hated in the Nation’. A jaded, pessimistic detective DCI Karin Parke – played by Kelly MacDonald (Brave, Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire) investigates the mysterious deaths of various unpopular media personalities (one of whom – a “trollumnist” – might as well have been called Katie Popkins) as the rising popularity of a sinister hashtag seems to be linked to the murders. Freedom of Speech seems to be main subject matter in this episode; the public’s frequent misunderstanding of what it is, how it’s a two-way street, and the disparity between the moral righteousness of someone who can’t stand offensive language versus the shockingly bloodthirsty ease with which the same person reacts to the deaths of people who express those offensive views. This reminds me, to some extent, of the infamous Danish cartoon scandal in 2005, and the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015, whereby the morally bankrupt sentiment “They somewhat brought it upon themselves” was worryingly common. It therefore touches upon ideas explored in series 1 episode ‘The National Anthem’, as well as revisiting the public’s more sadistic sense of moral outrage and justice from series 2 episode ‘White Bear’.

Brooker cleverly juggles several pertinent and pivotal modern dilemmas and themes, such as the decline of the UK bee population, privacy laws, mob justice, and the consequences of online bullying, without dropping a single one, and weaving them throughout a cohesive narrative without it feeling all over the place. And the literal personification of internet trolls as an angry, hive-mind swarm was the icing on the cake. All I’ll say is, Brooker must have watched Hitchcock’s The Birds the weekend before writing the script.

The world of VR and augmented reality is given a once-over by Brooker in the episodes ‘Playtest’ and ‘Men Against Fire’. The latter depicts the life of a soldier called Stripe, and his military excursions where the army, using the latest visual-tech implants, are tasked to hunt down ‘roaches’; a race of violent, feral, alien-like monsters that seem to have permeated the land. The episode is the most action packed of the series, and is clearly a commentary on – and scathing attack of – the dehumanising rhetoric employed by various far right newspapers and tabloids to describe the recent Syrian refugee crisis (as shown in ‘Hated in the nation’, Katie Hopkins seems to have touched a nerve in Brooker, since the nickname given to the hunted populace in ‘Men Against Fire’ is extremely similar to when Hopkins, in a manner Hitler would have been proud of, described migrants as “cockroaches” in a Sun article from April 2015).

Black Mirror Playtest

‘Playtest’ on the other hand, acts like a canary down a very real and visceral mine with regards to the hypothetical dangers inherent within future developments of video game immersion, and the prevalence of VR products (such as the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift). It being Halloween time, the episode could accurately be summarised as a horror film, with Brooker himself admitting in an interview with The Independent“I just wanted to do a haunted house movie”. Wyatt Russell (This is 40, Cowboys & Aliens, 22 Jump Street) plays a friendly, although slightly dopey backpacker called Cooper who finds himself stranded in the UK due to low funds, and aims to get some cash by applying to be a play-tester of a revolutionary VR/Augmented reality prototype that taps into his inner-most fears in order to create the most realistic and terrifying horror game ever. The occasional jump scare then evolves into more intimately frightening, psychologically-ruining levels of horror. The episode could be summarised thusly: “At what point will games become so immersive that the very nature of who we are is at risk, or in danger?” and “When that day comes, is it worth it?”. Guess what? After watching the episode, the answers are definitely “No” and “Hopefully never”.

The episode isn’t yet another anti-video game polemic that seems to pervade the media every few weeks (as news anchors, with their zero knowledge of video games, shake their metaphorical canes, dismiss the medium as a waste of time, and moronically point at it as the primary cause of evil and violence in the world). Brooker, being an avid gamer himself (as well as the episode’s director – Dan Trachtenberg – who did the fan-made Portal short live-action film), includes various video game easter eggs throughout the episode; with references to Resident Evil, Bioshock, and P.T to name but a few (Also the character Shou who develops this “revolutionary tech” is clearly supposed to be a Hideo Kojima-type figure – with his eccentric manneurisms, enigmatic affectations, and obsession with “revolutionising the mind” through the medium of video games). The tone of the episode is very Inception-ey, with the manipulation of perception, and the layers of reality – both used to unsettle the viewer and make you question yourself every time you feel safe and secure.

Black Mirror San Junipero

The episode ‘San Junipero’ however, is by far the most unusual episode of series 3 – and arguably all three series in general. It takes place in a fictional Miami-esque, party beach-town known as, you guessed it, San Junipero. Although the setting is different enough already, Brooker takes it up a notch by having the story set in the 80s; we’re talking neon, perms, mullets, Max Headroom, Tears for Fears – the whole shebang. It follows the life of nervous introvert Yorkie – played by Mackenzie Davis (The F Word, The Martian) – and her developing relationship with flirtatious extrovert Kelly – played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Beyond the Lights). The episode wistfully depicts the two’s existential struggles and fumbles through love and life, as well as their concerns about death (a motif that was explored in the much darker series 2 episode ‘Be Right Back’) whereby their mutual understanding and adoration of one another seems to carry them through thick and not as thick.

The optimism of the episode, whilst somewhat of a relief initially, nonetheless creates a perturbing thought at the back of your head – like the unsettling feeling one would get as a reluctant general of a despotic regime when faced with the psychotic dictator in a good mood; that the joy and happiness being conveyed simply must be a cover for some horrible, Kafkaesque nightmare or some impending disaster. This feeling simply doesn’t go away.

And so, continue to make statuses on Facebook informing people of every significant event in your life, tweet to the world that the chicken nuggets you ate earlier are causing havoc to your bowels, and call off meeting up with your friends in favour of doing Buzzfeed quizzes and making memes. Enjoy this whilst you still can. But be weary, and keep an eye on the ol’ techie-tech because, to paraphrase Goya, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters” – and they are waiting for us just round the corner.

Written by: Charlie Brooker
Rashida Jones
Mike Schur
William Bridges

Directed by: Joe Wright
Dan Trachtenberg
James Watkins
Owen Harris
Jakob Verbruggen
James Hawes

Producers: Charlie Brooker
Annabel Jones
Barney Reisz

Production Companies: House of Tomorrow

Network: Netflix

Country: UK/US

Runtime: 43–89 minutes

Year: 2016

Black Mirror is currently available on Netflix

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