Through a mirror digitally

I’ve written about the first season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror when it first aired (here and here). I didn’t consider all three of the original episodes equally successful at presenting a dark, satiric funhouse reflection of people in the age of omnipresent smartphones, tablet computers and social media, but Brooker’s takes on how technology reinforces human nature in weird but not always wonderful ways were always eminently watchable.

To my mind, the second series (which recently finished on Channel Four) dropped the ball somewhat on its final episode, but again, it has held a fascinating black, quite possibly Apple-branded mirror up to us, and the reflection is not always pleasant. It’s not necessarily scathing, though, so much as sad; other than in his editorials, though, Brooker tempers his satire with empathy for his characters. Well, some of them. Let’s look at the individual episodes, though:

Be Right Back

The first episode is probably the one I liked best, and it is the one that I related to most. “Be Right Back” is the story of a woman whose husband dies in a car crash; a friend, also recently bereft, signs her up to a service that creates a simulacrum – first virtual, later physical – of her husband based on his digital footprint: his Facebook posts, his tweets, his e-mails, the many photos and videos. (Sound far-fetched? Check this site out and tell me if it still does.) While initially the simulation consoles her, being almost like her husband in how he talks and acts, that almost becomes impossible to bear, in a sort of emotional uncanny valley effect. So much of him is there, bringing into stark contrast the ways in which the simulated husband falls short of the real thing.

Be Right Back

Perhaps more than most episodes, “Be Right Back” needs its near-future vision of where technology will take us to tell a story, but the story it tells is not about this technology. It’s about loss, mourning and the inability to let go. It’s about the characters, which is why it works eminently well but perhaps falls somewhat short in its ability to comment on the titular ‘black mirror’. Still, it makes you wonder: what if the sci-fi tech had created a more perfect copy of the protagonist’s husband? Is it the imperfection of the process, the ways in which its result falls short of reality and memory, that’s the problem? There are shades (or perhaps digital ghosts?) of Solaris that resonate throughout the episode.

White Bear

If “Be Right Back” was tragedy, “White Bear” is closer to the horror genre, reminiscent of 28 Days Later: a young woman wakes up with no memory (except for occasional flashes) of who she is. Trying to figure out her situation, she finds that everyone films her or takes photos on their smart phones, but otherwise they ignore her – except for the masked weirdos wielding shotguns, electric saws and other implements of unpleasantness. They’re the hunters, apparently using the disconnected voyeurism of the watchers to do whatever they damn well please, including torture and murder.

So, a comment on how people make themselves into audiences, how they film violence and atrocities and put these online for all to see, instead of becoming involved and helping those at the receiving end of the violence? Wrong, at least sort of: the episode pulls the rug from under the main character’s (and our) feet, revealing that this whole thing is an elaborate, grotesquely ironic punishment: she is a convicted criminal, having filmed her boyfriend torturing and killing a child, so her memory is wiped and, in a modern twist on Dante’s contrapasso, her crime is visited on her… day after day after day.

In other words, the episode is about mob mentality, witchhunts and how modern media twist justice by ‘democratising’ it, right? Well, that’s partly the problem: the episode is about both of these things, to some extent, but I’m not sure it succeeds at bringing them together in a satisfying way. Arguably, the sort of disconnectedness that can be heightened by perceiving everything through the filter of a digital camera or smartphone can in turn reinforce the mob’s hunger for revenge, which in turn isn’t necessarily far from a simple hunger to see lions tearing apart Christians in the arena. And there’s clearly the irony of the punishment making the ones inflicting it (the audiences with their phones and cameras) into the person they’re punishing, mirroring her crime. But the two themes are an uneasy fit – and perhaps that unease is part of how Brooker tries to make us uncomfortable.

What is way more uncomfortable, though, and in that sense entirely in keeping with Brooker’s series and his themes, is how on so many online review sites a sizeable portion of the (mostly anonymous) commenters felt the episode’s punishment of its main character was absolutely, 100% justified, i.e. the bitch got what she deserved. Democratising justice, eh?

The Waldo Moment

I’m not sure I would have ended the series on “The Waldo Moment”, not least because it’s very clearly the odd one out. If Black Mirror is indeed about the effect the new media and technologies have on our lives, that element is utterly unimportant in the episode: yes, it features a motion-captured virtual cartoon, but the story could pretty much be exactly the same if Waldo, the sarcastic blue bear, were a sock puppet. The episode feels like a left-over from a different project, probably because that’s exactly what it is. (It incorporates material originally written for Nathan Barley, Brooker’s collaboration with Chris Morris of Four Lions fame.)

“The Waldo Moment” makes a good point about the general cynicism about politics, and how so many of the things we blame politicians for – their pandering to the lowest common denominator, for instance – we’ve fostered in them ourselves. Politicians deserve to be criticised, but at least some of the blanket criticism they’re exposed to is hypocritical: we slam them for being undemocratic when they act differently from what we’d want, and we slam them again for lacking integrity and being in it for the votes only when they act in ways that appeal to the majority. Our cynicism is facile – and, Brooker suggests, dangerous, making us vulnerable to demagogues in the guise of those speaking the truth and sticking it to the man.

The thing is, while I think there’s something to the point, it is presented in a similarly shallow way that simply fails to carry the episode for its full length. Compared to “Be Right Back”, the characters don’t carry the story enough, and the pace is much slower than in “White Bear”. “The Waldo Moment” has material for perhaps half an hour, but even then it isn’t all that perceptive or incisive. There is one strong moment, both funny and chilling, where an American from “the Company” comes to the protagonist, the comedian who breathes life into foul-mouthed Waldo, and suggests a global roll-out, starting in South America. Indeed, if you’re in the business of toppling regimes, why not do it with a friendly blue cartoon face?

The Waldo Moment

Regardless of being underwhelmed with the final episode, I’m curious to see where Brooker’ll take Black Mirror next – or, if he thinks he’s exhausted the topic, whether he’ll find another topic to turn into a fascinating, witty, angry, sad series. Waldo or not, I’ve enjoyed this journey into the near-future with Mr Brooker (to say nothing of the pig).

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