Four Levels of Doom and Gloom in Black Mirror
I was absolutely captivated by Black Mirror, five minutes into the very first episode. All the seasons since have unloaded levels of chilling commentary upon our society, our technological innovations — and most importantly, ourselves. But while it is easy to be overwhelmed by the cynicism subsuming every single episode, they are not all the same, in terms of execution, nor are their intentions always comparable.
Objectively, this could explain why some of them have been better received than others. But on a more subjective scale, a closer, retrospective look at all of them has made me realize that Black Mirror is easily groupable into categories that highlight the different levels of terrifying I can only put a finger on with eight years’ worth of hindsight.
In order of least impactful to most, I classified Black Mirror into four major tendencies:
1- Senseless Technological Dominance
2- Snowball Effect
3- Cautionary Tale
4- Love in a Hopeless World
Senseless Technological Dominance
At first glance, these appear to be the scariest episodes, because they explore the primal, deep-seated fear that what we create could come back to haunt us; that our rush to innovate and put our trust into machines and alternate realities we don’t fully understand could doom us in the end. This cluster of episode relies squarely on fear.
“Fifteen Million Merits” (S1) and “USS Callister” (S4) are similar, in that they set up premises in which virtual environments rhyme with oppression and ironclad control.
The first takes the form of a contest in which one’s comfort in life is determined by a series of games; the second touches upon toxic geek culture and the Nice Guy Syndrome (the always excellent Jesse Plemons does a chillingly fantastic turn here), through a parody of classic sci-fi shows like Star Trek.
To me, nevertheless, the idea was lessened by the fact that while Jesse Plemons' character abducts and tortures others in his virtual environment, they are merely clones of actual people. That is not to say that everyone doesn’t deserve respect, nor that he wouldn’t abuse of people’s agency in real life if he could, but it remains a hypothetical.
“Metalhead” (S4) is one of the most forgettable Black Mirror offerings, for a reason: it has no discernible plot, is not interested in ponderous character development. Instead, it leans into the sheer horror of a machine that pursues a woman relentlessly, despite her desperate attempts to outsmart it. There’s no rhyme or reason to this nightmarish episode, and precisely for that, it taps into the anxiety that machines created for useful purposes could lose control and kill us all.
“White Bear” (S1), in that sense, is different. It is character-oriented, and the only technology here is the machine that wipes the main character’s mind night after night, as she is made to relive a crime she committed, to the pleasure of a jeering crowd — schadenfreude, in short. It is about how we use technology to pursue crooked, vigilante justice. But while that impulse is recognizable (and could have landed this one in the subsequent Cautionary Tale category), it is, like “Fifteen Million Merits” and “USS Callister”, dependent on a setting, facilitated by means which we don’t have total access to yet.
It’s easy to think that Black Mirror operates on technophobia; a simplistic look at its general themes would convince anyone that this is a show that enjoys catastrophizing on the dangers of modernization. But that’s unfair.
Black Mirror has always been about people, first and foremost, and about how we misuse what we create. As such, this batch of episodes is the easiest to separate from, at least for me, because the horror in question relies on technologies that are still, in relation to our current reality, far away enough that it doesn’t feel urgent.
It’s too futuristic, in short; and as such, while “White Bear” remains one of my top three episodes, one that shook me to my fundamental core, it is not the story that makes me double-check over my shoulder.
This next collection is higher on the scale because it take a more incisive look at human beings through the Character Flaw angle. These are people whose arrogance and/or mistakes come back to plague them, one way or another. The common emotion elicited is pure revolt. It’s not simply that they are awful. It’s that watching them simmer and twist in their failures makes us, in turn, feel awful. Whether they get their retribution or not, these stories show us the worst of humanity, as only Black Mirror can: and there is a creeping dread about the thought that without the technologies present, most of these people would get away with it.
“White Christmas” (Christmas Special) and “Black Museum” (S4) are perhaps the best examples of this: in both cases, smug people with shady pasts (cruel, lying, borderline murderers) are confronted with merciless karma by the end of their stories. But even then, it feels thankless. The episodes hit hard on the notion of forgiveness, arguing that salvation isn't (or shouldn’t be) allowed for everyone; when it is, it comes too late.
In “White Christmas”, Jon Hamm’s character (who's rightly punished by the end) tricks a man into confessing for a crime. But the man in question is somewhat sympathetic, and his punishment so terrible that the whole thing feels grim. In “Black Museum”, Letitia Wright’s character avenges her family by killing the man who wreaked havoc on it, but at the end of the day, she still has to cope with the gaping loss.
“Playtest” (S3), by far one of my least favorite episodes is nonetheless one that stung. In it, a seemingly carefree man who travels the world in search of adventure — but is in reality avoiding a painful family situation —, is killed at the end when an augmented reality game malfunctions. This, in simplistic terms, caused by a chain reaction of him not calling his mother back. It is something most of us have been guilty of at one point, and to pay with one's life seems a bit extreme, but “Playtest” proves that in Black Mirror’s universe, something as small as occasional carelessness is unforgivable.
“Shut Up and Dance” (S3) and “Crocodile” (S4) tackle more serious issues: in both instances, major aberrations in judgement (child pornography in one case, accidental murder in another) cause the respective protagonists to escalate their situation, in an a madcap attempt to escape accountability. The stories left an acrid taste in my mouth. I found my instinct for compassion challenged: while they illustrated how easy it is for life to spiral out of control when mistakes add up, the main characters left so much destruction in their wake that it was hard to muster anything other than disgust for them.
Ultimately, while they are repulsive, these episodes pinpoint situations that are specific enough that we can separate ourselves — or at least attempt to. We can look at these people, on the surface, and say: I wouldn’t do that. I would never have put myself in that position in the first place. We are afforded a distance that, for a moment, reduces these stories to nothing less than science-fiction.
The Cautionary Tales
This is where Black Mirror gets harder to watch. Many of the previous examples, as I’ve mentioned already, utilize technology to devastating means. But it’s with this next batch that its ruthless power is truly understood.
These scarred me more than their previous counterparts because they make the following argument: innovations won’t fix our problems, they will only make them worse. Better yet, they will exacerbate the flaws in our natures and the societal issues we have not properly dealt with. More so than the Senseless Technological Dominance instances, these rely on technologies we already have, or are just a few short years away from acquiring. These episodes are, in short, alarming.
“Nosedive” (S3) is a brilliant take on our “ratings” culture, which is already utilized in rideshare applications and social media; here, people’s social prosperity is entirely dependent on assessments (from 1 to 5 stars) given after each interaction, big or small. This, of course, encourages shallow pleasantness and diplomacy over authenticity and blunt truths.
While “Nosedive” infuses Black Mirror with much-needed humor via biting satire, I found it most depressing. The episode plays on deep-seated fears we already deal with (obsessions with status, image, reputation), all the while stripping the characters of all their glamour and dignity. On the plus side, it made me fan of Bryce Dallas Howard. On the downside, it reinforced my belief that there is nothing people won't do to one-up their peers.
“The National Anthem” (S1), “The Waldo Moment” (S2) and “Hated in the Nation” (S3) also explore the terrifying power of social media, in the age of mass peer pressure, public shaming and mob mentality. Although the three are unequal in terms of quality — “The National Anthem” is flawless in my opinion, while “The Waldo Moment” is grating, and “Hated in the Nation” is, at times, a bit heavy-handed —, the message is the same: technology has facilitated and rewarded our worst impulses, allowing us to remain faceless en masse.
In the first case, the Prime Minister is forced to have sex with a pig on live television, so that a member of the Royal family who’s been kidnapped is not assassinated. In the second case, the viral popularity of a computer-generated mascot leads to it running for office, against actual human beings; in the third episode, people who’ve been targets of viral hate campaigns (#DeathTo) are horribly killed off.
The episodes ask thorny questions we’d all much rather avoid: would we, in the Prime Minister’s shoes, care more about our popularity/self-respect, or the greater good of saving someone’s life? Has social media promoted visibility and accountability, or has it only kindled our impulse for publicly humiliating others (the same one found in “White Bear”)? Have politics become such a joke that anyone can successfully run for office?
Of all the episodes in this category, “The Waldo Moment” is one that leaves me reeling. When I’d originally watched it, I would have put it into the Senseless Technological Dominance group. But in the years since the 2016 election, I’ve come to be haunted, positively haunted by it.
On some level, I knew it was likely (we do have a penchant for sensationalism); but it has suddenly become our harshest, grimmest reality. It’s no longer a mind-boggling dystopian horror show, it’s a cautionary tale: we let ourselves be sucked in by the circus, without realizing what it implied. We are absolutely capable of electing a cartoon figure: we’ve basically done it.
“Men Against Fire” (S3) and “Arkangel” (S4) are much more intimate, but make statements on issues that are as old as time: that is to say xenophobia and overprotective parenting.
The first episode rings especially harsh, in light of the American government’s abominable handling of the immigration crisis: in “Men Against Fire”, soldiers are unknowingly implanted with chips that warp their senses, making them see the enemy as savage, inhuman creatures, so that they are easier to kill — this, the protagonist realizes when his implant starts to malfunction. The senselessness of war, and the dangers of dehumanizing people from different countries is loud and clear, painfully so.
In “Arkangel”, a technology that allows parents to track their children begins to consume an overprotective mother; her legitimate concern for her daughter devolves into spying and meddling in her life, with tragic consequences, as the daughter gets older. While the episode misses the golden opportunity to explore themes of boundaries, which gadgets have made easier to blur and violate, it still makes a chilling statement on the line between solid parenthood and suffocating love.
A sliver of hope remains, for this subgroup of Black Mirror: yes, they are claustrophobic because of their closeness and their familiarity. But maybe by seeing the effects we could bring about, there’s a chance we could avoid them.
Love in a Hopeless World
For a show devoted to uncovering the darkest recesses of our souls, Black Mirror is surprisingly good with representing love — probably because romantic situations uncover the darkest recesses of our souls. While most people wouldn’t think of these as the scariest episodes, they are the ones that, oddly enough, stayed with me long after I'd finished them.
This, because they are heart-wrenchingly honest, and hit much too close to home. These aren’t far-away, imagined universes: they present relationship dynamics that have existed time and again, and which technology only underlines. In turn hopeful and nostalgic, poignant or downright bitter, heartbreak, ultimately, is the order of the day in these stories.
“The Entire History of You” (S1), by far one of the most scathing episodes of Black Mirror (and also one of the best), examines how our propensity for jealousy, insecurity and possessiveness has been given free rein by the very tools that were supposed to guarantee clarity.
An implant that allows people to record and store every single thing they experience turns Liam uncontrollably fixated on the idea that his wife Ffion is cheating on him, after an uncomfortable dinner party where she behaves oddly with an old friend.
Their relationship quickly deteriorates, needled by Liam and Ffion’s bickering on the smallest details and events, endlessly rewinded and dissected, using the chip. Before long, Liam comes across as unhinged while Ffion shoulders his erratic behavior with as much decorum as she can muster, even as he doubts that their child is his.
The fact that Liam ends up eventually being right on all counts is not remotely comforting: watching the couple self-destruct over the course of two days feels chillingly real. Whether the implant had proven him wrong or not, their marriage would have been irreparably dinted, having both bared the ugliness of their souls to each other.
“San Junipero” (S3) is more optimistic in that regard: Kelly and Yorkie fall in love and pursue each other across decades, in the virtual city of San Junipero. Sometimes they lose sight, but always find each other in the end. The episode has been lauded for its warmth and for its inclusivity, and while I agree, it left me with a weighty, unbearable sadness I couldn’t pinpoint until I revisited it.
True, it is hopeful and gorgeously shot; but it is also ambiguous, and carries a darkness with it that is easy to ignore because everything else is so enticing. Without the technology facilitating their reunion (one I’m not entirely sure was legitimate by the way, unless I’ve been watching too much Inception), both women would have been miserable. The idea of a virtual universe where people are crystallized in youth and can party forever doesn’t feel like a happy ending: it feels like prison. What if that love peters out? What if one regrets the decision?
This is similarly echoed in “Hang the DJ” (S4), which explores how technology makes it hard to discern between authentic connections and encounters that are only exciting in the moment.
Unlike “San Junipero”, “Hang the DJ” does not even try to conceal its cynicism. In its universe, people are paired with different matches for a set amount of time to collect data regarding compatibility, all in the goal of finding true love. Its intentions are in the right place, but even its feel-good ending — the main couple realizes they’re part of a simulation, have been paired together close to a hundred times, and have matched in real life — does not offset the seeping loneliness of it all.
One is not sure their real relationship, set in the complicated world of modern dating, will not tarnish whatever spark they had as app simulations.
“San Junipero” and “Hang the DJ” paint the greatest metaphors for the misgivings concerning relationships that seem so perfect we believe they could never die: there is always that thrill of fear, insidious and vague, that it could come crashing down if either party decides the party is over.
Still, both episodes are more generous in spirit than “Be Right Back” (S2), that explores what happens when we never get to find out. When Martha abruptly loses the love of her life in a tragic car accident, she is so stunned by grief that she enlists a program that essentially clones her partner and his memories. Evidently, a robot doesn’t come close to the real thing, and she soon starts to resent it: this renewed loss only multiplies her anguish.
I was utterly shattered by “Be Right Back”, which goes where the rest of the series doesn’t always: grief and loss are depicted as infinitely more formidable, infinitely more ancient and powerful than technology. It’s the story, I believe, that best exemplifies one of Black Mirror’s core thematics: namely that we cannot escape life, its beauty as well as its pitfalls, no matter how delicious and enticing the means are.
These last stories are not simply sad or poignant: I hesitated to put them at the top of the list, but was convinced by the realization that they touch upon all the themes encompassed in previous categories: the pervasiveness of technology, the character flaws that escalate, the cautionary tale on human nature.
There are no redeeming qualities to this group. They resonate on a primal level, because they are realistic to a fault. They seem to say that love is a dangerous currency to toy with, one we’ve allowed technology to cheapen; and in the same way that they show us how great it can be (“San Junipero”), they also pull back the curtain on the worse ways we can hurt each other (“The Entire History of You”).
And if love, the last salvageable thing we have in a grim world, is gone, then truly: we will have lost ourselves for good.