Laughing And Smiling In Black Mirror

Hi everyone! Once again I have to apologize for missing a post last week, life has once again gotten a little bit insanely busy and this post is an absolute MONSTER. But I’m back and ready to go; so without further ado, here we go!

Science Fiction can be pretty accurately described as “in vogue” right now. Not only is Star Wars once again dominating both the box office and popular culture, but elements of sci-fi are showing up in places as diverse as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hit TV shows, and, of course, novels uncountable. One of the most interesting shows currently incorporating quite a bit of science fiction is Netflix’s anthology in the genre, named “Black Mirror.” Throughout its six-episode seasons, the show strives to show us all the different ways technological advancements in the near future could have severe impacts on our lives, both positive and negative. The episodes range from hopeful and inspiring to harrowing, terrifying…. and kind of boring, honestly. While the episodes of “Black Mirror” that paint the bleakest picture so often garner the most attention on social media, they are (especially in the show’s most recent installment, season 4) usually the least imaginative, interesting, and insightful, at least to me. So today, I’m going to take you on a journey through the episodes of “Black Mirror" season 4 that invite you to smile, cheer, and laugh, to point out that they are the ones that best fulfill the show’s goal: to show us ways that technology will change our lives in ways we could never imagine.

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Season 4 of Black Mirror begins with an episode titled “USS Callister,” which centers around a brilliant but awkward and reclusive programmer, who is co-founder and CTO of a massive multiplayer online game and is also obsessed with a clear Star-Trek analogue named Space Fleet that he watched as a child. On his own time, however, he uses his technical prowess to harvest the genetic material of coworkers who he believes have slighted him, create digital replicas of them on a private server of the game he helped create that he’s re-skinned to look like the Space Fleet universe, and alternate by inflicting abuse on them and forcing them to enact boring, unimaginative retreads of archetypal episodes we might have expected to see in Star Trek itself, after which he helps himself to affection from all his female companions. At first, this feels like the whole thrust of the episode: simultaneously a rebuke of the American Exceptionalism/colonialist ethos that’s unavoidably baked into a show like Star Trek, a meditation on how cruel people can be to others, and a nerdy power fantasy designed to make every geek who’s ever been shunned or bullied think “yeah, I’d love to get back at people that way!” And while the first of those themes is most definitely worthwhile, the other two are unnecessary and a little bit gross, and the episode, at first, feels like it’s destined to be one interesting critique floating in a sea of tired, unnecessary junk.

However, this expectation quickly shifts as the episode really gets in gear. The crew of the USS Callister are not just digital slaves or soulless programs. They’re people, and they rebel against their cruel overlord by devising a series of escape plans, realizing that an update to the game could allow them to escape from Daly’s own private server and into the game itself, where they’d be free to live their digital lives without his tyranny. By the end of the episode, we’re watching this diverse crew pilot their ship frantically toward a wormhole through an asteroid belt as Daly, and realizing that this is what the episode was about: an affirmation of how powerful and meaningful shows like this can be (remember that Star Trek itself was known as genuinely important from a standpoint of presenting multicultural and multiracial representation onscreen - apparently Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself was a fan - including what is often cited as the very first scripted onscreen interracial kiss) alongside a sharp criticism of both the gatekeeping culture that so often morphs into incredibly ugly racial and sexually charged barring of people who aren’t white males from these media (think Gamergate and Comicsgate) AND the closest realization I’ve ever seen to the Fall Out Boy line “You are what you love, not who loves you.” The episode is telling us that those people like Daly, who either try to keep those who they see as “lesser” for whatever reason for participating in certain media, enforce their own beliefs of what that media should be and use it to prop up their own misguided ideas about themselves and the world, or use them as a vehicle to perpetuate reprehensible or abusive behavior, are the ones who don’t deserve to be called fans. When you factor in the fact that the people Daly has chosen to pick on are all, with the exception of one (the only one who seems to deserve some payback), women or minorities, the episode transforms in a savage rebuke of both the idea that abuse is an acceptable form of payback for abuse and that Daly is anything other than a creepy, gatekeeping, asshole with a toxic sense of his own masculinity and a disturbing desire to assert unquestioned authority over marginalized people. In essence, the happy ending of this episode slaps the angry nerd considering vengeance of the kind presented in films like Revenge Of The Nerds and says “NO, that would you make you the monster,” “don’t you dare think that these things belong to you and only to you because you’re the superfan,” AND “when you thought of these shows were just vehicles for your power fantasies, you completely missed the damn point” all at once. It’s a beautiful and powerful transformation, all brought about by the decision to make the ending of this episode a happy one. The very last moment of this episode is the crew of the USS Callister bravely venturing into the digital universe they have to explore and enjoy, and it’s hard not to stand up and cheer at both what’s unfolding onscreen and what feels like a bold, different step for Black Mirror.

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The next happy episode of Black Mirror’s season 4 is its fourth, “Hang The DJ.” It centers around a young man and woman, Amy and Frank, living in a walled community where romantic attachments are dictated by a “system,” which is reputed to match members of their community with the perfect partner 99.8% of the time by putting them through their paces in a bunch of relationships that vary wildly in partner and duration, from hours to years. Frank and Amy meet and enjoy their twelve-hour relationship, seeming to connect meaningfully before they’re off to other partners who are… less satisfactory. After a year apart, though, the two reconnect as part of another relationship, agreeing not to check how long their relationship is. However, Frank can’t help the anxiety of not knowing, and checks on his own, triggering a process by which their relationship, which was slated to last five years, is reduced to mere hours. The two are forced to part ways once again, heartbroken and angry, and Amy is informed that her true match has been found — and it isn’t Frank. She is, however, allowed one hour to spend with any one of her past partners, and chooses Frank. During the course of that hour, they confess their feelings, realize they don’t want to live without each other, and decide to revolt against the “system” and flee the compound together. As they rebel, the episode’s real twist comes into play: the community around them freezes absolutely still, and the entire compound fades as they climb the wall surrounding it to escape. As they reach the top, we realize they were actually inside of a dating app that ran similar simulations 1,000 times. Amy and Frank’s simulation was number 1,000, and their choice to rebel against the system and choose each other marked 998 rebellions, allowing the app they’re a part of to match their real life counterparts with, you guessed it, 99.8% certainty that they’d be perfect for each other. Amy and Frank are subsumed into the data, and are no more, while we watch their real-life counterparts meet for the first time.

It’s those last few moments that make the episode both one of the season’s most uplifting and most thoughtful, interesting, and insightful. While most Black Mirror episodes like to argue that creating lifelike artificial intelligence, or digital clones of ourselves to help us in our day-to-day life, or any other advanced technology that performs menial tasks, is a form of abject cruelty. These creations have interior lives as rich as our own, so to create them only to fulfill a narrow and uninteresting task as, essentially, slaves, is a form of mental torture that we would never dare inflict on other people. However, “Hang The DJ” turns this idea entirely on its head by arguing that such cruelty is not in fact necessary, and merely the fault of thoughtless or uncaring creators. As Frank and Amy see all the other versions of themselves that existed and are assimilated into the data, they don’t seem horrified, or scared, or in pain. Instead, they look around in wonder, and seem nothing more than fulfilled. They weren’t created to serve the menial needs of actual people or have their lives and sanities. They were given fully-realized lives, a beautiful, real world to live in, and, most importantly, fulfilling choices and relationships to engage in. They were, it would seem, respected as autonomous beings whose sense of fulfillment is important. This episode shows us a world in which the technology that brings us happiness and meaning doesn’t have to come at the cost of cruelty and exploitation, as long as we take the effort and respect the things that we create as they deserve to be respected. It shocks us, delights us, and fulfills the show’s promise, to truly astonish us with the capabilities of technology precisely because it chooses a happy ending.

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It’s the final episode of season 4, however, “The Black Museum” that truly takes the cake when it comes to showing us how happy endings can come on the tail end of brilliant work, and seems to be playing so far above every other episode’s level that it almost embarrasses them (and not just because it stars Letitia Wright, who utterly kills it in a pre-Shuri role that’s about fourteen different kinds of badass). She plays a young woman named Nish, whose solar-powered car has run out of power in the middle of a long drive. While she charges it, she realizes that she’s stopped next to an institution known as The Black Museum, which she decides to explore. While we wait with bated breath to see what tragedy will befall her, the owner of the museum, a man named Rolo Haynes, shows her the wide variety of exhibits. Slowly, we start to realize that Rolo Haynes has been something of a behind-the-scenes player of the series as a whole, given that most of the exhibits in the museum were part of other Black Mirror episodes, both from season 4 and those prior. The stories Haynes tells about each artifact, furthermore, make it clear that behind the scenes, he was the architect of many of these episodes, in no small part orchestrating the symphony of misery that composes the grand majority of Black Mirror. The pride and joy of the museum, however, is the hologram consciousness of convicted murderer Clayton Leigh, whom Haynes convinced to sign over his post-mortem digital consciousness in exchange for money that would be sent to his family. Hayne’s plans for that post-mortem consciousness, which he obligingly relates to us, are downright disturbing. He imprisons what remains of Clayton in a replica of an electric chair, and for a small price visitors could inflict that agony on him over and over. For a while this helped Rolo bring in plenty of money, but after a time the novelty wore off and protests drove down the museum’s turnout, until only the wealthy and sadistic visited, paying a high price to torture Clayton past the limits of what his digital consciousness could endure, reducing him to a husk. The episode only then, as Rolo suddenly begins to asphyxiate, reveals its final twist: Nish is Clayton’s daughter. She tells us that Clayton was actually exonerated, and that the news of what torture Hayne put him through drove her mother to kill herself. As Rolo passes out, Nish transfers his consciousness into the hologram of Clayton and electrocutes it for fifteen seconds, just long enough that the digital consciousness is erased, both killing Rolo and finally allowing her father rest. The episode ends with Nish driving off into the desert, smiling and triumphant, as happy an ending as we could imagine.

What’s most interesting about this episode by far, however, is the way it functions as an allegory for the show itself. That is does function as an allegory is obvious, considering that all the exhibits in the museum call back to other episodes during the course of the show’s four seasons, that one of the important pieces of information about Clayton Leigh the episode chooses to tell us is that much of his trial was broadcast on television, and that - since subtlety is not what this episode is aiming for - this installment is known as “The Black Museum.” The purpose of this allegory is somewhat remarkable. Remember how I said that Black Mirror usually frames the creation of advanced artificial intelligence that has internal life only to have it engage in menial labor an incredible act of cruelty? Well, “The Black Museum” takes this a step further to suggest that the creation of rich and detailed characters with their own interior lives can be an act of cruelty, especially if we create them only to subject them to misery after misery. Its entirely underlying message is that the act of making Black Mirror and using it mostly as a way for us to marvel at all the different ways technology can bring us misery and is every single bit as horrific a cruelty as creating what is functionally a person and trapping them in a bland, unfulfilling reality. And with this fixed firmly in our minds, the episode decides to make two indictments even more shocking when we first recognize them. One is to the showrunners themselves, who are very clearly represented in the episode by Rolo. The indictment here is that, in profiting off of the misery of its characters, the show and those creating it are every bit as reprehensible as Haynes himself, making his money off of the suffering of real people The fact that the movie presents his payback and demise as the ultimate good ending makes this point all the more powerfully. The other, however, is of us. We’re nothing more than the visitors to the black museum, here to gawk at the misery of people that the show has spent four seasons arguing as just as real as we are, just as people both gawked at Clayton’s trial and came to electrocute him all over again. The episode, in other words, recognizes that we’ve spent its entirety waiting, with trepidation and possibly even eagerness, to learn what tragedy would befall Nish, and smacks us sideways by saying “what on earth is wrong with you?” And it does so precisely because it commits to Nish’s happy, triumphant ending.

In comparison, the season’s three “unhappy” episodes read like uninteresting regurgitations of tired Science Fiction tropes. Episode 2 essentially tells us nothing more interesting than “technology will give parents ways to violate the privacy of their children,” which is far from a novel thought; episode 3 merely shows us that new technologies will make it harder and harder for us to keep secrets at all, something practically every teenager could tell you; and episode 5 reads like every other “technology has destroyed mankind” story, with the single added interesting element of the robotic killing machine massacring our human cast being rather adorable. I think this is because of a problematic perception we have of happiness and fear, which is pretty much the theme of this series of blog posts. There’s a belief that something which shows us a sad ending, or strives for seriousness, has already done most of the work toward being insightful and meaningful, because it takes entertainment and makes it dour. I think this has the side-effect, often, of hampering creators attempting to create something that’s a cautionary tale or meant to have an unhappy ending. Too often it’s easy to believe that the unhappiness, the misery, will be enough, that its mere existence will mean that we have created something meaningful, when in reality it’s probably even more important to ensure that the misery inflicted on characters or audiences has a point than it is to ensure the joy we gift them is. There is a place for cautionary tales and sadness in storytelling, of course, but there should be a point to all of it. The happy episodes of Black Mirror’s season 4 show us that insight and meaning can be woven out of happiness and uplifting stories not in spite of that happiness, but because of it. Each one of them could have ended unhappily, and it’s easy to see how. But those endings would have been far less powerful, and meant substantially less. It’s precisely the happy endings in these three episodes discussed that hold the vast majority of their insightful, interesting messages, and these episodes in turn show us that happy endings are something to strive for, to challenge ourselves with. How’s that for a future of wonder?

With excitement and optimism,

Alex