Social media taken to the point where every interaction is built around getting a rating. I like this idea because it gets to our unhealthy obsession with our presence on social media. How many likes, favorites, retweets and comments we get. And it creates this horrific artificiality where everyone projects this view of life being amazing and everything being pristine when so much of it isn’t.
There have been tons of articles in the past few years talking about Facebook dysphoria and depression and I think that’s a real thing. In such a controlled environment, you only see the best of people. It’s all a fabrication and you create this false idea of what other people’s lives are like which makes you dissatisfied with your own because you’ll never be as fit, or as good a parent, or as good a photographer as one of your friends. But you don’t see any of the shit. None of the screwups, none of the nights that end in tears, none of the fights, none of the hardships.
Putting Bryce Dallas Howard’s character through this hellscape of horrible events envisions a world in which people are valued by the merits of the lie they project, the social media presence, not the actual person. When she ends up getting rated down into oblivion and picked up by a gruff trucker, it’s this rare moment of true humanity that bursts through all the bullshit.
Therefore, it’s a shame that the final act is cringe-educing. You can see it coming from a mile away, but it’s a hard watch. Here’s a character so delusional that she’ll so clearly pine for this dream moment that quickly falls apart. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a tough watch and I wonder if they couldn’t have made it feel so on the nose at the end.
Is it weird that this episode feels a lot more straightforward when it deals with virtual reality? I think for me it works better here because the high concept is a bit more easy to grasp. A roving traveler low on money opts into the next big VR experience with a horror game that adapts to your own worst fears.
It reminded me a bit of eXistenZ in how it’s these layers of reality that slowly peel back until things just get downright fucked up. It hits some good horror beats, and has a handful of solid twists along the way. The high-concept doesn’t provide as much social commentary, but it’s still a chilling, entertaining story to watch unfold.
Shut Up and Dance
After two stellar episodes, this one feels so pedantic. An anonymous source begins blackmailing people into doing odd jobs. Each person has a reason to want to keep their dirty secrets hidden, even to the point of death. And the episode waits until the final act until it shows its hand, which there’s no reason it couldn’t have given that up at the beginning of the episode.
The most damning thing is that it lacks the interesting social critique of the previous episodes. They flung us into the near future and looked at the dark underbelly of our relationship with technology, this story lacks that. This could have taken place today and it never feels connected to society at large.
This episode could shave about 10-15 minutes easily. There’s too much focus on a love story that really doesn’t have time to develop properly in an hour and it’s not really the point of the episode. This show works best when the characters are vessels, much like The Twilight Zone. Here, the episode takes way too long to get to the high concept, but boy is it worth the wait.
I wrote this terrible script one time about people all living in a virtual reality and this episode captured a bit of the spirit I think I wanted but couldn’t covey. VR is on the cusp of becoming creepily representative of reality. I consider myself tech savvy, but VR scares the heck out of me. What happens when we can just live in the machine?
The episode also conjures up ideas of heaven, the afterlife, time and mortality. SPOILERS And the end of the episode feels surprisingly optimistic given the dark ending of the other episodes but I feel like Charlie Brooker jabs at this world as kinda disturbing, especially the moment with the machine plugging in the “souls” of the inhabitants. And I feel like playing “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is ironic, not celebratory. END SPOILERS
It’s a shame the episode takes so long to get to that interesting idea. I would much rather have two thirds of the episode devoted to these ideas instead of spending a good chunk of the episode caught up in a romance that isn’t what makes the episode thought-provoking and compelling.
Men Against Fire
My favorite episode so far. For once, the extended runtime feels earned. There’s the setup of the characters and world and then things turn sideways and the episode takes the time to delve into the blowout. I was invested in the character and the idea is fascinating. As we get closer and close to this kind of thing becoming a reality, we have to question how warfare is going to simultaneously evolve and devolve.
Malachi Kirby sells this episode. He pulls off the right amount of confused, tormented and convicted to make every emotional beat work. I saw the twist coming early on, but he sells the emotional weight of it perfectly. In the hands of a lesser actor, this episode would fall apart.
That’s one area where I think Black Mirror has a bit of a leg up on The Twilight Zone. The production and performances are top notch where The Twilight Zone often drifted into camp. Where I think Black Mirror is lacking is in spreading itself too thin and the occasional writing fluke. This episode alleviates all of that and I hope going forward that this remains the case.
Hated in the Nation
Oh man, could I not take this episode seriously. And it’s so dry and serious for such a goofy concept. This needed the tone of Playtest to pull it off, a good dose of camp to make this concept work. What we have here is almost The Happening levels of bad. It wants to be serious and menacing, but I just kept laughing at how dumb it was.
It also didn’t help that I found Kelly Macdonald’s performance unconvincing. Even Bryce Dallas Howard sold that awkward climatic scene in her episode. And I generally like Kelly Macdonald, so I’m sad she doesn’t work here. I want to blame the tone or the writing, but I think a lot of it is a lackluster performance.
I think it’s telling that the more serious this season tries to be, the less it tends works for me. Man Against Fire pulls it off, but the show’s a lot more fun when you get stuff like Playtest and Nosedive that come across as a bit goofy and wry. Part of it might be that near-future setting that makes the fantastical element sometimes a bit too much to take. That’s where The Twilight Zone works so much better as it often takes a leap away from reality into a fantastical realm. Black Mirror might be more culturally relevant, but the quality of this season is sourly lacking. Still, the show is interesting enough that I’m going to double back and watch the previous two seasons.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing