The National Anthem
What a messed up way to start a show. The princess of the royal family is kidnapped and the demand of the kidnapper is that the Prime Minister, Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear), have intercourse with a pig on live TV. Law enforcement starts hunting for the princess but as time ticks on, the reality of what may have to happen becomes more and more real.
Right out of the gate Black Mirror leaps into the offensive and taboo, but it is perhaps not as salacious and exploitative as it might appear at first glance. The episode is making a strong statement about the growing escalation of what is considered okay to broadcast and what people will willingly watch out of morbid curiosity. No one has to turn into the program and yet everyone is glued to the sets to see if the prime minister will go through with it.
And as crazy as it sounds for a political figure to have sex with a pig, less than five years later Prime Minister David Cameron would be accused of sticking his member inside the mouth of a dead pig during his college years. It was never corroborated, but the media zoo (pun intended) that followed was not unlike the one depicted here: people obsessed over something taboo that questions if anything will be considered indecent anymore.
It also sets the tone of Black Mirror as a series. The question that lingers for society as it recovers from the wake of this story is “where do we go from here?” Is society so far gone as to be irredeemable? Has darkness won the day? Has our obsession with technology taken us to a place we can no longer come back from?
Fifteen Million Merits
This episode depicts a dystopian society where everyone bikes to generate power in order to earn merits, currency used to buy everything from entertainment, food, or a chance to win fame. Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) is a mostly solitary figure who keeps to himself and banks up his credits. One day he falls for a fellow biker named Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) who he encourages to pursue singing on one of the entertainment shows that plays for the bikers. However, when Abi auditions, she finds herself offered a different fate altogether.
This episode has some deep tonal problems as it shifts from character to character. Each of them lacks any kind of realism as they play more for the themes of the story and don’t behave as psychologically believable people. One side-character clearly represents humanity at its worst as he’s constantly gorging himself and laughing at the most brain-dead and uninspired bit of entertainment he can buy.
Bing is almost this monastic type who lives in the system of technology but doesn’t buy into it. He’s the most virtuous a man can be in this system, but his denial of the system comes across as a platform for indignant self-righteousness, which by the end is simply another commodity in the lineup of ideas from which people are free to have as long as the bikers keep on biking.
And Abi exists to be Bing’s weird muse. It’s a demeaning and sexist position and for a moment the episode almost seems self-aware enough to usurp the idea, but instead it plays headlong into it and takes it even farther to the point of feeling a bit too exploitative. And as much as the point of the episode is how much everyone here is exploited, no one is portrayed as human enough to make you care.
The Entire History of You
Advances in technology give us the ability to record every moment and that ability results in a need to relive and regurgitate our lives. this episode examines a world in which an implant to record and rewatch anything you see and hear. Suddenly, every intimate moment or awkward exchange is instantly replayable for a talking point at dinner or an attempt to relive the a night of sexual ecstasy. For Liam (Toby Kebbell), he fears his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) might not be honest about her past and the technology might give him a doorway to the truth.
The best of the opening season, this episode is an excellent balance of character, plot, concept, and theme. Every bit of one folds into the other to allow the episode to never feel as if it teeters too far one way or the other. The moments of interpersonal conflict feed directly into the ability to replay the fight you just had or showing an old memory to catch someone in a lie. Suddenly, the truth can be played back on demand, but the truth may not always be shown in love.
Watching this couple tear at each other through this technology demonstrates that age-old anxieties about lies and infidelity are only compounded by technology that might give us the truth, but cannot give us love, understanding, or forgiveness. To err is human, but the machine’s records are cold and easily repeatable, and even easier to misuse in the heat of the moment.
This episode demonstrates what Black Mirror can be at its best: an examination of humanity’s flaws and how they can be amplified and exploited through the misuse of technology. As the name of the show implies, the show is a reflection of an audience, but a black one, a dark look at who we are and a glimpse into the future of what we might become if we do not take the lessons of these stories to heart.
Be Right Back
Martha (Hayley Atwell) is an artist who lives an unassuming life with Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), a social media obsessed man who has to be pried away from his phone. Ash dies in a tragic traffic accident, leaving Martha distraught, especially after she finds out she is pregnant with his child. To help fill the gap of loneliness, Martha enlists in an AI program that plays on her phone, simulating Ash’s voice via his social media profiles and audio conversations. But this isn’t enough and Martha finds herself escalating the level of technology until it reaches an uncomfortable level.
Both Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson give fantastic performances here, first as a simple couple and then later as a bizarre woman and her AI. Hayley is able to tap into raw feelings of human grief while also selling the moments of vulnerability that lead the character to make odd decisions. And Domhnall Gleeson gives an unnerving performance as a strong approximation of a human being, but one ultimately lacking the soul and imperfections of a real human being.
Out of all the episodes so far, this one comes the closest of what might actually come to pass. The idea of a service that would try to replicate a lost love one through AI is not that far-fetched and it also taps into how technology can be twisted into something unhealthy. Martha has a true need for connection to help curtail her grief, but uses technology as the wrong outlet for it.
Out of all the episodes, this one feels the most empathetic towards its characters and the least cynical. Martha is put in a horrific situation and the episode never tries to condemn her for turning to technology for comfort, it only examines the deeper pain brought on by the cold detachment technology brings with it.
A woman (Lenora Crichlow) wakes up with no memories and finds herself filled in a world with people on their phones who run away from her and do not speak. There are also people hunting her with strange symbols that mimic those seen playing on TVs and cell phone screens. She meets Jem (Tuppence Middleton) who begins to help her and explain that they need to stop a dangerous signal being transmitted at a nearby facility.
This episode hinges a lot on the reveal and once the reveal hits, it all falls flat. There’s too much mystery and odd questions piled on in the opening minutes that the truth ends up coming across as not so much lazy as not signaled at all in any meaningful way. It’s as if the two halves were two independent ideas that were wrestled together into a frankenstein script that fails to do justice to either concept. What’s left is the most underdeveloped and lazy episode in the series so far, so much so that over the end credits a bunch of scenes play that exist simply to better explain what happened in the episode.
The Waldo Moment
Jamie Salter (Daniel Rigby) is the voice of Waldo, an animated bear on a late-night TV show who interviews famous people with vulgar questions and mocking lines. As a publicity stunt for his own independent show, the creative team decides to put Waldo on the ballot for a local political campaign despite Jamie’s reservations. When Jamie meets Gwendolyn (Chloe Pierre), a real candidate with real ideas, he begins to question both Waldo as a gag as well as the politicians people are voting for.
Perhaps the most cynical and yet most prophetic episode of the series so far, The Waldo Moment encapsulates how the rhetoric of crass bullying and general offensiveness can overwhelm the actual political discourse of substance that attempts to put forward true political thought. And it’s also not afraid to show how tired and cynical that political thought is as well.
While set in the UK, this idea when translated to America basically predicts the rise of Trump, a celebrity bully who makes a spectacle of the political landscape. But where Waldo ends up pursuing a more commercial side through political means, the reality of America is that Trump has now created a new political landscape.
It’s odd to call the most cynical episode of Black Mirror the one that in reality didn’t take the idea far enough. Granted the high-concept is silly enough, but the tactics of Waldo were all to real in the presidential election of 2016. Only the future will tell if we end up in the same state Jamie does by the end of the episode.
© James Blake Ewing 2019