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What's On TV?: "Black Mirror"

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A collection of essays on media, pop culture, art analysis, relationships and femininity. Basically, subjects of interest to the Thoughtful Woman navigating a sometimes uncomfortable existence in the Modern World. 

What's On TV?: "Black Mirror"

Lana C. Marilyn

It's been a while since I've really had the time to devote myself to binging a whole show. Previously, I was deep in the throes of Grey's Anatomy, having made it all the way to season eleven before growing a little weary of characters feeding into drama that wasn't really there.

So, I got around to combing through the list of shows I haven't even touched, which included Chewing Gum (finished it!*), Insecure (I know), Stranger Things, The Get Down (now cancelled, yeah), Dear White People (meh), and the now airing season of The Leftovers (a show I dearly love). Also in the list was Black Mirror, whose anthology format and short seasons have made it feel convenient to pick up at any time. Last night I watched the last of season three, so now I'm ready to talk about my early impressions of the show. 

The title of "Black Mirror" refers to the dark glass screens of our phones, tablets, and computers. Specifically, the show is a warning against the potential ills of humanity amplified by access to powerful and advanced tech in a not-so-far off future. Many episodes present plausible scenarios with heavy ramifications. More than once the series has been called a modern rendition of The Twilight Zone. (In full honesty though, I haven't really watched enough of The Twilight Zone to back that claim.)

To me, the episodes that resonated best were the ones that exemplified a heightening of already present social ills, like apathy, dehumanization and obsession. Less interesting to me were the bouts of cyber-terrorism. Power gone wrong in the hands of individual anonymous masterminds is narratively dull compared to the implementation of insidious and/or systematic perils on a massive scale. Yet to that end, the show does its best to illustrate the grey areas of morality. Who are the real villains and victims, and to whom is true justice due? 

Nearly every episode had a rich narrative, beautiful costuming and cinematography, and introduction of dilemmas and technology that generate a series of questions about where humanity seriously might be headed. As someone who collects links to articles about biotechnology or weird paranormal encounters + waxes poetic daily about the void, I'm indubitably a fan of this choose-your-own-dystopia programming. It's such! a fun show!! and I love it!

Anyway, I'll give a quick overview of what I thought of each episode. I'm open to discussing any views further, and I've even shared some links to other stuff that I found relevant based on subject matter.

SEASON ONE

The National Anthem

Loved it. I thought this was the strongest first episode of a show I've ever seen? Especially not realizing that this was an anthology series at first, your immediate reaction is "WTF - how worse can it go from here?"

The episode does a good job at raising the stakes. The life of a princess is on the line, and the prime minister can't risk letting his ratings drop ("...Oh no...") if he doesn't take action. In fact, there's nothing in this episode that stops any of these events from happening literally right now. Survey says it already has. A viral video with a kidnapper making absurd demands? Once enough people got wind of it, action would have to be taken. The episode simply showed us what we already know to be true: the internet curries favor and popularity in real time, and the pressure of higher ups to appeal to the masses can easily go wrong.

Politics and popularity are subjects the show revisits in later seasons as well, to varying degrees.

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Fifteen Million Merits

Okay so I thought this episode was really depressing and after watching it I had to take a break. I learnt pretty quickly that like, Black Mirror is all about endings filled with misery and despair. What struck me as most chilling was the fact that the system is so perfectly rigged and insular that one person's attempts to subvert it are eventually manipulated into complacent participation. The show hands us that bleak dystopian reality over and over: technology's usage in the design and enforcement of oppression is superior to human resistance. Season Three will pretty much feed us the same story but from a military angle. A black guy suddenly gets a little too self-aware but ultimately fails to disrupt the status quo. 

I just thought it was sad cause like...that girl just wanted to sing and be famous and instead is signed up for a lifetime of rape disguised as entertainment while the guy who indirectly put her there gets his own bullshit show and a penthouse loft. But anyway. 

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The Entire History of You

I've read somewhere that we actually never "forget" any of our memories, they just become inaccessible to us. I can't recall if that's a real fact or an urban myth on par with the line about how we only use "60%" of our brain power. Anyway, I've always wondered what it would be like if we could record our memories, or our dreams even. It might interesting to note that there are actual current advances in the effort towards creating video footage constructed from memories. Recollection isn't static and false memories are a common issue, so the idea of having your lifeline on tape at all times sounds beneficial in a lot of ways. In a world where everyone has everything they've ever experienced on instant replay, lying is made almost impossible. 

It's easy to think of the good caused by the memory implantation. You can literally relive the highlights of your life in HD at whim. Witness testimonials must be a breeze. Instead of a baby monitor, you can run your infant's replay to assure the babysitter didn't do any harm. And if a person conveniently had incriminating footage swiped from their database, it would immediately raise suspicions. But it's easy to see the harm, which the episode takes focus on: the way that stalkers and abusers can use this technology to their advantage. Possessive partners often demand to know details of their victim's whereabouts, who they were with, and accuse them of lying. In this episode, we see a husband demand his wife prove her innocence by throwing her footage on the big screen, and every time she does, he finds a new detail to fixate on to the point of madness.

The memory implant is shown to be universal, but not quite mandatory. It's taken for granted the way that we just expect everyone to have pierced ears or cell phones. Not having one isn't so weird that it's illegal, but it surprises people to imagine how you might ever live without one. (This analogy applies more to the phone thing than the ears.) 

l liked this episode for being one of the few that introduces an advancement that isn't inherently good or evil, and then demonstrates the ways it can be abused or harmful - not because the technology makes us bad, but because it just reinforces the worst of human nature.

SEASON TWO

Be Right Back

This episode is cool because it takes the same tone as Season One's finale - demonstrating the human response to things meant to make our lives better, on the surface. Specifically, this episode deals with grief, and results in the creation of a doll designed to replace a pregnant woman's dead fiance. The copy can't compare to the original, she quickly learns and so she eventually succumbs to just grieving like the rest of us.

As soon as I watched this, my first thought was that this kind of technology in modern hands would undoubtedly go towards funding sex dolls. (Note: we're working on making them 'sentient,' apparently.) It just seems too perfect - creating an entire person, designing their personality, constructing memories for them based on social media profiles - and interacting with them as someone who only wants to do what pleases you. Again, imagine what access to something like this would mean for sexual deviants and stalkers. It's a relief that in this episode the AI is male, because I feel like if the genders were reversed, it would've spiraled into objectification right off the bat. The conflict in this episode is that the woman wants a human, not an object, and there's no way to make her artificial fiance more authentic. It's just interesting, really.

White Bear

This episode was my favorite!! I think it's one of the scariest ones of the series because we literally just watch a woman experience a daily loop of torture as some sort of perverted justice. It excellently raises the question of morality, because the woman we originally sympathize with turns out to be a really evil person anyway. They've created an entire theme park out of her punishment, and people gladly gather around to film and ridicule her. She doesn't know who she is or what's going on though, and that's the part that makes you feel all :/ inside.

And yet. It's easy to say that this is sick but...it's not even a new concept. We used to have gladiator shows. We used to play soccer with human heads. These days graphic videos of police brutality get retweets and Facebook shares like it's casual. A man was shot in broad daylight on Facebook live, folks. Killing for sport isn't new and the days of human death and suffering as entertainment are past, present and probably future. White Bear is asking us to consider where the line can or should be drawn, and it presents to us a startling reflection of the simple ways we allow for continued and excessive inhumanity. By standing by, watching like it's a show. See also: the bystander effect, mob mentality, the Stanford Prison Experiment, etc. Lots of fodder about desensitization, justice and power dynamics at play here.

The Waldo Moment

At the time of its 2013 airing, I am sure this episode didn't inspire much fear or interest from viewers. Yet watching it with the context and hindsight of the November 2016 American Presidential election, it takes on an ominous foreshadowing. Apparently that connection's been made a lot since the rise of Trump, and really it's the only parallel that makes this episode remarkable for me. Here, the angle is that society is entirely disillusioned with politics and their pipe dreams and empty promises. But people don't exactly aspire to a revolution or an overthrow of a corrupted system. They just gravitate towards whatever's more "authentic". In this case, 'authentic' means a crude, profane animated puppet with no political platform. 

In my eyes, "The Waldo Moment" is barely about technology, making it a weaker Black Mirror chapter. I mean, in a sense it's about how corporations exploit technology to distract the masses, placating them with meaningless entertainment to make them feel like things are changing when literally nothing is. Not too unlike "Fifteen Million Merits". Again, we're presented with a scenario in which a singular individual identifies a wrong with the system but doesn't have enough backing to resolve it, because that's how oppression works. It'd be cool to see an episode in which we get the opposite: where millions of people rally for a cause to positive effect. 

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White Christmas

This episode had a lot going on structurally so it's not really high on my favorites list. But it does introduce some cool concepts. The ability to "block" people in real life is fascinating. (This is great for avoiding stalkers and sex offenders, as the episode clearly shows - it's an implementation that would presumably be of great use in keeping people safe.) The cookie concept is also a really cool one; the idea of having a mini-you control everything in your house to your exact specifications sounds, well, amazing? (Once you can get over the idea of torturing your alt-consciousness into submission.) I'm deeply intrigued by the idea of "uploading my brain to the cloud" and existing solely in a digital plane. Also think it's cool how we see this device used in criminal proceedings. What's the point of remaining silent when your subconscious can be extracted for questioning? There we go again teetering the line of ethics. Also, the show suggests using the extreme passing of time in solitude as a torture method, and it turns out we're literally working on that exact thing in real life.

SEASON THREE

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Nosedive

Literally can't believe they managed to make a chirpy, pastel world somehow problematic and dystopian but thanks. Also, to be honest, watching this totally made me think of like how, Uber drivers beg for five stars and also rate you back (I'm a 4.6 on one account and a 4.7 on another.) In this world, the popularity contest is bigger than high school - it's a game of life, and winning gets you big perks the way a high credit score would. It's one thing to chase a million instagram followers just for fun, and different when your follower count can affect your access to housing, employment, or basic courtesy. To me there's something endearing about the idea of finding freedom in just...being yourself, and not playing up to respectability politics and outside pressures and expectations? So I actually liked this episode. It's dull and a little predictable but the message it offers is more optimistic than usual and therefore kind of sweet. 

Playtest

I wish the episode hadn't been a series of "Oops, it wasn't really happening!" sequences back to back but whatever. Also, this being the first episode to feature an American reminded a bit of how in anime, the American characters are always contrasted as loud, obnoxious, and a little dumb. And...that's our guy...unfortunately. His story is hardly compelling; his father died of Alzheimers so he backpacks around the world in hopes of avoiding his grieving mom? Not exactly relatable. And then we get to the part where he testdrives a VR horror game as a Craigslist gig cause he's low on cash.

At home, I recently started playing Resident Evil 7 on my PS4, a horror game which offers a virtual reality version if you have the gear. I think a lot about how horror films have a lot of obstacles ahead of them in the quest to really frighten viewers, while jump scares and creepy cut scenes are still very nightmarish in video games. The difference is, you're a real character in a story fighting for survival, and playing is the only way to advance and stay safe. There's something about gaming that makes it feel "real" which is, you know, why it's such a big industry and so addicting. I think that the move towards making our experience more virtual and interactive (remember what a gamechanger - pun intended - the Wii was when it premiered?) is an interesting one. So I appreciate the subject matter. 

It's just. The episode was kind of disappointing? In how it explored things? Hard to say. I liked this episode. I just found myself wishing it'd been stronger. It also features one of the first ending scenes where the resolution is, "Maybe the technology is just too powerful to bring public." 

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Shut Up and Dance

So we're back to another round of cyber-terrorism from anonymous trolls. The lesson to be learned is, hackers get more bait to blackmail you with, and people will go to desperate measures to protect their secrets. I thought it was telling that about 4/5 shown victims were sexual deviants. (The black guy is berated at the end for being a 'pervert' and our protagonist is apparently a pedophile, it seems.)

On one hand, it's good to out sexual offenders and racists - extreme doxxing, I guess?? - but I don't know about the means. It's just super bleak with no real moral standing and we literally had this same storyline fed to us in the pilot. Yeah, people do crazy things when their reputation is on the line, which apparently spans from sodomizing pigs to murder and robbery. It's not really surprising, and there's nothing encouraging about invisible people on the internet policing civilians. Then again, this is what happens when you make justice a public matter outside of the court systems. It's a question of how we can use technology to punish whoever we deem "bad." 

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San Junipero

Finally a pastel/neon world with a mood that lives up to its color scheme! This episode was a BIG fave for me. Probably cause of the sapphic storyline and the disco throwbacks. Also the use of "Heaven is A Place on Earth" during that ending montage gave me chills. We even get a (rare!) happy ending!! It's an extended exploration of uploading your brain to the cloud, and we're shown the benefits - it offers a sanctuary to the elderly, the disabled, and the deceased. It's harmless wish fulfillment. The show doesn't really hint much at the idea of harm or danger in this virtual world, where you can be whoever you want and party all day. So it feels safe. The moral conflict of joining San Junipero is on par with the morality of abortion or medical euthanasia or stem cell research. Where do we draw the line between where life begins and ends? 
Hard to say. But I liked this story, and I liked our two main girls.

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Men Against Fire

Maybe the real victims were the innocent people we killed along the way!

This episode is literally just "Fifteen Million Merits" with a new black guy but I forgive it because it's an even more overt dystopia. It starts off a little apocalyptic and we're given what looks like the basic makings of a zombie film. There are hints that things aren't too right, though, because usually epidemics like this are all about bloodborne transmission yet our main guy stabs a "roach" (as they're called) and doesn't fuss at the bloodbath all over his face. Oddly, his final victim shines a light at him instead of biting or something. There's a comment made by the Captain about making sure they don't "breed" and the cause of this raid in the first place is stolen food, etc. Weird things that don't add up but it's not clear right away. That's a trend of most Black Mirror episodes now; half the setup requires us never knowing what's going on.

The show takes on a "Get Out" vibe to me, especially once the doctor comes in. Our guy has been hypnotized and brainwashed so that he can be a more efficient military asset. It turns out that turning the enemy into monsters takes the guilt out of murder. And it seems like, in this world, we're not fighting a war but merely promoting state-sanctioned genocide & eugenics. People are getting shot in the face because they have genetic predilections to cancer?? Man, I guess. 

This episode is a favorite because I appreciate the sentiment of large scale oppression as a plot point and real fear. The government controls what you see and dream and smell. There's ... nothing you can do about it. 

Hated in the Nation

I really enjoyed the season three finale! I thought it was a fun episode, even though it's again rooted in the idea of cyber-terrorism, where some lone super-hacker creates an entire manifesto and executes 300k+ people, presumably to teach the public a lesson about "consequences". I also thought the blonde lady was too conveniently good with computers! But! I get it. 

I think the episode does, however, subvert its own predictability by saying well, if you put power to control who lives or dies in the hands of the public, there's no room for compassion. People will shrug off online death threats as internet folly, and even if someone really dies, no one will look to themselves as culpable, indirectly or otherwise. Nosedive shows us that public favor holds weight and that being hated by strangers can actually ruin your life. White Bear and Man Against Fire make it clear that society will turn their backs on your suffering if enough people say you deserve it. It doesn't matter if it's arbitrary. 

Again, justice is blurred. The mastermind behind all this creates an execution system that takes three victims before condemning every participant in the game as complicit in murder whether their pick of the litter won that day or not. Yet we don't get to see the guy behind it serve any time or even get officially caught. And now everybody's living in a world where hashtags and misdirected rage are the hauntings of a massacre. I appreciated that this episode felt so much like a mini movie.

Fun fact, fyi: robot bees are on the way.