Review by Katie Connell, York University
Black Mirror (Season 3)
Netflix and Channel 4, 2016. Netflix Original' series
In discussing Netflix and Channel 4’s fall release of the third season of its anthology series, Black Mirror, a friend noted that he watched the show to deliberately feel anxious. Indeed, one wonders what might propel viewers to stick with a program that has seemed to tap the nerve of some of our most potent anxieties about technology, that pushes these anxieties to a narrative “breaking point,” and ask that viewers hover in a state of grim irresolution (VanDerWerff)
In Season Three of Black Mirror, viewers follow various characters through six separate dystopias. Reviving its episodic structure from the first two seasons, Black Mirror presents some futures that are relatively obscure and others that are more recognizable. The stranger and seemingly more distant worlds are actualized in episodes like “San Junipero,” which occurs in the middle of the season and speculates a future in which humans have the opportunity of connecting their conscious minds to a virtual reality system—a hyper-real heaven—into which they can “pass over” following physical death. In this diegesis, two queer women grapple with the affective consequences of digital immortality together, resulting in an ending equal parts queer utopia and Sarte’s Huis Clos.
The fifth episode, “Men Against Fire,” focuses on a military regiment in a post-apocalyptic rural landscape in Denmark. The soldiers of this regiment are implanted with a “Mass,” which programs them to view humans on one side of a conflict as horrifying monsters called Roaches. This transformation facilitates the soldiers’ mission to hunt and kill Roaches without—literally—losing any sleep at night: as a nice, Freudian touch the “Mass” edits and authors the dreams of these soldiers so that they avoid experiencing any repressed remorse. While the ideological parallels between this plot and the dehumanization of refugees are quite obvious, the military technologies visualized are, at the moment, implausibly futuristic. In a similarly remote vein, the season finale, “Hated in the Nation,” offers a dramatic solution to the current ecological crisis of colony collapse disorder that has resulted in the dying out of western honeybees. This episode fictionalizes an England in which government funded robotic bees called ADIs (autonomous drone insects) have replaced the original species. While these engineered bees are designed to pollinate plants, the government secretly uses camera sensors implanted in the bees for surveillance.
The third episode, “Shut Up and Dance,” also explores issues of privacy and surveillance but presents a more immediate future in which internet vigilantes, driven by a shared moral project, hack private webcams to blackmail users that transgress their shared ethical code. Viewers never meet these anonymous vigilante hackers, a narrative choice that preserves the spirit of early Anonymous operations and The Impact Team’s 2015 Ashley Madison hack, which the episode references. Instead, viewers of “Shut Up and Dance” watch the psychological effects of blackmail on those hacked.
Episode Two, “Playest,” is another that speaks to familiar tech-developments and debates. In this episode, an American travelling in London is given the opportunity to test a cutting edge VR gaming system which uses biotechnology to hack the unconscious memories of the player in order to build more challenging worlds for them. While using VR technology to break down cultural barriers and inspire empathy has been a recent topic of discussion, “Playtest” suggests that VR can just as easily replicate and trigger trauma.
In the season premiere, “Nosedive,” globalization and social media have birthed a pastel dystopia that calls forth a recent SF aesthetic present in films like Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013) or Drake Doremus’ Equals (2015). In “Nosedive,” socio-political stratifications categorize humans based on their social media ratings, with a higher popularity rating allowing for increased social privilege and access. Many reviewers and critics have already noted the parallels between this dystopia and China’s proposed implementation of a Social Credit System. This noted, “Nosedive” is more successful in speaking to broader issues like gender performativity on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Through exploring who gets to occupy the highest ratings, “Nosedive,” also suggests that despite appearing as a democratized force, social media can often serve to expedite the status of those already occupying positions of privilege. However, despite subtly pointing at issues of race, privilege, and social access, “Nosedive” is disappointing in its direct avoidance of these issues. As the central character Lacey’s (Bryce Dallas Howards) rating declines over the course of the episodes, I couldn’t help but feel that the more pressing conflicts were those expressed by people of color in the episode, particularly Lacey’s co-worker Chester (Kadiff Kirwan). After a breaking up with a mutual friend, Chester is shunned by his colleagues who actively downvote his rating. His storyline culminates in an upsetting scene where he loses his key to the office and begs Lacey the kindness of letting him in. Concerned with preserving her own escalating rating, Lacey shuts the door in his face. But “Nosedive” drops rather than extends Chester’s subplot and we never see him again. While Black Mirror deploys more representational casting than many other programs on mainstream television in the US and UK, racism remains an issue that the show swerves away from.
In all of its episodes, Black Mirror seeks to call into question practices like personal branding, public shaming, surveillance and biotechnology. Instead of resolving these issues by having characters take on the politically oppressive extensions of the technology they use—fantasies of protagonists who rise up that are so frequently the plot of dystopian films—Black Mirror leaves these institutions looming largely and the fate of its characters deeply uncertain. Instead of this being frustratingly avoidant of speculating solutions beyond the problems the show presents, this openness makes the program a ripe area for many different directions of critical exploration. Contrastingly, in long-form television, viewers are validated through watching characters become familiar as they grow, change, and overcome obstacles. This is why so much emphasis is placed on the perfectibility of the “series finale” amongst both writers and fans. When a show ends—either for the week or forever—viewers are often left with the melancholic nostalgia of missing a familiar world they spent a significant amount of time occupying. In Black Mirror, characters are crushed by the weight of the problems they encounter—the biopolitical order being an undefeatable beast—and their growth or regression cannot be revisited: the episodic structure only gives viewers limited access.
What, then, does Black Mirror offer for its viewers? Instead of feeling nostalgic for the fictional world of the show, viewers are left with the widening terror that they need only open their browsers to revisit versions of its dystopias. For an episodic genre show that combines science fiction, human drama, and horror, Black Mirror’s plotlines and refusal of continuity do not offer the emotional respite or escapism that can be indulged in long-form shows. And yet, for a show designed to unsettle and disturb its viewers, Black Mirror is extremely popular.
In Season 3, the narrative payoff of each episode relies on a moment of recognition—a twist—in which a protagonist realizes that the technologies they rely on for a sense of personal freedom actually come at the cost of their autonomy. Rather than deploying the ubiquitous narrative of AI turning on its creators that has also experienced a recent revival on television; in Black Mirror, government surveillance, Internet vigilantes, and social media facilitate this turn against the user. Exploring this loss of control experienced by unsuspecting characters makes Black Mirror’s third season innovative for its genre and compelling for viewers. Black Mirror, however, isn’t a straightforward parable against surveillance or hacking; the show is more complex than that. Take, for instance, the finale “Hated in the Nation” in which Twitter users publically shame controversial figures by using a hashtag: “#DeathTo.” At the end of each day, a hacked drone bee goes rogue to murder the highest trending victim. The lesson doesn’t end there: the true twist comes when the original users of the #DeathTo hashtag are wiped out by swarms of bees in punishment for their participation in public shaming. One of the last visuals is a warehouse full of these dead bodies covered in white sheets, which we are told total almost four hundred thousand. The purpose of this final image is not to retroactively scare viewers who have participated in public shaming online or discourage them from doing the same in the future. Instead, the purpose of “Hated in the Nation” is to provide a meditation on how shame circulates in the digital era and has come to characterize many facets of the online experience.
In “Shut Up and Dance” when vigilantes hack the laptop webcam of nineteen year old Kenny (Alex Lawther) and blackmail him with a video of him masturbating to porn online, viewers are subjected to nearly fifty minutes—albeit brilliantly acted ones—of a teenager being psychologically tortured. The vigilantes tell Kenny that they won’t release the video to his e-mail contact list on the condition that he receive and follow a series of instructions over text message. Kenny can’t know when the texting will end, but eventually he will be able to pass the proverbial baton onto another target and, deeming his service to them is complete, the vigilantes will leave him alone. As Kenny receives continuous, time-sensitive texts with increasingly ludicrous instructions it becomes eventually clear that the stakes of the webcam video are much higher than initially presented. In the final ten minutes of the episode, the worst is confirmed: the dirt that the vigilantes have on Kenny is that he was actually watching child pornography, and the vigilantes release the content against their initial promise (along with other minor characters in the episode who are being similarly blackmailed for other acts deemed transgressive by the hackers). The casting of Lawther, an actor who appears and has played younger than his years, was an important decision for “Shut Up and Dance.” Watching Lawther in pain as the requests of the vigilantes escalate is difficult, and while he’s completing their command to rob a bank he pees his pants, which seems like the ultimate humiliation. Yet in the end, when the full story of what Kenny has done is revealed, does this validate the work of the blackmailing collective? The episode ends with the reflection of approaching blurry police lights reflected in the sky and on Kenny’s now bloodied and panicked face. To make matters worse, he receives a grief stricken phone call from his mother, who has by now seen the video as well. The lights continue to swirl and then, fade to black. While the cliffhanger ending is defined as applying to serial dramas, in Black Mirror there is no “to be continued.” While viewers may not want to empathize with Kenny, unfortunately, we are left alone with him in the dark, forever closed off from any further progression. In this refusal of narrative resolution and deployment of non-continuous structure, Black Mirror does not coddle viewers and articulates a form of television that is deliberately anti-escapism.
Black Mirror’s decision to startle rather than comfort viewers reflects the context from which the third season emerges. The betrayal and unpredictability from larger systems and technologies in which humans put our confidence are what do almost uncanny dark-mirroring in the show. It makes sense that these themes resonate with viewers. Season three of Black Mirror aired in late October of 2016. A collaboration between Britain’s Channel4 and American Netflix, this season’s release fell post-Brexit and eerily close to the November 9th election of Donald Trump in the United States. As a testament to the influence of the show, images of anti-Trump protest signs, memes, and tweets have circulated virally articulating phrases like “This episode of Black Mirror Sucks,” implying that November 9th officially marked the current moment as a dystopic one (Philpott). Of course, for already marginalized people, Black Mirror’s visualizations of surveillance technologies and rendering humans powerless have been familiar for a long time. Immediately after the election Black Mirror’s own promotional account tweeted: “This isn’t an episode. This isn’t marketing. This is reality.” In an election, too, where hacks and leaks were—and continue to be—a principal issue, episodes like “Hated in the Nation” and “Shut Up and Dance,” hold up as televisual artifacts of our present cybernetic moment, in which the politics of privacy and net neutrality are complex but paramount.
Black Mirror draws on contemporary issues that intertwine the embodied human experience with our post-human virtual avatars and technologically extended selves. In this dissonant mimicry of our globalized reality, Black Mirror opens up a space that encourages viewers to identify and critically reflect upon the potential implications of the media technologies that have become so essential to human experience. This outcome is nothing new for speculative fiction. Speculative fiction often relies on a method named in the late 1970s by literary critic Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement,” that removes a viewer or reader from their reality in order for them to reflect on its social or political conditions from a slight distance.1 This being said, in Season 3 the speculative realities of Black Mirror are almost too familiar to bear. In this sense, Black Mirror uniquely goes beyond speculative fiction and works to create a new form of tragedy.
In one of the best analyses of Black Mirror to date, the author Jeff VanderMeer suggests that Black Mirror is not a show that inspires pessimistic meditation on our present and future. VanderMeer reads Season 3 as suggesting that, “we should care about each other—and we should engage, not look away.” In other words, while drenched in despair, Black Mirror’s bleakness and refusal of narrative resolution is motivational for viewers who want to better understand the stakes of the world in which they live. That the show might activate viewers rather than overwhelm them, however, is idealistic. Instead, Black Mirror identifies a trauma shared between viewer and character that places it more accurately within Nietzsche’s analysis of tragic dramas. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche suggests that tragedy can provide a contained arena in which the illusion of the production itself brushes up with the reality of human suffering. According to Nietzsche, watching others suffer onstage—or, I would add, onscreen—opens up a catharsis that ultimately allows us to forget ourselves. Despite Black Mirror’s structural components hitting many boxes on the tragedy checklist, it does not offer relief or comfort. Often, it touches too uncannily on the way in which technology expedites suffering. The Trump protest signs that the show has inspired illuminate this potency. Black Mirror might be chipping away at a new form of tragedy altogether, a “techno-tragedy” that is symbiotic with the so-called reality that it mirrors.
- 1. See Chapter 1 of Darko Suvin’s text Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre
@blackmirror. “This isn’t an episode. This isn’t marketing. This is reality.” Twitter, 8 Nov. 2016, 7:28 p.m.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Edited by Michael Tanner. Translated by Shaun Whiteside, Penguin Classics, 1994.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. 1979. Yale University Press, 2016.
@tomphilpott. “This episode of Black Mirror sucks.” Twitter, 8 Nov. 2016, 11:57 p.m.
VanderMeer, Jeff. “The Complex Humanity of Black Mirror.” The Atlantic, 29 Oct. 2016.
VanDerWerff, Todd. “Black Mirror’s season 3, episode 4: ‘San Junipero’ is the show’s most beautiful, most hopeful episode yet.” Vox, 30 Oct. 2016.
Katie Connell holds an MA from OCAD University in Contemporary Art, Design, and New Media Art Histories. She is currently a PhD student at York University in Toronto. Her research focuses on object-oriented ontology, queer theory, weird fiction, and transgressive identity formation.
© 2017 Katie Connell used by permission