Essays

‘Black Mirror’ Punishes and Rewards Passive Viewing

A moment from "The Entire History of You."
A moment from “The Entire History of You”

A digital implant that records our visual and auditory experiences, allowing us replay our memories for friends; an app that resurrects the internet presences of the dead so they can send emails from the grave; a camera embedded in our eyes that streams our lives in real time: these are a few of the futuristic technologies that feature in hit British television series Black Mirror — and perhaps even loom on our own not-so-distant horizons.

From the White Bear episode of Black Mirror
From the “White Bear” episode of ‘Black Mirror’

The brainchild of British journalist and filmmaker Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror premiered on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2011 but developed an American following in December, when it made its debut on Netflix. Each episode comprises an hour-long, self-contained narrative about the effects of technology on society, usually capped with an unhappily-ever-after. Compared by critics to the iconic Twilight Zone, Black Mirror is as bleak and portentous as its forebear. Its characters find time and time again that technology is a force for alienation rather than unification, complication rather than convenience. According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, the phrase “black mirror” alludes to the ubiquitous screens with which we are confronted as we watch movies, compose text messages, and, yes, even read this article — though they only become black when they are turned off. In the dull glow of laptops, cellphones, televisions, and kindles, we see ourselves and the cast of Black Mirror reflected — and sometimes distorted — through a glass darkly.

As its title suggests, Black Mirror is in many ways a commentary on watching — on what it means to live and look in a world of screens, on how looking has supplanted action, transforming us into the spectators of our own lives. In one episode, “The Waldo Moment,” a comedian who plays an animated bear is overshadowed by his creation. Waldo-the-bear ridicules politicians to such great acclaim that he ends up running for office himself, albeit on an empty platform: he stands for mockery, the futility of voting, and the fruitlessness of political engagement. Ultimately, he overtakes his Labor party opponent, securing a Tory victory and re-entrenching the classism that Waldo’s creator, Jamie, set out to oppose when he/Waldo initially made fun of the Tory candidate. For his part, Jamie is increasingly estranged from his creation, which has taken on a life and momentum of its own.

From the "Fifteen Million Merits" episode of Black Mirror
From the “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of ‘Black Mirror’

In the heart-wrenching episode “Be Right Back,” protagonist Martha has a similar experience when her husband dies unexpectedly. Bereft, she turns to an app that integrates the deceased’s public and private digital communications to create a virtual version of him. Invariably, this reconstruction falls short — but not before reminding us how closely and frighteningly the sum of our digital missives can come to resemble our selves. In unhappier circumstances, our digital presentations outshine our real-life-ones: in the episode “The Entire History of You,” a couple who have recorded their memories with mental implants replay footage of earlier sex while they sleep together, preferring to watch older and happier scenes from their sex life than to participate in its current iteration.

As the Black Mirror characters’ interactions come to consist more and more in watching and less and less in touching, they become increasingly reliant on performance. Their personas insert themselves into their relationships, presenting barriers to more authentic contact. In the “White Christmas” special, a man prowls for women in a bar while friends whisper dating advice into his ear like directors counseling an actor — and in the haunting “White Bear” episode, we are privy to the most horrifying performance of all (beware, spoilers ahead!). Protagonist Victoria wakes up to discover she has no idea who or where she is. When a man pursues her with a gun, a throng of silent, zombie-like onlookers film the chase on their cellphones, and Victoria learns that the bizarre “white bear” symbol that one day appeared on televisions and phones has transformed most of the populace into mindless voyeurs. As bands of murderers and sadists roam the streets unchecked, the “lookers” photograph, Snapchat, and film the proceedings. The world of “White Bear” is the nightmarish but logical endpoint of our drive for compulsive documentation.

But there’s another twist: at the end of the episode, we learn that Victoria is a criminal charged with passively videotaping her boyfriend’s brutal torture of a kidnapped child. This is her punishment, enacted each night in “White Bear Justice Park.” (The “white bear” in question, we learn, was the child’s toy, which became a symbol of Victoria’s cruelty.) Volunteers and performers collaborate to construct the dystopia that Victoria experiences before explaining her crime and punishment to her — then wiping her memories in preparation for the same performance the next day.

The staff of the White Bear Justice Park punish Victoria because she was a consumer of someone else’s suffering — but the whole performance transforms her suffering back into spectacle, both for us and for those who manufacture it by visiting an entertainment park. As viewers of “White Bear,” we simultaneously occupy the position of Victoria’s torturers, who revel in her pain, and Victoria, who reveled in the child’s pain. The more we enjoy the episode, the more we come to resemble Victoria and her hypocritical disciplinarians.

When it comes to Black Mirror, our entertainment is always bound up with our discomfort. The show is a patchwork of guilt and fascination: even as it prompts us to renounce the passivity of watching, its success as a television series requires our complicity. We are implicated by it even as we are liberated by it, transfixed by the very images of pain that we condemn, living evidence of the dissonance between image and action.

Black Mirror is available for streaming on Netflix in select countries.

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