“Fucking internet!” spits Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear). Upon learning that the beloved Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson) has been kidnapped by a terrorist, a YouTube video delivers both the predicament and the solution: the PM must fuck a pig. Desperate to avoid both a national crisis and a bestial nightmare, Callow hysterically demands that the video remain secret. It’s an almost laughable oversight.The digital dimension is a runaway beast: powerful as he may be, not even the PM can stop the viral prowess of the Twitterverse.
Welcome to Black Mirror, where British satirist and showrunner Charlie Brooker is an architect of paranoia. In his sci-fi anthology series, technology is the nudge which topples his house of cards. Each episode stands independently. Besides the exquisite direction, writing, and performances which thread them together, each standalone episode shares Brooker’s cynicism about the seductive power of technology.
“National Anthem,” the series pilot episode, might be its funniest — though its comedy is of the blackest variety. It’s hard not to laugh as Callow and his aides fumble through special-effects trickery in their desperation to avoid going through with the bestial demand, only to find that the terrorist has removed the princess’s finger in retaliation. Callow goes to great lengths to avoid the inevitable, but social media outrage makes the porcine coupling unavoidable. A patchwork of montages, from the newsroom to bar patrons to hospital workers to street civilians, measure the barometer of public opinion: screw the pig, or else.
But once the pants are down and the depravity commences, the public can’t shield their eyes quickly enough. It’s the voyeuristic transfixion of the masses that is floodlit, not the intercourse itself — the most interesting moment of the episode is how quickly the titillated anticipation sours into devastation. The eager masses crowd in front of television screens, only to cover their eyes. Meanwhile, the freed princess Susannah stumbles across a bridge. The city is empty. Callow retches into a toilet bowl, never to realize that his traumatic coitus could have been side-stepped entirely. But that would have required tearing your eyes away from the screen.
Season 3 episode “Men Against Fire” tackles a different beast. A team of soldiers fight a mysterious enemy called “roaches.” Stripe (Malachi Kirby) and Ray (Madeline Brewer) live for the thrill of killing — Ray’s bloodlust in particular is heightened by the videogame-like qualities of MASS, a military intelligence implant that helps the soldiers with targets and strategy. For the first quarter of the episode, the “roaches” are mysterious — liaisons with a nearby village reveal that the roaches ransacked their food stores. Reports of a local villager unlawfully harboring roaches earns the soldiers’ wrath. A raid on a dilapidated house finally reveals the roaches — they’re vampirish and snarling, and therefore easy to destroy. Stripe kills two of them, but one of the roaches manages to disarm him temporarily with a blinking pen-like device.
As the episode unfolds, you’re waiting for the magician to rip off the curtain. This is Black Mirror, after all, where nothing is ever as it seems. Military psychologist Arquette (Michael Kelly) is the master illusionist responsible — turns out MASS is an augmented reality implant which mutates soldiers’ senses. Roaches are not monsters, as Stripe learns painfully on his own. The blinking device disables his MASS chip, meaning he can see the roaches as they truly are — terrified victims, with faces and screams and suffering that is as real and human as he and his fellow soldiers.
“Men Against Fire” becomes a thought-provoking allegory for man’s need for a boogeyman. Warfare requires dehumanization of the enemy — in this episode, that dehumanization is literal. The uglier their faces, the more inhuman their screams, the more monstrous their facades, the more palatable the murder. While the message is fascinating — and considering the current political climate, necessary — the final half of the episode tips into heavy handedness. The magician not only reveals his trick, but overexplains what has already been laid bare.
On a much dreamier and hopeful end of the spectrum is “San Junipero,” one of the few Black Mirror episodes that explores a less cynical corner of technology. Like many of the series’ episodes, it begins shrouded in mystery. Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) looks freshly plucked from the set of a John Hughes movie, playing a cross between the dork and the Molly Ringwald ingenue. Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” ushers her into an Eighties nightclub where she encounters the vibrant Kelly (a bewitching Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Kelly is everything Yorkie isn’t — confident and fearless, with a glittery swagger that Yorkie can’t help but fall for, hook line and sinker. Kelly is Princess Charming in shoulder pads, but when the clock strikes midnight, the curtains mysteriously close on Cinderella’s sapphic rendezvous. No matter: the Carlisle tune strikes again the next day, and a Groundhog Day loop begins.
The magic trick is revealed more gracefully in “San Junipero” than in “Men Against Fire.” Imagine the starry-eyed whimsy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, plus the escapist dreamscape of Eighties nostalgia. This is San Junipero: a time-traveling playground for the grieving and the broken, a decade-hopping utopia for dreamers on deathbeds and time-ravaged lovers. Yorkie finds Kelly in the Nineties, the 2000s, and finally in present-day, where we learn that Yorkie herself is an elderly quadriplegic, and Kelly a grieving widow. It’s a beautiful love story — a rare and touching departure for Black Mirror’s usually cynical cautionary tales.
In Black Mirror, technology itself is innocent — behind every screen and Google glass and virtual reality is a human mind, human hands, and human manufacturers assembling the pieces. In some ways, the show is the anti-Mr. Robot — TV’s other prestigious tech-savvy show — which is about weaponizing technology and digital vigilantism. Black Mirror is about the technologization of weaponry: it is not the gun you should be afraid of, but the face staring back at you from the black mirror of your iPhone screen.