Black Mirror episode notes


So I’d heard about Black Mirror by Charlie Brooker. I enjoyed Screenwipe and was genuinely curious to see what he, an enfant terrible of public media if there ever was one, could make when given the chance at a serious television production. This is, after all, the dude who made fun of Konnie Huq in her public apology on behalf of Blue Peter, then married her after they met while making a fake documentary together in which they encouraged men to urinate in a field. What could possibly come from such a mind? The results do not disappoint.

Series One

Episode 1: The National Anthem

A very well-directed, well-paced political farce, absolutely riddled with plot holes. I mean seriously, they have huge teams of Oxbridge-educated civil servants and party staff working for them and the best plans they can come up with in eight hours are (a) fake it with a porn actor, which they were explicitly told not to do, or (b) actually do it? I came up with a better plan in the 45 minutes I spent watching it. When I asked my friends for their view on the episode, they came up with even more ideas.

I mean, was calling the kidnapper’s bluff really not on the table at any time (beyond one whispered conversation)? The plot implies that once the second video is released with the severed finger, public opinion turns against the Prime Minister for attempting to fake it. But they really didn’t run forensics on the finger right away? They might not have had the kidnapper’s DNA on file, but they’d at least have been able to say that it was male and thus definitely not the princess’s. Announce that and you have the perfect evidence to call the bluff.

Oddly though, the pacing and direction makes it just about work as entertainment despite those problems. The subject matter itself is undoubtedly part of it — the gruesomeness of the idea has you, the viewer, egging the Prime Minister on towards the inevitable end just like the public in the episode. A solid episode, overall.

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Less thrilling than episode one, but it has no comparable plot holes despite the unrealism of the setting. Orwellian it might be, but the actual setting is closer to Animal Farm than Nineteen Eighty-Four, so the allegory really comes to the fore here. Episode one’s premise could happen today in real life; episode two’s, of human slaves producing energy, is so far-fetched that it’s obvious metaphor.

This is reality taken over by Facebook. The graphics are all FarmVille and the social interactions are just as shallow and mediated as any online social network’s. The existence, the possibility, of real friendship is barely acknowledged. Advertisers rule your every waking moment.

And all the characters are there, and perfectly archetyped. There’s a proletariat who feel themselves superior to the unemployed; the unemployed are verbally abused every day, and their abuse is encouraged in media; the media empires are in cahoots with the slave-gods; the slave-gods’ existence is swept under the carpet by the media empire which produces nothing but prolefeed to fill its slaves’ free time.

In short, a perfect critique of capitalism and why rebellions against it over the last 100 years have failed. The system absorbs and defangs its critics, not even publically acknowledging it as criticism — just as Bing was taken in by the media, allowed to criticize the system but ultimately became part of it. And the must crucial point: neither he (nor, tragically, Abi) are truly freed from the slavery, and the exploitation goes on.

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

The first episode depicted a scenario that would be plausible today; the second featured a complete fantasy setting. In this, the final episode of the first series, the two are blended: the world is real and recognizable, but it features a piece of technology that is probably not within the bounds of science ever to produce.

The episode critically looks at a scenario where it’s become normal to record your every waking moment and play it back, either for yourself or projected onto a screen for others to watch. In the episode this seems to be achieved via an implant in the nervous system which records what your eyes actually see and ears actually hear; but in the absence of that, we must take this to be the most accurate and omnipresent imaginable recording devices external to our actual bodies.

We’ve all read about the impact increased recording and sharing capability can have on our professional lives — employers screening potential employees’ Facebook profiles, etc. The episode starts off on that track but barely scratches its surface: in fact what it examines is the effect that such recording could have on ourselves, and secondarily on our personal relationships.

Everyone has moments they obsess over, trying to remember the tiniest details, running through our thoughts to get the smallest hints of what went wrong (usually) or what the result might be. But when you can actually replay those thoughts, looking at all the details you missed the first time? The body language of people you weren’t looking at, the TV screen in the background, the exact tones of voice of people you were talking to?

The professional effects are touched on through a job interview panel considering layoffs, in which the protagonist (Ed Miliband living under a new name) tries to get hints about his future by looking at every detail of what the interview panel were doing. But what do we obsess over more than love? When we worry about our love partners there’s nothing we can do but dwell on it.

In the end the perfect recall drives the protagonist to madness such that he realizes that his life would be better off without it. Some critics have noted that the events would probably play out identically without the device, but I disagree — the devil here was in the details. Without the ability to focus on the details he hadn’t spotted when actually experiencing the events, Liam wouldn’t have seen his wife’s dishonesty. This was sexual jealousy magnified to the extreme because he could watch everything over and over.

On the whole, though, this was the less potent of the three episodes, but still able to hold its own.

More to come! I’ve only watched this far up to now.