For those of you who don’t know, Black Mirror is an anthology series which originally aired on Channel 4 almost five years ago. It has been heralded as a “Twilight Zone with iPhones”, but in reality it is much more than that. Through the lens of speculative science fiction, the stories in Black Mirror play with the intersection of advanced technologies and the basal instincts of humans, especially in the modern world when we are supposed to be “better” than that.
Black Mirror has only seven episodes: three from the first series, three from the second, and a Christmas special. Each is a treasure in its own right, but the reason for this retrospective is more forward-looking: On October 21st, 2016, Netflix will release series three of Black Mirror, which will feature an additional six episodes! Series four will consist of another six brand-new stories, and is slated for a 2017 release. In advance of this bonanza, I mean to review the previous two series of this wonderful show spoiler-free, in an attempt to stir excitement and get more people watching.
Episode 1: The National Anthem
The genius of Black Mirror is in how it introduces a seemingly absurd concept but then treats it at face value, as though it is entirely normal. Then, as the weird ramifications of the setup unravel, everything feels entirely logical and likely. This is apparent from the very first episode, where a peculiar ransom demand shakes Great Britain to its core as it plays out on social media outlets like Twitter and YouTube. Much of the “joy” of this episode, if you can call it that, is derived from the specific details of this ransom, so I will leave it to you to discover that yourselves.
Regardless, the potency of the ransom demands could not sustain the narrative of this story no matter how astounding it is. The true power of The National Anthem is in revealing the unsettling strength of popular opinion, and the alacrity with which it can shift. This story also speaks to our basest instincts and desires, the fear of missing out, and our propensity for gluing ourselves to a screen in favor of looking at the world around us. As a first episode, this is a perfect introduction to the sensibilities of the series. If you like The National Anthem, or if its themes make you feel uncomfortable, you will love Black Mirror.
Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits
As unsettling and seedy as The National Anthem is, the second episode, Fifteen Million Merits is downright terrifying. Set in a weird dystopian future where citizens must earn credits by generating power by riding stationary bikes, this episode satirizes everything from consumer culture to reality shows to fame-seeking. Obese people, who are unable to generate power on the bikes, are teased and taunted as they perform menial tasks.
Advertisements are mandated unless one decides to pay to skip them. And an American Idol-style reality show called, “Hot Shots” churns out factory-made pop stars for public consumption. The episode derives its title from the price of a ticket to perform on this show, but also speaks to the “fifteen minutes of fame” aphorism that we are all familiar with.
The real scariness of this episode is in how comfortable everyone has become with the world – and how close we are to this kind of reality. Consumerism running rampant and the populace gushing over the next reality star are not terribly far-fetched. Most worrying is the tendency to capitalize on any feeling whatsoever, from the tame to the outrageous. When even protest becomes a commodity, what recourse is left for the dissenters?
Episode 3: The Entire History of You
I hope you don’t like keeping secrets. The third and final episode of the first series supposes a world where every person has a small device implanted in their heads called a “grain”. This grain records everything that they experience, and the recordings can be replayed, either in the person’s field of vision, or projected on various screens (TV, tablet, whatever). In this world, the minor insecurities and mistakes that a person makes can be replayed ad nauseam, and any paranoia they have regarding their partners is magnified and obsessed over. The Entire History of You watches a relationship slowly unravel as a man believes his wife has cheated on him with another man.
Jealousy is a visceral emotion, and this episode is a heart-wrenching display of the damage that can result from it. Assisted by the grain technology, the man investigates every nuance of his wife’s actions and behavior, and eventually demands that she show him replays from her earlier relationship. Other minor uses of the grain are similarly upsetting, like when another man admits to using it for masturbation, and when our main characters have make-up sex – but instead of experiencing it firsthand, each person is replaying a previous encounter instead. It is a sickening, sad episode, plumbing the depths of jealousy, betrayal, and rage.
The first series of Black Mirror is an unabashed masterpiece. Each story is absurd in its own way, yet disturbingly relevant to our lives today. Whether the episode is dealing with “going viral”, reality shows, or surveillance and secrecy, we can recognize that these futures are well within the realm of possibility.