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Reflections in The Black Mirror

January 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Something different from a gig review this time round (although will have another one of those up very soon) I’ve instead decided to take a philosophical and personal response to Charlie Brooker’s recent 3 part TV ‘drama’ Black Mirror.

For those of you unaware, Black Mirror was a series of 3 stand alone dramas created by cynical favourite Charlie Brooker showcasing stories as a response to contemporary issues. More specifically the series addresses technophobia, the connected community and the consequences of our actions and the cyber world we have created. Each episode appeared in a different world with different locations, characters, plotlines and one common factor: Each set of events, whilst often incorporating fantastic elements, was very very close to home and a chilling portrayal of what could be if we are not careful.

So that’s the introduction done, I should warn you that, rom now on, there’s going to be some SPOILERS…

Episode One: The National Anthem
Written by: Charlie Brooker
Directed by: Otto Bathurst

Of the three dramas, The National Anthem is the one which is closest to inhabiting ‘the real world’ as it the the only one not including some form of technology which the world does not currently possess; whilst the subsequent two dramas take place in bleak futures, The National Anthem is firmly entrenched in the present day.

The story follows Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) as he is plunged into a hostage situation revolving around the kidnapping of the much loved Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson). The kidnapper makes his demands throught the princess in the opening scenes and Callow faces a dilemma no leader in history has ever gone through: Allow the people’s beloved princess to be murdered or, in front of cameras transmitting to every television in the country, have unsimulated and uncensored sexual intercourse with a pig.

The first time you hear this your mind can’t help but laugh a little. Sex with a pig? I thought this was a drama. The sheer grotesquery of it does make the concept somewhat laughable and indeed Callow does react in a similar way, insisting to his colleagues that it must be a joke until they look back at him with stern faces. It’s all true, Susannah is missing and, to make matters worse, the ransom video is not a personal delivery but rather a direct upload to youtube where it can be seen by the entire discerning public.

What follows is an hour long thrillride where it’s difficult to take your eyes of the screen. Surely it’s a joke, surely it can’t happen. They’ll get her out. At each turn the government is greeted by a kidnapper who is one step ahead of them and when an attempted double-cross (involving a porn star and some technical wizardry) by Callow’s aides without his knowledge goes wrong a package is delivered and a new video is uploaded. Princess Susannah has painfully lost a finger and the package is proof of this.

Of course the frantic race against time for Callow and his associates is the main plotline in this episode but interspersed we have the pervasive and insidious news media, the onlooking public and the ever present watching a judging eye of social networking at first ensuring Callow’s non compliance would be met with understanding but, after the finger, it is clear that such an act would be seen by the public as betrayal at least and murder at most. This is where the dramatic crux of the story lies; there is no privacy and no hiding for people in the public eye. Not while Twitter is watching. The world’s largest focus group judging you on your every decision, whether you’re the one who made them or not.

The final moments of this hour long drama are painful to watch as, out of options, Callow enters a room with two cameras, televisions displaying pornographic aides…and a pig on a chain, enjoying a nice meal in blissful ignorance.  The public who you have been watching and who have been watching the whole time tune in gleefully, the rooms dripping with schaudenfreude but the smiles are soon wiped off their faces as it dawns on them what they are seeing, what they have become, what a man has been reduced to. Possibly the most soul shatteringly bleak line in television history is uttered in this scene as one man refuses to switch it off and a colleague queasily responds: “it’s been going for nearly an hour”.

This episode is a joke, an hour long joke without a punchline – just a punch. That’s the best way I can describe it. Out of context fucking a pig sounds funny but when you deconstruct it, pull apart the consequences and actually watch it happening the reality is horrifying. Its an exaggeration and a metaphor admittedly, but this is what we are desensitising ourselves to. The rich and famous are often hanging on public approval and with information travelling as fast as it does the public’s opinion of you can change in a heartbeat until eventually you do things you had not even dreamed of doing. This episode does not ask you to relate to Callow, although you do feel his pain as he sobs through the thrusts of his duty, but to see yourself in the public consciousness and no that all it would take to make this situationa reality is one man trying to make a statement. Youtube, Facebook and Twitter exist alongside a dozen others. If he’s out there he has his platform.

Episode Two: Fifteen Million Merits
Written by: Charlie Brooker and Kanak Huq
Directed by: Euros Lyn

If you needed proof that these dramas don’t relate just look at the difference between this and The National Anthem. We’re not in the present anymore but rather in a future world where people live their whole lives exposed to adverts, games, television and activities spurred on by the aquisition of ‘merits’, the world’s equivalent of currency. Merits are aquired by cycling, constantly, day after day just to accumulate so that you can afford to eat, add features and costumes to your online doppel (a clear parallel to the Nintendo Mii) and, if you dare to do so, skip the adverts.

The opening minutes of this episode take a much more considered and slow approach to establishing this world as we observe protagonist Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) going through his mundane day to day activities, using his vast stockpile of 15,000,000 merits to skip the various porn adverts and cycling to a calm countryside instead of the game show humiliating the overweight like the arsehole on the bike next to him. Bing barely speaks for most of the opening of this episodes and seems ironically detached from the interconnected world around him constantly bombarding all its inhabitants with excess, degredation and the promise of a better life through X Factor styled talent show ‘Hot Shot’.

Of course, much like everything else in this world, Bing is disinterested when it comes to Hot Shot. That is until he meets fellow cyclist Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) singing in the toilets. Her voice is amazing, touching and beautiful and, desperate to find something real in this synthetic world, Bing volunteers to get her on the show for a chance to escape, even if it does mean sacrificing the 15 million merits he inherited from a deceased relative. Abi sings for Judges Hope (a brilliant Rupert Everett) Charity (Julia Davis) and, head of the porn industry, Wraith (Ashley Thomas). The judges are impressed but it’s not what they’re looking for until Wraith pipes up saying he might have a job for her. Under the influence of ‘Cuppliance’ (a drink given before the show) Abi cannot hear Bing’s screams of protest as he is dragged away and agrees to be one of the Wraith babes and her new life begins.

Up until this point we’ve been shown the mundane and familiar side of our present culture of distraction and celebrity and visual parallels to break out of our own jobs cycling towards nothing. This is where Fifteen Million Merits turns on its head and shows the dark side that, secretly, everybody knows about but straight up doesn’t want to admit to. In an attempt to have some lasting fame (admittedly under the influence of a drug, helpful visual metaphor as it is) Abi has literally had to prostitute herself and Bing is left broke and alone.

He carries on his life as normal except now he doesn’t have the merits to skip the constant advertising, not even when that advertising is a painful reminder in the form of Abi’s face all over his walls degraded as a Wraith Babe. He attempts to skip, he can’t. He turns away, the screen follows. He closes his eyes, the walls go red and a noise proclaims that he cannot see it, refusing him access to anything beyond his room until he complies. This is the horror of aquisition culture. Watch it. Don’t stop watching. Never stop watching. Nobody is allowed a single moment to themselves ever, god forbid anybody should ever be allowed to think freely when there’s work to be done and celebrities to be worshipped. Bing’s personal torture is so horrific that he literally draws blood as he attempts to smash his way out of this prison cell, succeeding only in breaking off a shard of glass.

Eventually Bing amounts enough merits, through starving himself and cowering through every Wraith Babes advert, to appear on Hot Shot and uses the opportunity to get his message across. With the shard of glass to his throat he makes a passionate speech about how the shows has ruined everything true and pure. Of course the judges take a moment to process this but eventually Hope responds with a statement which resonates through to our world and their’s.

Guess what, everybody knows this. Everybody feels like this, the thing is that nobody actually cares. People don’t  care as long as they can get what they want and watch something so that they don’t have to think. I didn’t really know how to take the ending of this episode (And to be honest I still don’t) as Bing makes his speeches about the state of the world through a channel to the people as they buy his glass shard as a doppel accessory. Even something like this can be packaged and sold. It’s bleak as fuck. People lap it up pretending that it means something to them and they care whilst still watching humiliating game shows (let’s face it, X Factor viewing figures plummet after the first couple of weeks when the freak shows have left) and souping up their synthetic online prescence. People are vicarious animals lapping up the misforunte of others and constantly dreaming of a different life no matter what it costs, whether it be money, dignity or a dear friend sacrificed to the sex industry as a stepping stone. Maybe that’s why I didn’t know how to take the ending, because after all the sweet feeling and real emotion of the opening to this episode, all the shit turns out to be all too real.

Episode Three: The Entire History of You
Written by: Jesse Armstrong
Directed by: Brian Welsh

Of the three episodes, The Entire History of You was the one I found easiest to relate to. It is set in a world not to far removed from our own and addresses the issues of ‘regular’ people, setting it away from the futuristic dystopia of the second episode or the political thriller of the first. Following young lawyer, husband and father Liam Foxwell (Tom Cullen), the episode traces a series of events which tear his life to shreds as he slowly becomes a slave of the world’s favourite technology: ‘The Grain’.

In short, ‘grains’ exist as tiny little pods in the brain (hence their name) and act as a personal mix of Sky+ and Facebook, recording and cataloguing everything a person sees or does to be viewed later (known as a ‘redo’) complete with cataloguing of places and people and wireless technology so that redos can be viewed on screens by groups. Now of course we’ve pretty much all engaged in a spot of reminiscing on Facebook or, in our lonelier moments, a touch of Facebook stalking, but imagine if the information available wasn’t just shoddily posed drunken photos on a night out or wall posts between friends but rather every single look, every single intonation, every single gesture or every single change in posture. Combine these things together with the jealous mind of Liam and you have this portrait of a man going insane, you have The Entire History of You.

This is a much more self contained story than the others and follows Liam’s relationship with his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) following the appearance of an old friend Jonas (Toby Kebbell). At a dinner Liam is introduced to Jonas and, as the evening progresses, becomes increasingly paranoid about how Ffion seems to react to him. The looks, the smiles, even a laugh at an unfunny joke as Jonas candidly recounts his sexual endeavours, commenting that it’s perfectly natural to masturbate to a redo of a previous fling.

Returning home Liam questions Ffion about Jonas and she admits they had a fling for a week whilst on holiday. Liam keeps digging and soon the week becomes a month and, before long, six months. As Ffion gets more and more uncomfortable Liam is forced to apologise for his jealousy and the two reconcile by having sex. Well, I say they reconcile, they definitely have sex but both lie there in the spooning position, cold and emotionless with eyes wide open as they engage in personal redoes of earlier, more passionate sex. This is one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen on TV and made everybody in the room who was watching with me make an audible noise of discomfort. The eyes open were creepy, but the underlying meaning and (sorry to say) familiarity for most of us was what really dug the knife in.

Of course Liam, as a bit of a jealous prick, is not satisfied with Ffion’s apologies and spends the rest of his night watching redoes and necking whiskey, focussing particularly on Jonas’ claims of masturbatory aids. It slowly dawns that Ffion could be one of them and, as a sane and rational human being, Liam decides to drive to Jonas’ pissed. He arrives, slurs drunkenly and confronts Jonas, a confrontation culminating in him pinning Jonas to the floor and making him delete the grain files of Ffion on the screen so that he’s sure it is done.

The next we see of Liam he has driven his car into a tree and a hazily goes over what he did through redoes. At first he is quite rightly horrified at his behaviour but notices a detail which gets his blood boiling again. In Jonas’ memories of Ffion on the screen, ready to delete, was an entry for 18 months previously, in his house, around the time his daughter was conceived.

Again, we are treated to an angry exchange between Liam and Ffion as he questions whether or not he is the father of his own child. Ffion insists he is, the memory took place the last time he stormed out in a jealous rage (of course), they did have sex but it was only once and she made sure he used a condom, or at least he said he did. Liam is unwilling to believe her and demands to see the redo. There is lots of shouting and the scene cuts out.

We don’t know if Liam’s the father or how the argument ends because the closing scenes depict Liam alone, wandering his empty house tortured by happy memories in each room. Not wanting them anymore, Liam looks in the mirror and uses a razor to messily cut out his grain. We are told this could potentially kill him if not done properly. Again, the outcome is left obscure.

The chilling thing about this episode was the sheer reality of it. These are all human conditions, human arguments and very human responses. The grains only make matters worse, compounding fears and jealousies that everybody has the potential to feel. Liam was right to not trust Jonas, clearly, but pursuing it in the way he did ruined his life. If you’ve ever used Facebook to check out your partner’s history, stalk an old flame, the one that got away or the one that never was then you know exactly the sort of emotions this process can bring up. You know how it can make you feel and, given a bottle of whiskey and the directions to some guys house, how different would you do things?

Reflections

I’ve missed out a lot of the subplots and supporting characters for these episodes so that you have something to take in should you decide to watch them. I personally think they were all brilliant. The National Anthem stopped your heart with tension and dread, Fifteen Million Merits broke your heart as you saw the people you cared about whore and sell themselves out for fame and The Entire History of You ripped your heart out and trod on it as The Black Mirror reared itself up and showed you exactly who you’d been watching this whole time.

As I said each episode comes with its disturbing and horrifying scenes, whether they be conceptual ones like sex to a memory, emotional ones like never being alone or free from painful memories or straight up pig fucking. The pervasive chord that resonates through each episode, regardless of their reality, is just how much of yourself you can see in it. Judging from your twitter account, laughing at the freaks of X-Factor and keeping an eye on the ones you love through Facebook. This is The Black Mirror, the screen of the smartphone.

Look into it and see yourself.

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