“The world’s bloody broken,” says a nurse in the first episode of “Black Mirror” as he prepares to watch the prime minister have sexual intercourse with a pig on national television. This comment, in essence, is the message of “Black Mirror,” a British television anthology that has been dubbed the modern day “Twilight Zone.” If we all have at least a subconscious fear of the way that technology changes society, “Black Mirror” is here to validate our worries. Although each episodes presents a clear cultural critique, the creator, Charlie Brooker, artfully sidesteps condescension in his haunting exposé.
The first season aired three years ago, but it became available for streaming on Netflix in December. Each episode (of which there are only six) features an entirely different narrative and cast of characters. The show explores everything from political scandal to capital punishment to failing romances, and doesn’t shy away from cringe-worthy issues (i.e., bestiality). That being said, “Black Mirror” is by no means fantasy. While the characters may live in a virtually unrecognizable world, they are at least not unfeeling. The technology they have to respond to those feelings, however, warps their moral judgments in unprecedented ways.
Let’s look at the episode “The Entire History of You.” In this world, citizens have access to all the memories of a lifetime via a “grain” implanted in their heads. A couple, far into their relationship, recalls earlier memories of more passionate times while having sex, each watching his or her own private screen. It’s a haunting scene, to say the least, with the lovers’ eyes inhumanly glazed over. Booker seems to be mocking couples who complain, “I wish we could just go back to the beginning,” or at least asking them to reconsider their point.
In this episode, Booker also considers adultery. The jealous husband questions his partner’s actions, leading to suspicion and irrational behavior — a familiar story. But in this world, the jealous lover is able to exact revenge by forcing his wife to replay her memories. Is he any better off knowing the truth? Is he justified in such an invasion of privacy? The audience is left with the choice to either sympathize with him or question his moral character.
In “Be Right Back,” a woman grieves over the abrupt loss of her husband. She isn’t coping well, until her friend suggests a service to recreate her husband through bits of information he left in the virtual cloud. She shuns the idea at first, but succumbs in a moment of desperation. While we can identify with the protagonist up to a certain point, her coping mechanism seems outrageous and even a little gross. Her grieving is clearly justified, but there’s something disturbing about not being able to let go — especially if it means turning the memory of your husband into a machine.
If “Black Mirror” is paranoid about societal judgments, this anxiety reaches a high point with “The Waldo Moment.” This episode focuses on the campaign tool of Waldo, a talking bear cartoon, whose crudeness is reminiscent of Ted. Waldo “speaks the truth” about politicians and “exposes” their lies and false promises (I speak facetiously, of course, because he is a bear, although he is controlled by a human with a legitimate point).
In any case, citizens respond overwhelmingly positively to his presence in the political world, and even go so far as to support his candidacy. Is Booker hinting that the populace is idiotic enough to elect a talking bear to office, or rightfully outraged at political corruption? It’s hard to say. But the end of the episode, in which the man who voices Waldo becomes a homeless man and victim of police brutality, seems telling.
“Black Mirror,” as its title suggests, presents an interesting paradox: While characters still have recognizable feelings, their ability to reason disappears with the influences of technology and politics. In these dystopian visions, morality vanishes in the face of progress. The end result? Humanity self-destructs.