Technological devices are simply tools, possessing no innate free will, no moral agency. A tool is useless unless it’s being used. A gun is simply an inert pile of metal and polymer until someone comes along, puts a bullet in the chamber, and shoots something with it.
Admittedly, that’s what it’s for: to ignite a chemical reaction that will propel a projectile towards a target, tearing through it at high velocity after contact. Dangerous, yes, but intentionally so. If you have a lick of sense in your head you know you need to treat it carefully because if you don’t, it may bite. Simple.
Many technological developments aren’t quite so simple. Sometimes seemingly positive developments have unforeseeable consequences. Is the Internet a good thing? It’s great for retrieving information you might not have access to otherwise, but having a tailored flow of information has helped contribute to the fracturing of the shared cultural experience. Social media is wonderful for connecting people across great differences or cultural divides, but it’s also being used to perpetuate a massive invasion of personal privacy that’s only going to get worse unless we stand up and do something about it, and let’s be honest with ourselves here, we’re not going to.
These two episodes of Black Mirror–“The Entire History of You” and “Be Right Back”–focus on fictional technological developments that probably seemed like terrific ideas at the time. But in the hands of these characters, these innovations have little in the way of an up-side.
“The dark side of technology,” indeed.
“The Entire History of You” (Series 1, episode 3; Dec. 18, 2011)
This week on Black Mirror: Lawyer Liam Foxwell (Toby Kebbel), coming off a performance review he suspects didn’t go well, arrives at a party hosted by college friends of his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker). One of the guests is Jonas (Tom Cullen), an old acquaintance Ffion’s never mentioned before. Liam suspects the two know each other better than they let on, and using his “grain”–an electronic implant possessed by most adults which records everything seen or heard by the implantee–combs through “re-do” footage of the evening, looking for clues. What he discovers has the potential to destroy his marriage…
“The Entire History of You” is the only episode of Black Mirror thus far not written or at least co-written by Charlie Brooker, instead written Jesse Armstrong, staff writer for The Thick of It and, more recently, Veep. That could explain the lack of, for want of a better term, heart in this episode. “National Anthem” and “Fifteen Million Merits” were angry, yes, but they were also heartbreaking. By comparison, the heart of “Entire History” broke long ago, before the episode even started. When Liam and Ffi make love, they do so while “re-doing” recordings of sexual encounters long past. That says it all, really.
With no real love between the protagonists, all that’s left is the anger, the spectacle of two unpleasant people treating each other very unpleasantly, determined to smash their lives into so many emotional pieces. Of the first six episodes of this series, this is perhaps the hardest to watch, because it’s got the canniest sense of “realism” to it–Armstrong knows damn well that if “grains” existed this is exactly what they’d be used for.
However, it’s hard not to watch “Entire History” without occasionally feeling lost, adrift in a vast sea of invective and bile, with no anchor or rudder or the foggiest notion how to get home. At the end of the day, it’s hard to sympathize with any of these people. Of the protagonists, Ffi gets the advantage, because even though what she’s done is undeniably wrong, Liam were my spouse I’d probably do the same thing. He’s a petty, paranoid twat constantly scanning through his “re-dos” looking for evidence that he’s being hard done by.
The reversal of this is that it’s Jonas who comes out of this smelling the best. Tom Cullen’s performance says “douche” from the first moment he appears on-screen, and most of the time, he does come off as a bit of a smug, self-absorbed prick. But whenever someone does something in this episode that seems to come from a place of genuine kindness, it’s usually him.
Basically, it’s an episode that wields the immense fury that only two people who used to love each other but don’t anymore can feel. Well conceived, written, acted, and directed, but not the sort of thing you want to watch if you’re going through a rough patch romantically.
“Be Right Back” (Series 2, episode 1; Feb. 11, 2013)
This week on Black Mirror: It’s been months since Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) died in an automobile crash, and his widow Martha (Hayley Atwell) finds herself unable to move on. A concerned friend signs her up for an experimental service that scans her late husband’s “virtual footprint”–posts to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking services–to generate a virtual simulation of Ash. When Martha discovers she is pregnant, she consents to allow the service access to video recordings of Ash so she can talk to the simulation. And then “Ash” offers an even more experimental service. But will the simulation help her resolve her grief, or will it stand in the way of closure?
“Be Right Back” makes for an interesting thematic parallel with “Entire History of You.” The central technological conceit of each episode is a product that, essentially, allows the user to live in the past. Before Liam even arrives at the party in “Entire History,” we see him continually re-doing the performance review, picking it apart, implying that he habitually does this. In “Be Right Back,” the simulation of Ash allows Martha to, if she so desires, pretend he never died.
Think about that for a second. Death helps us comprehend the impermanence of all things. It teaches us to let go. What would happen to the world if we suddenly never had to say goodbye to each other?
I don’t think Booker means that as the central thesis of “Be Right Back” but it’s a thought I kept returning to, over and over, while watching the episode. If there’s a moral at the center of “Be Right Back,” it’s an elusive one, or at least it eluded me. To her credit, Martha has a lot more “awareness” than your average Black Mirror protagonist and she never fully buys into the idea that the textual simulation of Ash (which later becomes the vocal simulation of Ash and then the physical simulation of Ash) is, in fact, really Ash. It’s just an AI that learned how to talk like him from analyzing his posts. As a result, it doesn’t possess the deeper sadnesses and insecurities that one simply doesn’t express on social media. Booker drives this point home when simu-Ash laughs at a photo from his flesh-and-blood counterpart’s childhood. He doesn’t realize the real Ash had associated the photo with sad memories.
Martha doesn’t secure a complete victory but at least she does get a partial one, and sometimes that’s as good as it gets in life. You do your best with what you’ve got, you accept that some things simply don’t have easy answers, and if you can only score a partial victory you take it.
Last thing: I haven’t talked a whole lot about the performances on Black Mirror because they’re uniformly excellent but I do want to call out Hayley Atwell for the astonishing vulnerability she expresses here. A few days later I caught the pilot of Agent Carter, the Captain America/MCU spinoff in which Atwell stars, and I didn’t recognize them as the same actress.
Next on Black Mirror: An amnesiac woman wakes up in a frightening future where a minority of masked psychos hunt and kill while the bulk of the populace stands aside, recording the attacks on their phones, in “White Bear.” In “The Waldo Moment,” an embittered comedian find himself thrust into a position of influence when the trash-talking cartoon bear he voices for a late-night talk show inadvertently becomes a factor in a local election. Lenora Crichlow (Being Human UK), Michael Smiley (Spaced), Tuppence Middleton (Jupiter Ascending), Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones), and Jason Flemyng (Primeval) star.
Black Mirror episode ranking
(Due to the series’ shortened seasons and anthological format, I don’t break the episode ranking down by season.)