Black Mirror is not, according to its creator Charlie Brooker, anti-technology. It’s concerned, rather, with technology’s potential to worsen human weaknesses. “I think that’s what Black Mirror is saying,” Brooker said in an interview to promote series two of the show. “What if the pace of change [of technology] is out of control, and we haven’t evolved to deal with it yet in the same way that we as basic apes haven’t really evolved to take responsibility for nuclear weapons?”
In White Christmas, a feature long episode that follows the previous two series, that theme is certainly visible. Utilising a format that seems particularly Christmassy, the film began with Matt Trent (Jon Hamm) and Joe Potter (Rafe Spall) – workers, seemingly, in an isolated location – sitting down to tell each other stories in a cold cabin.
Like most of Black Mirror, Matt’s story dealt with a society more connected than ever thanks to technology, and yet one in which isolation and loneliness remains, and if anything is made worse by that technology. In this world, everyone has gadgets implanted into their eyes, presumably at birth, that opens up a world of possibilities and problems.
The character of Matt was Brooker drawing on pick-up artists – people who make it their life’s work to prey on women and share their ‘skills’ with those struggling romantically – and Matt’s tale lead to the death of the inexperienced client he was coaching, when said client ended up going home with a mentally-ill woman who mistook him for a kindred spirit, and killed him in a murder-suicide.
The second half of his story wasn’t as tight. Matt’s day-job involved copying someone’s personality into a ‘cookie,’ a gadget that would control all the technology in someone’s life perfectly, because at its centre was an exact replica of that person with all their likes and dislikes.
One problem with Black Mirror is that it can require quite a bit of suspension of disbelief. Most of the time you make allowances for far-fetched set-ups and scenarios but if it stretches things too far that suspension breaks and disbelief starts leaking in. The Waldo Moment from series two was one such episode, when things went-off the rails into the realm of conspiracy and 1984 dystopian nightmare.
During the second half of Matt’s story I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about all the flaws with the ‘cookie’ gadget – the fact that the technology would break down the minute a copied person rebelled, or the moral outrage when inevitably – this is an ultra-connected, technology dominated world after all – the reality of what was behind the technology, the suffering and pain, was leaked to the public.
The point though seemed to be to illustrate the lack of understanding we have of technology, and of the harmful effects it can have as we use it passively and without thought. In the above cited interview with Brooker, he addressed the mob-mentality of Twitter – ‘how long is it going to be before the first Twitter mob forms and physically kills someone? It’s bound to happen.’ Then there’s the danger in the mass amount of private data we voluntarily give up to technology without properly understanding who is using it and for what. In a recent article for The Guardian, Ben Goldacre argued that we lack the reference points we have in the offline world when it comes to operating online; it’s a world ‘opaque, like a series of black boxes into which we entrust our money, our privacy and everything else we might hope to have under lock and key.’
“We are left,” he writes, “operating on blind, ignorant, misplaced trust; meanwhile, all around us, without our even noticing, choices are being made.”
Like the choice to permanently block someone from our lives, because it’s more convenient than facing them, and allows us to avoid uncomfortable truths. In Joe’s story we saw how he was ‘blocked’ by his girlfriend, who had become pregnant and didn’t want to keep the baby, to Joe’s chagrin. Utilising an offline Facebook-esque technology that can turn anyone into a fuzzy silhouette, Joe’s girlfriend removed herself and his daughter from his life.
In the series two Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, a woman who lost her husband was able to have conversations with him after his death, thanks to an artificial intelligence that constructed a replica from his online profile: all his tweets and posts and emails. It solved a problem in that it removed from the woman the grief and pain of losing her loved one, but made it impossible for her to let go and heal.
In White Christmas, the blocking technology seemingly solved a problem for Joe’s wife, but not really. It delayed the problem, made it worse. When Joe finally saw his daughter after his girlfriend died – lifting the block – he discovered the reason behind his ex’s fearful rejection – she’d had an affair and the baby wasn’t Joe’s.
Be Right Back, of course, illustrated a real world problem – the huge archive of material online that remains when someone dies, and the endless temptation for those left behind to rake over it again and again, never properly accepting or coming to terms with their loss. White Christmas didn’t quite have that real world parallel and was weaker as a result. Sure, blocking someone online might be a short-term way to avoid a problem, but it doesn’t have any real tragic consequences. And if there is no real world parallel, then it’s just sci-fi; an empty critique of an unlikely scenario. To be kind, you could argue that Brooker was making a wider point, about technology in general as a means of avoiding problems without properly solving them, and as a tool that can dehumanise us and increase our disconnect form each other.
The final twist in the film revealed that Matt – following his arrest for his part in the death of his client – had been recruited by the police to coax a confession out of Joe. A copy of Joe had been made and put in a ‘cookie’ into which Matt inserted himself somehow – the exact means were glossed over a little.
The real Joe is left in his cell, mentally ill and incarcerated for a crime he never admitted to and can’t remember, while the copy is stuck in the cookie, forever listening to Wizard on-loop in a scene that will have given anyone who has ever worked retail at Christmas PTSD flashbacks.
And Matt was put on a sex-offenders register that blocked him to everyone and blocked everyone to him, leaving him totally alone, surrounded by people.
As a piece of storytelling, White Christmas was great. Twists and turns and great characterisation – I was engaged by both characters forty seconds in. And as horror it is probably the most frightening show on TV – namely because it taps into the real frightening things in life; the existential worries horror writers use monsters to illustrate (True Detective did something similar recently).
Setting the show at Christmas was a great idea – there’s something primitive about Christmas, some ungraspable fear lurking in the background. It’s Carol of the Bells and pagan customs welded with early religion. It’s scary.
I think so anyway. Black Mirror captured that unsettling atmosphere. I mentioned earlier that horror writers use their monsters to illustrate the real horrors in life. It’s hard to know what Brooker sees as the monster. It’s probably not technology though. Technology is just the hand opening the door to our worst instincts. In an interview before the show, Oona Chaplin, who played Greta, the woman captured in the cookie in White Christmas, quoted her grandfather, Charlie Chaplin, from the film The Great Dictator: “The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.”
And yet, somehow we keep using our technology to fuck everything up. Brooker isn’t trying to point out the evils of technology; he’s trying to illustrate basic human flaws that make us so susceptible to using technology for its worst application. “I hope that the stories in this special demonstrate that it’s not a technological problem [we have], it’s a human one, that human frailties are maybe amplified by it.” Brooker said in the above Telegraph piece. “Technology is a tool that has allowed us to swipe around like an angry toddler.”
- Not much comic relief in the film, though the final shot was funny in a twisted way. The looping radio and repetition of the last scene was fantastic. The directing in general was solid throughout.
- The woman with mental health problems who killed Matt’s client was, I think, Brooker pointing out the idiocy in pick-up artist’s central, misogynistic belief that women are simple creatures easy to manipulate. In truth, we all have complex and personal motivations for why we do what we do.
- Beside the ‘cookie’ storyline, there were a few bits in the film that pushed the credibility of the world a little. The register in the final scene for instance wouldn’t work because if sex offenders appeared as bright red blobs half of them would be beaten to death by tabloid-reading mobs the minute they stepped out of prison.
- Anyone who has watched an episode of Black Mirror before would have been aware from minute one that there was more to the cabin set-up than met the eye, and that Matt was manipulating Joe in some way. Still, knowing there was a twist coming didn’t ruin it for me, and I didn’t feel obligated to try and guess what it was in advance.
- Jon Hamm was excellent, and Rafe Spall I thought was particularly good in the early scenes as a good man broken, a ‘locked-box’ as Matt called him.