The Danger of Black Mirror

Ah, Black Mirror. When I first watched The National Anthem, I wanted to curl up in a corner and die – that feeling didn’t go away as I binged the first seven episodes, back before the Netflix expansion. I was hooked. Nauseated, but hooked (warning – some spoilers ahead).

I showed my favorite episode, White Bear, to a friend, to highlight how brilliant the series was. Afterwards, I proudly noted that “the plot twist was incredible, because the woman being tortured was a deranged criminal”. To which my friend replied, “but she’s a human.” He was nauseated too – except he didn’t want to watch any more, whereas I initially indulged it.

I stumbled upon Black Mirror by reading an article claiming that it ‘predicted’ Donald Trump’s anti-establishment success. That didn’t actually sell me on the show – instead, it was the claim that this show was a ‘modern Twilight Zone’. I had grown up with The Twilight Zone, so I was excited to see the style revisited.

In terms of being a true spiritual successor, Black Mirror gets one element of the original series right – the twists. The Twilight Zone was iconic thanks to its striking and often devastating plot twists (To Serve Man and Where is Everybody? come to mind). And in this regard, Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, is a gifted writer who pulls off an effective plot twist in nearly every episode.

In fact, the closer Black Mirror falls to The Twilight Zone, the better. Episodes like 15 Million Merits, Be Right Back, Nosedive, and Metalhead present future-scapes that are at once terrifying and absurd. Like the speed limit signs that also tell you how fast you’re driving, these episodes highlight a problem, but provide plenty of opportunity for us to slow down and correct it. These are distant realities, ones which we can easily avoid now that we’re aware of them. And aside from being educational, the stories are engaging and the characters are memorable.

Unfortunately, much of the series gives the knee-jerk response my friend had. “These people are humans. Why are we watching them suffer?” Yet time and again, the show revels in dehumanizing its characters.

Take as another example the episode Shut up and Dance. The story is about a teenager, Kenny, who is being blackmailed for viewing child pornography. Brooker could have acknowledged that Kenny’s behavior was horrific, while also providing avenues for him to seek professional help. Instead, he is reduced to a plot twist, and his mother’s reaction is to scream at him over the phone. Rather than receiving support, an exhausted Kenny is brought even lower. And judging from the reactions on the internet, most users didn’t feel bad for Kenny; instead, they felt bad for themselves because they empathized with him at first, before learning his secret. Like the reaction to White Bear, viewers realized that the protagonist was really the antagonist, and Brooker was a ‘genius’ for twisting our expectations.

If these were isolated incidents, I might let them slide. But regrettably, the love for Black Mirror’s plot twists and worldbuilding has deliberately overlooked its more nefarious elements. The National Anthem, Men Against Fire, White Christmas, Arkangel, Playtest, The Entire History of You, and The USS Callister – all are remarkably uncomfortable to watch, most are dehumanizing, and save for the last one, there are rarely any glimmers of hope. Sure, the world of The Entire History of You is well-conceived and believable. Sure, White Christmas is cleverly written. But these episodes are exercises in depravity, in making the viewer hate rather than love, in painting darkness rather than shining a light.

The most repulsive by far is Crocodile, which is about a horrific killing spree by a guilt-ridden woman. That’s the actual plot – a woman kills everyone who knows that she committed a crime. Including an infant. And trying to gloss over the murder of the infant with the digital memory of a guinea pig is as offensive and tasteless as it sounds. In fact, when I watched this episode with friends, one of them left out of sheer disgust. It’s no wonder that San Junipero and Hang the DJ are the most popular episodes by a landslide – they’re some of the only episodes with a happy ending.

To be fair, this isn’t new. Nor is it limited to Black Mirror. Game of Thrones fans have a similar mindset, namely, “So what if the sex and violence are graphic? The worldbuilding is great!” I’m not denying the value of a good story. Nor am I denying the value of darker elements to convey the dangers of technology. In fact, one of the darkest Black Mirror episodes is my favorite. Hated in the Nation is all about online vitriol and why we should avoid it, and the tragic ending is meant to drive home how serious the issue is. But the episode has moments of relief as well as a hopeful ending, if not an overtly happy one.

The Twilight Zone taught me that fear, horror, disgust and evil can be handled tactfully; and given that those things exist in real life, it’s prudent to address them in ways that help an audience overcome them. My concern is that Black Mirror’s darker elements are tolerated, and even enjoyed, merely because ‘the writing is good’, or ‘the story is compelling’. It would be like serving a steak covered in worms because you’re morbidly obsessed with worms. And should a customer complain, you simply reply, “At least there’s a steak.” True, but then why cover it with worms? And with Black Mirror, more often than not, the worms are excessive – the suffering seems relentless, unrealistic, and exploitative, and the characters (and the audience) are often shredded to pieces long before the curtain falls.

Perhaps Brooker understands this. Season four’s Black Museum was a mirror of sorts, showing fans how their obsession with Black Mirror’s depravity was itself depraved. The fact that the museum was littered with Black Mirror icons certainly lends weight to this theory. Maybe Brooker wanted us to obsess with the darkness, so that when he shined a light on the obsession, it would be all the more damning.

I doubt it though – I suspect the relics were easter eggs in favor of fan-service, largely because Netflix has renewed the show for a fifth season, which Brooker is once again crafting. I have no doubt that this new season will boast crazy twists, interesting technologies, and maybe even a happy ending once in a while. In fact, I’ll read the plot summaries for that very reason. But I won’t spend six hours gorging on the worms – the steak will be just fine.