For the last few months I have been having this recurring dream. It’s not exactly a nightmare; when I explain it out loud, it’s almost comical. In this dream, I’m always in a car—or, even worse, a bus—and we’re driving up this unrealistically steep mountain road with a cliff to one side and an infinite drop literally inches from where the vehicle’s tires are struggling up the bumpy tarmac. I’m never driving; I’m at the mercy of someone else’s driving skills and I just know that, once we get to the top, we’ll either topple over backwards or drop down the abyss to our left. Nothing really happens as we’re struggling up this road, but the anxiety I experience along the way feels unbounded.
After the third night of waking up in a full sweat, it was like: Ok, I get it. I know what you’re trying to tell me, I get what fears you’re pushing me to confront. Freud, Jung et al. would be very proud. Bravo. While I find it fascinating that my brain is so adamant in letting me know I still have lots of hours of meditation ahead before I can let go of my fears, I’m a bit tired of it disturbing my treasured trips to dreamland and the first few hours of my waking life. But after having watched Black Mirror’s “Playtest,” I realize how much worse it could be. I’m complaining about a mental kick in the ass, courtesy of my brain, not a psychological freak show sent to me from the depths of my soul. If that were the case, I would wake up every morning weeping for it to stop.
For centuries, people have been chasing this very experience, this confrontation with the darkest corners of our subconscious through hypnosis, hallucinogens, and the analysis of dreams. Those who do so wisely know that these experiences should occur in a controlled environment, under the guidance of someone familiar with the rituals and procedures. Most importantly, this kind of self-discovery should be embarked on at the right time, and doing so while you’re still processing any serious personal trauma is definitely not it. Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan made his “student” return to him time and time again before he deemed him ready to “play” with mescalito. And for very good reasons.
In “Playtest,” Charlie Brooker creates a new approach to self-discovery, in the form of a virtual reality game. The episode is a vehicle into the underworld of our deepest subconscious and, unlike the wise shaman in “The Teachings of Don Juan,” Brooker doesn’t give a shit whether you’re ready for this journey or not. In fact, he thrives on the vulnerability and unpreparedness of the episode’s protagonist, game tester Cooper (Wyatt Russell). This time, Brooker isn’t just out to remind us of the powers of technology. Oh, no. He’s rubbing our faces in the one thing we tend to fear the most: our very own minds.
Cooper comes across as your typical, goofy twenty-something guy, travelling the world for the first time. His motto seems to be, “The less time you spend fighting your fears, the more fun you will have embracing them.” But when an unexpected change in his financial situation forces him to take on an unusual job, we realize nothing could be further from the truth. He is put face to face with his inner demons as a tester for a virtual reality game designed by the world-renowned game developer Shou Saito (Ken Yamamura).
It all starts out innocently enough. Cooper arrives at Saito’s mansion and is led by his assistant, Katie (Wunmi Mosaku), into a sparse, modern room, where he is told he must undergo a small medical procedure. This procedure consists of Katie’s inserting a “mushroom” into the back of his neck. The mushroom reads Cooper’s brain frequencies, which are later used to create the ultimate virtual reality game: One based on his very own fears. The minute the concept of the game became clear, I felt myself back in the passenger seat of that nightmarish bus, certain something horrifying was about to happen. This unease stayed with me for the entirety of the episode.
In a Resident Evil-style house, Cooper’s first confrontations with the spooky creatures of his own creation are quite amusing—even he seems to think so. The mushroom immediately recognises his arachnophobia and taunts him with a gigantic spider with his childhood bully’s facial features, reminiscent of the human-faced monkeys in Basement Jaxx’s Where’s Your Head At. It gets to him, but he’s still in control; his “none of this is real” mantra continues to work its magic. But as the manifestations of his subconscious become vivid to the point he can touch them and feel the pain inflicted on him, I knew there was worse to come. As did Cooper. Approaching a closed door at the far end of a long hallway, Cooper says, “There’s gonna be something bad in there, I can feel it. Some, like… some personal fucked-up shit like… I don’t know, I can feel it digging around in my head! It’s gonna be like… my mom, I dunno, like, dead, fucking swinging from a fucking beam… It’s in my head, it fucking knows, it knows! It knows I’ve got this thing with my mom…”
He works up all his courage and enters. His mom is nowhere to be seen. There are no Basement Jaxx spiders crawling towards him, no childhood bullies standing in his way. But suddenly Katie begins to affront him with an evil, menacing voice. She shoots quick questions at him: How does your mother look? Is she tall, fat, thin, blonde? What’s your favorite band? Cooper can’t remember a thing. All the memories he has collected are gone, and he is confronted with his worst fear: ending up like his father, who recently died from the early onsets of Alzheimer. He has finally arrived in the pit of his own hell and all it took for him to get there was one second.
Wyatt plays the role with such vigorous emotion it leaves viewers no option but to live through this sick game alongside him, experiencing it with every fiber of their being. The final moments are particularly powerful, as Wyatt’s genuine expressions of hopelessness and confusion enhance the impact of episode’s ending. “Playtest” is the perfect fusion of Brooker’s fascination with the human condition and director Dan Trachtenberg’s knack for psychological horror, served with all the ingredients necessary for another night of blood-curdling nightmares.
As I prepare for another trip on the bus tonight, I will focus my thoughts on inviting Cooper to join me in the passenger seat. And as we reach the top, we’ll throw our hands up in the air and embrace the fear. It is all just a dream; it is all in my head. Nothing can hurt me… right?
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.