In the last five years, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has become a regular highlight on the TV calendar. Black Mirror confronts us with what we already know: We have become increasingly dependent—nay, addicted—to our devices and, slowly but surely, we are allowing them to take over our lives. Yes, our smartphones and tablets have made instant communication possible, but what happened to face-to-face conversations? (For those who have forgotten what that is, it’s like FaceTime but without the phone between the two parties.)
In a world obsessed with the latest gadgets, in which advocates of new technologies coexist with those warning us of its repercussions—exposure to radiation, social ineptitude, death by selfies, carpal tunnel, decreased attention span and even narcissism—Brooker is a breath of fresh air. He gives us a glimpse into our fancy future smart houses and holds a (black) mirror up to who we might become, in a manner we cannot ignore. Charlie Brooker “can make you hate.”
With the third season premiering on Netflix this Friday, prepare for the terror ahead with Paste’s ranking of every episode of Black Mirror so far.
For more than a year, we’ve watched a man of questionable morals gain power in the political process. Those of us who’ve not yet lost our sanity are left to wonder: How was it even possible for Donald Trump to make it this far? It’s often hard to fathom why so many voters follow his lead. What does that have to say about our political system?
This aspect of human mentality is explored in “The Waldo Moment.” Struggling comedian Jamie Salter (Daniel Rigby) lends his voice to an animated bear, Waldo, who quickly becomes a regular on a children’s television show designed to teach British youngsters about politics. He becomes incredibly popular with the public and is soon pushed into actually competing with real politicians in the by-elections. His sole purpose is to humiliate the opposing parties, gaining him a lot of traction with those who have lost faith in politicians altogether. When he’s approached by a member of an American “agency” who wants to turn Waldo into a global authority figure, Jamie finally has enough and opts out of the campaign. But that doesn’t stop Waldo from winning second place in the election.
“The Waldo Moment” may not have been Black Mirror’s strongest episode, but, Brooker has a knack for predicting our bleak future. We’d take Waldo over Trump any day.
“Be Right Back” explores what it would be like if state-of-the-art technology could grant us our greatest wish: to speak to those who are no longer with us. Martha (Hayley Atwell) and her boyfriend, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), have just moved into their own cozy country cottage. Ash, like so many others, is forever attached to his mobile phone and social media platforms, even while driving. He finds it impossible to ignore his phone—an obsession that ultimately costs him his life. Devastated, Martha is now left to cope with her unbearable grief.
When a friend introduces her to an online service that allows the grieving to communicate with the deceased, she’s appalled. But as she sinks deeper into her depression, she decides to give it a try. The service collects all the online data of the deceased and creates a new virtual persona based on the info provided. Martha starts communicating with this “virtual Ash” through email, but soon finds it’s not enough. When the service offers her a synthetic body based on photos and voice recordings of Ash, she readily buys it—only to come to realize that, while it may look and sound like Ash, it lacks her late boyfriend’s emotional traits.
“Be Right Back” examines our own mortality and our tendency to play God. It shines a spotlight on our desperate need to reverse a natural and necessary part of life without considering the consequences on our emotional and logical being.
In a future dystopia, first-class citizens generate power by pedalling exercise bikes all day. This earns them “merits,” a virtual currency that can only be spent on digital entertainment and products. They live in small cells, surrounded by display panels constantly streaming stupefying game shows and advertising that can’t be clicked away unless you have more than a certain number of merits. Second-class citizens are subjected to humiliation on vile TV programs, used as shooting targets on videogames, or—if they’re lucky—become cleaners, forced to take the abuse of first-class citizens.
Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) is a first-class citizen with more than fifteen million merits to his name. Seeing as the merits can only be spent on ridiculous online entertainment, his salary isn’t worth much to him. Until he meets Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), a second-class citizen with a mesmerizing voice. He decides to spend his merits on a ticket to get Abi on Hot Shots, a show resembling The X Factor. Things do not end well for Abi, leaving Bing heartbroken. He plans his revenge and dedicates the coming months to earning the number of merits needed to get on Hot Shots himself. Holding a glass shard to his throat, he threatens suicide live on stage. But all it gets him is his own show.
The set design and visuals on “Fifteen Million Merits” are overwhelming, luring us into a future of forced, mind-numbing entertainment and screen-dependency.
In “The Entire History of You,” people have a so-called “grain” implanted in them. The grain records everything they do or say, and these recordings can be played back on a screen at any given time. That’s called a “re-do.” Liam (Toby Kebbell) has come to depend on the re-do for professional as well as personal reasons, often replaying certain conversations and situations over and over again. When he learns that his wife, Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), had an affair with Jonas (Tom Cullen), Liam demands that Jonas delete all his files on Ffion. Jonas complies. But while Jonas has Ffion displayed on a big screen, Liam notices a file that proves Ffion and Jonas had sex eighteen months prior—around the same time Liam and Ffion’s daughter was conceived.
The episode closes with Liam wandering around his empty house replaying memories of happy times with Ffion and his daughter, before steering towards the bathroom and cutting the grain out from behind his ear. The concept of “The Entire History of You” is exciting until you truly understand what it means to be stuck in the past and unable to move forward. It also takes the question of privacy to a whole new level—your memories are no longer your own.
In 2014, Brooker offered us a Christmas gift: A feature-length episode titled “White Christmas.” The episode opens with Joe (Rafe Spall) and Matt (Jon Hamm) starting their day in a little cottage surrounded by nothing but snow. They’re at the remote outpost on a job and seem to have been so for the past five years. However, following their interaction, it becomes clear that they are like strangers to one another. Joe does not want to discuss why he took the job, but he insists on hearing Matt’s story.
Matt’s job used to consist of developing computer programs called “cookies,” which are extracted from human consciousness, take on the appearance of their owners, and subjected to a life of emotional and psychological distress—trapped in a white space with no stimuli other than their designated work tasks. But that’s not all there is to Matt’s story.
“White Christmas” examines just how fast we are approaching a future in which we succumb so fully to our fascination with technology that we become slaves in a world of our own design. Divided into three different parts, this episode offers a multi-layered experience that ties in perfectly with its heartbreaking ending.
If you hadn’t heard of Black Mirror before September 2015, you sure as hell have by now. When news broke of British Prime Minister David Cameron having allegedly placed a “private body part” into the mouth of a pig as part of an initiation rite during his student years, Black Mirror fans the world over went crazy. Even Brooker took to Twitter stating: “Shit. Turns out Black Mirror is a documentary series.” The whole thing was surreal. “The National Anthem” left many feeling nauseous and ashamed: The social attitude depicted in the episode paints a pretty accurate picture of the present.
British Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) is faced with a huge dilemma. Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson), the Duchess of Beaumont, has been kidnapped, and the ransom set for her is beyond bizarre: In order to get her home safe, the kidnapper insists on Callow having sexual intercourse with a pig. Live, on national television. The whole world is watching with a mixture of pity and disgust, but most of all with a perverted kind of voyeurism that has become a norm in today’s society.
“The National Anthem” highlights our tendency to ridicule certain people and situations in an effort to hide the fact that, really, we are consumed by their stories. We’re so obsessed with seeing how their plotlines will pan out that we become distracted from what’s happening in the real world. The kidnapping was, of course, a hoax set up by an artist who aimed to prove just how much our hive mentality has been enhanced now that we are “watching screens” wherever we are.
“White Bear” is another classic example of Brooker’s understanding of and disdain for TV news coverage. It may not be obvious until the episode reaches its final 15 minutes, but the clues are there all along. The episode focuses on Victoria (Lenora Crichlow), a young woman who wakes up to a bizarre world she doesn’t recognize. The people outside mindlessly chase her around the neighborhood, filming her every move with their mobile phones. She’s scared and confused, but she doesn’t remember a thing about who she is or how she got there.
We learn it was Victoria’s involvement in the murder of a young girl that brought her to this dark world of brainless voyeurism and terror. Her punishment involves having her memory erased at the end of each day, only to wake up the following morning to relive the same scenario. This is all part of a “show” meant to make Victoria experience the fear and helplessness her victim felt. At the end of each day, the audience behind the “set” is revealed and encouraged to further humiliate and torture her.
“White Bear” skilfully plays with the viewer’s emotions. For the majority of the episode we find ourselves sympathizing with Victoria, making it all the more difficult to find a moral stance on her story in the end. It is a direct hit at the media and its tendency to turn horrific news stories into national spectacles, riling people up to the point of mass panic and violence in the process. In a segment for the first episode of his show Newswipe, Brooker discusses the sensationalist reporting in the media. Though this particular segment concentrates on the coverage of mass shootings, the same approach is used for most traumatic and violent news-stories. “White Bear” examines the public’s reaction caused by this style of reporting in a chilling manner.
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.