It’s time to talk about Black Mirror. Charlie Booker’s remarkable and disturbing—remarkably disturbing?—new show just dropped its third season on Netflix, and as with its first two outings, the reaction from across the critical spectrum is about the same: this show is messed up, but it’s one of the greatest shows of all time.
But there are some dissenting voices among the awestruck masses. Some critics—good ones, I might add—are growing tired of the show’s persistently downbeat tone and endings.
Spoilers ahead, of course!
Over at Vulture, Kathryn VanArendonk argues that Black Mirror is essentially a one-trick pony:
>> “The thing is, for all its conceptual complexity — for all of the surprise twists and third-act reversals, for all of the high-concept premises and alarming escalations, Black Mirror’s messages are usually pretty simple. Cell phones? Bad. Reality shows? Bad. Social media? Really bad.”
Over at Birth Movies Death, the eminent Film Crit Hulk had even harsher words for showrunner Charlie Brooker’s show, calling it “bullshit” in one of his recent billion-word mega-essays, in which he argues (converted to sentence case):
>> “To be clear, black mirror is a really, really, really well-made show. It’s moody, dark, cantankerous, and a great a show-piece for a lot of talented actors and directors. And like the best anthology shows dealing in topical morality: it is aware of “What it’s trying to say” and often goes about executing it with razor sharp focus and real dramatic chops.
The problem is that hulk often thinks ‘What it is trying to say’ is kinda bullshit.”
It’s hard to sum up any of Hulk’s essays in a few lines, but his argument largely emanates from the following premises:
“Black mirror is a horror show. Not a sci-fi show.”
“The core problem is always the tech itself, not the people.”
So — here’s something interesting about Hulk’s Black Mirror essay: it prompted such a negative response from the readership at Birth Movies Death that he posted a follow-up, a sort of mea culpa for the essay’s tone. Here’s a glimpse:
>> It is not just hulk’s job to say what hulk thinks, but to get you to understand why hulk thinks what hulk thinks. Some writers will disagree with that, but hulk honestly thinks it’s critical. And the collective response is evidence that hulk didn’t do a good enough job. To compare to when hulk talked about the Stranger Things plotting, there was a lot of “I disagree, but I can see your point.” which is often the best thing you can hope for.
After reading Film Crit Hulk’s mea culpa, I went back and read his original piece on Black Mirror, curious to see if the blowback he got was justified or not. To my surprise, I found that for the most part, it was.
I found it surprising because it’s not the first time Film Crit Hulk’s let the air out of a beloved pop-cultural property, so why the outrage? Why the mea-culpa-prompting blowback for Black Mirror and not for Stranger Things, which Film Crit Hulk really took behind the woodshed? Heck, my expectations were subverted—given a choice between these two shows, I’d expect Stranger Things to sire the bigger outcry than Black Mirror. I don’t know who’s got the bigger following between the two shows, but I’d bet good money that Stranger Things has the more rabid fanbase. Why did Film Crit Hulk’s takedown of Black Mirror spark this kind of outrage, when his takedown of Stranger Things didn’t? Partially, I’d say it’s because the readership at Birth Movies Death is pretty smart. By and large, the commenters there are savvy, their discourse literate. When he took Stranger Things to task, they took it in stride. But I also honestly think Hulk kind of missed the boat with Black Mirror, and they rightfully called him on it.
But let me get back to why I found his essay to be a relief. Here’s why:
Think of me what you will, but Film Crit Hulk often seems so infallible to me, his thought processes so far above and beyond what I’m capable of, and I was frankly relieved to see him stumble down the same kind of wrongheaded cul-de-sac that I did with Black Mirror. In my case, I watched the show’s first two seasons operating under the erroneous notion that Black Mirror’s bleak tone (and “sad” endings) are somehow a flaw, and/or the idea that the show is somehow obligated to offer more episodes with “happy” endings instead of “sad” ones.
Anyway, let’s get back to Hulk’s two main premises:
“Black mirror is a horror show. Not a sci-fi show.”
“The core problem is always the tech itself, not the people.”
At the risk of being overly reductive (or of conflating Hulk’s feelings with my own), I have to say—this sounds a lot like my complaints about the show’s bleak tone and sad endings. Briefly, my response to both of his arguments is: No, it isn’t and no, it isn’t. I mean, yeah sure—Black Mirror certainly hits some horror-style beats, but it’s resolutely a sci-fi show, and—with some exceptions—it’s always, always about the people.
But it is hard to watch. And that’s okay. That’s 100 percent, totally okay. I’ve found it hard to watch since the first episode, and that feeling hasn’t abated, even after watching the series’ first unequivocally “happy” episode, “San Junipero.” Pretty much, as I watch most Black Mirror episodes, I find myself wincing in anticipatory dread. Every time the musical score suggests a transition, I groan, “Oh, god—now what? How’s the show gonna fuck us this time?” And I tell ya — I used to think the show’s bleak tone was a problem, but that was a mistake, and hell—while I’m at it, let me amend some language I used earlier in this very graf: The show isn’t “hard” to watch; it’s challenging, much in the same way Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me is challenging. I fucking love that movie, but (like Black Mirror) I’m not just gonna pop it in for a casual viewing. After a screening, I have to let it metabolize out of my system before I can watch it again. Battlestar Galactica’s another challenging show I can’t inhale — and that’s okay. “Inhalable” isn’t a good test for a show’s (or a movie’s, book’s etc.) quality.
I digress. let me walk you through my thought process regarding Black Mirror’s bleak tone; in doing so, I’ll talk about how calling the show’s endings “sad” is like calling the ending of a Shakespearean tragedy “sad.” Okay, so as I watched the show’s first two seasons, I admired the craft but winced at the content. My mind lunged for any reason to criticize the show, and naturally, I settled on the idea that by delivering nothing but “sad” endings, Black Mirror was somehow making a mistake. Shouldn’t a show as good as Black Mirror give us some happy endings, too? After all, it’s clearly a direct descendant of The Twilight Zone, and didn’t that show have the occasional happy ending?
Of course, that line of thinking was bullshit, for a variety of reasons—and here I can finally pivot back to FCH’s claims about the show: that it’s horror, not sci-fi, and that it’s about the tech, not the people. Both arguments are about as wrongheaded as my notion that it should somehow alternate between “happy” and “sad” endings, I submit, and here’s why:
The endings aren’t merely sad. They’re not even “sad” at all. By contrast, I’d argue that Black Mirror’s primary goal is to use science fiction as a mechanism to deliver enhanced depictions of some of the toughest, darkest, and least pleasant moments of the human experience and aspects of the human psyche. It’s the Stanford Prisoner Experiment: The Series. No, it’s not perfect, and at its weakest, I’d argue that Black Mirror’s mind-fucks can be pretty gimmicky, but for the most part, its heart is in the right place, even if it’s a place we don’t care to visit.
Let me revisit an idea I introduced earlier: that it’d be a mistake to describe the ending of a classical tragedy as merely “sad.” If you watch, say, Othello, and your takeaway is just, “Man, it sure is sad all those people died,” you’re missing the point. The aim of classical tragedy is to show us how a really cool person can fuck up doing what they do best. Othello “loves not wisely but too well,” and it gets him and his wife killed. Walking out of that play, you should of course mourn his and Desdemona’s passing—after all, they were an awesome couple!—but at the same time, you should feel some German-style schadenfreude that it didn’t happen to you, and most important, you should see some of Othello in yourself. You should ask yourself, “Put in the same situation, could I be capable of a similarly colossal fuck-up?”
Ditto for Black Mirror. Hell, watching this show is like having a nightmare where you do something horrible. It’s shocking to see such imagery bubble up from your subconscious, but it’s a relief to wake up and know it didn’t happen, and galvanizing to know you’ve had a dry run of that harrowing experience. It forces you to look at yourself and ask, Would I pass that test?
Let’s take “15 Million Credits” as an example. Hulk’s criticisms are well-founded, I guess. On reflection, it is a pretty shrill episode, and it draws on the tradition of Network a little too readily, but at the same time, there’s a real sense of tragedy to the protag. He’s got enough grit to earn 15 million credits twice over, but when Hollywood comes knocking, he sells out in an instant. That’s tragic in the grandest, most classical sense of the word, and again, it forces you to ask yourself, Would I do the same thing, given the chance?
Let me pause and underline something—that’s a pretty meat ’n’ potatoes-kinda theme, and it emerges from the episode agnostic of the tech depicted in it. The protag of “15 Million Credits” didn’t need any help from that world’s technology to fall as hard as he did, to fail as spectacularly as he did. “15 Million Credits” isn’t a perfect episode—though I deeply admire its world-building—but it is absolutely about its people.
Moving on: Film Crit Hulk has this to say about one of the series’ best, most powerful episodes, “I’ll Be Right Back”:
>> “But there’s something so weird about the presentation that just seems so judging of her (along with her judging herself) for not being able to let go… Is the argument that holding onto people in a small way is bad? How literal is this part of the metaphor? ***Or maybe it’s saying she can’t help herself and it’s just another patented entry of “Oh this technology allows for a really shit thing” and now people will never be able to deal with their grief the way they are supposed to.*** It just seems so whiplash inducing to hulk, because of how much compassion and understanding it exhibited in all the story leading up to it. You go from that haunting moment on the cliff to this scene where hulk genuinely doesn’t know what the intention is, other than to make you think twice about everything.”
Emphasis mine. This is a recurring idea in Film Crit Hulk’s essay, and it’s one of his most wrongheaded, I’d argue. Regarding “15 Million Credits,” I said that the protag’s tragic fall happened regardless of the technology involved. The same sentiment applies here. Like I said earlier, Black Mirror uses sci-fi to deliver enhanced depictions of some of the worst—or least attractive, least productive—aspects of the human psyche. In this case, I’d say that we see Hayley Atwell’s character expressing her grief in an unhealthy way. Or at least a somewhat unhealthy way. Or at least “unhealthy” from our POV here in the benighted past. How do we know everyone won’t be keeping simulacra-bots of their departed loved ones in the attic by the 2130s, only bringing them out for birthdays and holidays?
Moving on: Hulk argued that the episode’s ending registered as judgmental of Atwell’s character, and heck—I get that, though I didn’t see it that way. If anything, it came off as fairly empathetic toward her. She’d gotten her life back together and moved on … but she had to keep that little bit of her husband with her. It’s a beautiful ending to an amazingly powerful episode, I’d argue. (As a reminder, my fiancée and I found this episode so upsetting that we stopped midway through and didn’t return to it for a full calendar year. That’s how powerful this show can be.)
Moving on: “I’ll Be Right Back,” for me, did a helluva job capturing the erratic nature of grief, how bonkers it can be, how unpredictable, unreasonable, cantankerous it can be. Reflecting on the episode brings to mind my initial reactions to the Darren Aronofsky’s sublime The Fountain. It came out only ten years ago, and yet I still cringe at how I first reacted to it. I remember getting angry at the protag’s (Hugh Jackman) reaction to his wife’s death, coupling that anger with a ploddingly literal reading of the story’s “future” scenes. In those scenes—which I read as literally happening in the narrative—I saw a protag jealously clinging to life long after his wife’s death; I saw someone unworthy of his own death. Why should this doofus get to die in the heart of a supernova when the rest of us plebes just get stuck in the ground?
It’s telling that’s how I reacted before I knew death in any serious sense. Oh, sure—my grandparents had all died by the time of The Fountain’s release, but no one close to me had. That wouldn’t happen until a year later, when a good friend from college died unexpectedly. More friends followed—from 2007 to 2009, four of my friends died, each in a different way. Then a big one came in 2013: my mom.
Over the years, my reading of The Fountain expanded to consider the idea that the “future” scenes are simply the husband’s contribution to his wife’s unfinished novel, that the present-tense narrative (with Hugh Jackman as the oncologist) is the only part that’s literally happening, and that the whole damn movie—regardless of how you read it—is a beautiful, thoughtful meditation on grief. It subdivides grief into three neat sections: memory, experience, and aftermath. The husband’s memory of his wife is expressed through a lovely storytelling workaround: her novel. Instead of a bunch of hamhanded flashbacks to their meet-cute, her memory is elegantly housed in her art. (Hell, a desire to live forever animates my own artistic ambition. Part of the reason I write novels is because I don’t believe in an afterlife.) The husband’s traumatic experience of her death manifests in the emotional rawness of the present-day storyline, while the aftermath—or maybe the better term is the processing—of his grief happens during the dreamy intergalactic mission that occupies the movie’s final third.
It took me a long time to get my head around what The Fountain was trying to say. I still don’t entirely get it, because even though I’ve experienced my share of death, and even though I’ve experienced one of the “big” deaths that await us—the loss of a parent—there’s still an inner circle of people I’ve yet to lose … and I shudder to think of how any of their deaths will hit me.
Which brings me back to The Fountain and “I’ll Be Right Back”: Both works ably capture the feeling of loss, the way it changes your life from the moment it happens, the way grief itself is an entity that changes shape and volume—sometimes existing as a low-level hum that merely lowers the color-saturation on reality, other times metastasizing into a seething mass that blots out the sun. It alters the density of your life from the moment it happens until you die. The intergalactic scenes in The Fountain capture this feeling. When I think back on the protag’s quiet contemplation of eternity on his little planetoid, I’m moved to remember my own contemplation of my mom’s final moments. We were told she died in her sleep, but isn’t that what they tell everyone? She did die in bed, but did she wake up before it happened? In those final moments, did she know she was dying? Did eternity suddenly unfurl before her like the neverending road to Eldorado depicted in The Fountain?
While you’re pondering that question, please enjoy a clip from this most gorgeous of movies:
The ending of “I’ll Be Right Back” captures a different, though no less perplexing, aspect of grief. I know they say that the departed live on in our memories, but—damn. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes our memories are imperfect and shitty, our mental pictures of them doomed to degrade in the server-farms of our brains. I mean, how could a memory properly capture and retain someone’s essence? Ditto for the robot in “I’ll Be Right Back.” Sure, he’s built from her memories of him, but he’s a cipher, a doppelganger, a wraith—just like our memories of the dead.
At least sometimes, that’s how it feels.
The fantastical trappings of “I’ll Be Right Back” only serve to underline the theme; it’s a metaphorical representation of what it feels like to cling to a departed loved one, and if Film Crit Hulk thinks people aren’t capable of that kind of behavior right now, absent the tech depicted in this episode, he’s mistaken.
And that’s Hulk’s primary blunder in his essay, I’d submit: Maybe I’m off base, but it sounds like he’s arguing that we as a species are currently incapable of the bad stuff depicted on Black Mirror because some of this tech hasn’t been invented yet. Not so.
Moving on (at long last), let’s talk about “The National Anthem.” This episode remains my least favorite of the series, because it puts one of Black Mirror’s worst qualities on display: the meaningless “fuck you” ending.
Let me explain: When I first started watching Black Mirror, its episodes naturally reminded me of The Twilight Zone’s—but not just any Twilight Zone episodes; nope, the ones that most readily sprang to mind were those Twilight Zone episodes that occupied a chaotic, amoral universe. Most of the time, Rod Serling told morality tales that rewarded good and punished evil—but sometimes, he came up with the most awful, ironic outcome—and then he just stuck it to ya. “Time Enough at Last” is my prime example here. Burgess Meredith plays a kind, henpecked old man, and his reward for surviving the apocalypse is to get dropped into his own existential hell. Now, to be fair—I’ve heard the argument mounted that Meredith’s character was deserving of his “punishment”; that if he had been a more engaged member of society, the universe wouldn’t have singled him out for his fate. I get it, but … I dunno. Seems like Serling was just saying, “Fuck you, the universe is amoral and chaotic, and it doesn’t care about us dustmotes. Here’s what that indifference feels like.”
But here’s what’s wrong with “The National Anthem”: its message doesn’t include anything half as powerful as “Time Enough At Last.” Its message is basically “Fuck you … and by the way, fuck you.” And that’s Black Mirror’s problem sometimes; specifically, sometimes the showrunners conjure a sci-fi premise, explore it, and then when it’s time to write their ending, all they do it come up with the most fucked up ending possible, given the story they’ve told and the world they’ve built. That’s essentially what happens in “The National Anthem”: the Prime Minister is blackmailed into fucking a pig in national television. He then fucks a pig a national television. And then it turns out he did it for no reason. Ha ha—gotcha! (Briefly, I’ll add that “Playtest” also fell into this category for me, though I still dug the episode. I was less enamored of “Shut Up And Dance,” because it was basically a 4chan thread brought to life. (Side side note: It’s strange that FCH accused the Black Mirror showrunners of being out of touch with the Internet, when “Shut Up And Dance” so perfectly captured the vibe of one of the darkest corners of online culture.))
But “The National Anthem” has some hidden virtues. Exploring them’ll tie us back into Hulk’s discussion of the “default white male,” as well as this passage:
>> “And then most of all, there’s the weird power of the last shot where his wife wants nothing to do with him, seemingly disgusted by his actions (heroic sacrifice?) of fucking the pig. It’s a seemingly weird dig at his wife with an equal amount of judgement, leaving hulk asking: this is what you really wanted to say with all this? That’s your last and most important shot?”
Once again, I think Hulk missed the boat, and moreover, I find it puzzling that he misread that final beat with the PM’s wife, especially given his harping on the “White Male Default” elsewhere in his essay. I say that because one of “The National Anthem’s” quiet (though imperfect and unnecessary) strengths is its depiction of rape and/or sexual assault. I’d argue that the entire episode is engineered to communicate to a white male audience-member what it would feel like to live through (and live with) a sexual assault and/or rape, up to and including the public shaming, as well as the potential disgust of your partner—in this case, the PM’s wife. Sure, the show is judgmental of her, but that’s the point, I’d argue. Sometimes, the partner of an assault victim isn’t strong enough or enlightened enough to process their partner’s trauma in a loving, empathetic way, and that can manifest as disgust or judgment. That’s a real phenomenon, and Black Mirror uses its wackadoo-fantastical storytelling to present it … even though it doesn’t, didn’t, and never needed to. Here’s why:
There’s an impulse in argumentation (and by association, storytelling) to present the plight of the underprivileged by putting the privileged in the place of the underprivileged. It’s a good-hearted impulse, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown far, far less patient with it. Let me explain why by first offering a few examples: First is the old Twilight Zone episode (later remade in the movie) where the galloping bigot gets transported into the lives of an African American person at a Klan rally, a Jewish person during WWII, etc. Another is the little-seen movie White Man’s Burden, which imagines a world where African American people constitute the majority, with whites as a beleaguered underclass. Yet another is the Michael Crichton novel (and movie) Disclosure, which explores sexual harassment from the perspective of a man who’s been sexually harassed.
Listen, I get that it’s important to use any and all means available to stimulate the empathetic centers of privileged folks, but at the same time, shouldn’t we focus first on simply asking privileged people to listen to—and appreciate and empathize with—the stories of the underprivileged? Shouldn’t their stories come before the experience of a white dude’s?
The examples I gave above vary in quality and payoff, of course, but their underlying assumption remains the same—that of the “White Male Default,” and their structure plays to that assumption, that the needs of white men come first, including the aforementioned efforts to induce them to feel empathy for others.
Moving on: I’ll close my comments on “The National Anthem” by acknowledging that as a series opener, it does a dementedly good job of setting the tone for what’s to come. It basically said, “Oh, we will fuck a pig on this show, so be ready for anything.”
Finally, I’ll say this: the showrunners of Black Mirror know what they’re doing. When they give us all those downbeat endings, they’re doing it for a good reason. They’re more than capable of serving up a happy ending—look no further than “San Junipero.” When I watched that episode, I could practically hear the showrunners saying, “Oh, you want a happy ending that’s still true to the spirit of Black Mirror? Here ya go.” Film Crit Hulk compared it to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I agree—it compares quite favorably to that classic.
Let me close by saying this: If Black Mirror only wanted to deliver a bunch of “fuck you” endings, then “San Junipero” would’ve ended with something really stupid, like having the afterlife server farm get deleted. (Or whatever.) Instead, Black Mirror explored a worthy theological conflict in secular terms, in essence asking, If heaven were real, would you choose to go there, or would you opt to put a period at the end of your life? The episode was also a thoughtful meditation on growing older; specifically, how difficult it can be to learn new tricks when you’re an old dog. (Meaning, it must’ve been tough for the “free spirit” woman to choose to live in San Junipero with the knowledge that her family couldn’t join her.) Also fascinating was the disparity in maturity levels between the two women—because the redhead had been in a coma since her early twenties, she registered as far more untutored in the ways of the world. Great stuff.
I’ll close by briefly saying that even after four thousand words, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this rich, multilayered show. More to the point, I only spoke about a few episodes. Regarding some other episodes, a great many of Hulk’s arguments hit the mark. Maybe we can all chat about it in the comments.