[spoilers ahead for anyone who waited as long as I did to watch this brilliant series]
I’m only through the first two (BBC produced) seasons, but I have to say something about each of the episodes, so let’s do some quick hits, shall we? This post will cover Season 1.
The National Anthem
I have to admit that the specific nature of the blackmail – demanding that the PM fuck a pig on live television to save the princess – felt so absurd that I nearly stopped watching the show (and this is the first episode). And then, of course, I didn’t. Ironically, or by the show’s design, I became complicit in the very thing this episode lampoons: namely, our vulgar voyeurism. For all our ethical gesturing, we’re just performing an obnoxious masquerade. Everything is really just entertainment, which the next episode explores more explicitly. When it comes down to it, we’re just a bunch of pig fuckers. The “villain” in this story is an artist who wanted to prove a point about humanity’s degradation, or rather, to validate his own depravity by projecting it onto everyone else. This is what Batman accuses the Joker of doing in The Dark Knight, a projection which ultimately doesn’t land when his boat prisoner’s dilemma backfires. He also falls short with his back-up plan, the corruption of Harvey Dent. Anyway, the artist’s exhibition comes to fruition when the PM submits to public outcry and fucks a pig; knowing everyone in London would be glued to their black mirrors – the very technology screens that should get us to reflect more ashamedly at the distorted image of us it returns – he releases the princess early, making the pig-fucking act superfluous. During the broadcast, the artist hangs himself. What is there left to live for when all people are living for is such a sham? It’s an unsettling vision of something that feels like it could easily happen. We can lie to ourselves and pretend like we would never be interested in participating in such a horror show, but when it comes down to it, would you really not watch? Are you exempt from even the most morbid curiosity? Similar to the Joker’s contention that holding a gun to someone’s head reveals a person’s true nature, does the prospect of our political leader fucking a pig unveil our true nature?
For shame. Or rather, for shame?
Fifteen Million Merits
Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) plays Bing Madsen in a world where (seemingly?) everyone (once they “come of age” I suppose) rides a bike to earn currency (merits) that enables them to stay sufficiently entertained and distracted. The end of your labor is becoming an object of entertainment and distraction for your fellow riders. They earn merits to consume you; they buy you with their labor. Rather than get stuck on the hedonic treadmill of only buying, success is defined by getting to the “higher” hedonic treadmill of buying and selling. Either way, you are always what’s being bought or sold. Sounds about right.
Bing goes through the motions of this existence. He’s your standard dystopian protagonist who knows something is off (speaking on behalf of everyone, if they were to be honest with themselves) and is eventually motivated to do something about it. Love is typically the catalyst, or at least a woman who stands in as an object of love. Think Clarisse for Guy in Fahreinheit 451, Julia for Winston in 1984. It’s no different for Bing. Abi is his object, the first thing in his life (as far back as he can remember) that actually made him feel something. Something like…alive. He gifts her a golden ticket to try out for his world’s version of America’s Got Talent. He does it without hope for anything in return. It seems like a genuine act of unconditional love. When her performance goes terribly wrong – in that she is coerced into their porn industry instead of their music industry – Bing works tirelessly to earn enough merits to try out on the show himself. When he gets the spotlight, he uses it to deliver a passionate speech about the vacuity of his entire society, all the while threatening to kill himself with a piece of glass held at his neck.
The result? He gets his own show, holding the glass to his neck and voicing his criticisms on a bi-weekly basis. In other words, his social activism was commodified and co-opted, neutered into a predictable time slot and withering away any political power he might’ve enjoyed outside the mainstream. Which begs the question, is there power outside the mainstream? How do you unsettle the status quo without being absorbed by it? Bing escapes a life of riding bikes, but to what has he escaped? He remains without Abi, so what has he won? What is there to win? It seems clear that freedom is a long-forgotten option. You will always be held in check by your society. You can have a voice, so long as it’s been screened and approved by those in power. Oh, you don’t want to labor anymore? What are you willing to do? What sacrifices will you make in order to be conditionally free?
The Entire History of You
So much of Black Mirror‘s genius is that it externalizes – via the medium of advanced technology – what we already do. It basically takes one of our well-known behavioral/psychological habits and goes, “what if this thing were out in the open?” In this particular episode, it’s how we live in our memories, playing and replaying them, analyzing them to death, wondering ad infinitum about what they mean (forgetting that they’re a palimpsest of illusions all the way). The conceit is that people have chips “installed” that allow them to record their experience and, with a personal clicker, project it onto any screen. This starts out harmlessly enough for Liam, the protagonist, as he replays a meeting with his bosses to discover evidence of how they plan to fire him. It’s all there for him to see, “it” being the truth, i.e. life as it is. After all, it’s an objective account he’s examining that mitigates any subjective conclusion he’d want to reach and would formerly impose on his flimsy memories. Presumably, having reality documented in this way precludes subjective interference; it eliminates bias. And yet, “the tape” is still limited to what he, and only he, experienced. His senses are still the filters of his reality. What he notices and selects and zooms in and out on are still predicated on him. Bias still reigns, and the confirmation of it seems more real. The truths he may never want to really know, like whether his partner is cheating on him or not, are more readily available for him to see.
What do we lose in gaining all of ourselves in this way?
Liam acknowledges how having such unmitigated access fundamentally changes him. He gets lost in his (not “the” as he’d like to believe) past and loses his present. It turns out his wife, Fi, was cheating on him and – to make his memories sting even harder, to the point that he has to remove the chip and so too his marriage – he’s not the father of their daughter. This truth probably would’ve come out eventually, but Liam forced his wife to show him the proof of her infidelity. He chose to watch another man have sex with her, experiencing it from her point of view.
One thing I didn’t note already is that people in this world can replay their memories in front of their eyes, exclusively for themselves. This is the norm. Projecting it onto a screen is a bonus feature, really. The most haunting scene in the episode is when Liam and Fi are having sex and they’re both replaying a sexual encounter from earlier in their relationship. We see this earlier moment and at first assume it’s their present, only to witness their actual bodies engaged in routine, robotic union as their eyes are glazed over with the films of themselves they’re replaying.
We let memories torture us enough as it is, and we don’t have this proof to make our insanity seem tenable. With such information, arguments about how the past is nothing hold less weight…right? Because there it is, right in front of our eyes, and if that’s not good enough, right in front of however many other people’s eyes it will take to validate my version of reality and the truth.
Another great piece of world-building: Liam is flying home from losing his job (and he’s about to lose his family…so his life basically) and we see what airport security looks like. They make you replay (at least) your most recent week. Sure, you get access to all of you, but so does everyone else, if they wish. One of the other characters had her chip stolen, and she chose to be “grain”-less since, feeling liberated from herself (as if she was her memories). The “grain” basically makes it so the Ego – bound by memory – becomes ever more real. People believe ever more fervently the stories they tell about themselves because they think the stories are right there – real and true and solid – telling themselves. The people become reporters, not authors.
Who are you if not who you constantly have to remember yourself to be?