Featured image via Random House
Ah, Black Mirror: a more than serviceable modern sci-fi anthology series, one of the best reasons to have a Netflix account, and occasionally, unironically advertised as The Twilight Zone for millennials. No wonder people hate advertising.
Since this is a fairly popular sci-fi show, and I recently started watching it, I thought I’d put my thoughts down on each episode. This will contain my impressions of season one, which contains the first three episodes: The National Anthem, Fifteen Million Merits, and The Entire History of You.
Part of what makes Black Mirror so interesting is not just the episodes and their stories, but the story of the show itself, and its massive peaks and dips in quality per episode. If you haven’t seen the show, I’m not exaggerating. There are colossal differences in the quality of writing, directing, etc. between episodes, so great I’m surprised that it isn’t mentioned very often. But it’s a real, recognized facet of the show, and that’s why you’ll often see recommendations in forums and the subreddit to skip certain episodes or to only watch a few particularly great ones. In that sense, I suppose it is rather like The Twilight Zone, but that show has a far more even track record.
I won’t be ranking these episodes or awarding them a certain score. I’d rather have people read my thoughts about why I perhaps like an episode they didn’t or vice versa, rather than inspire knee-jerk reactions. So go ahead and check out the ones you really hated or loved. Maybe I agree with you, maybe I don’t, but in the off chance that you find this entertaining, here goes nothing!
Note: These are not reviews. I am not attempting to thoroughly analyze the episodes to arrive at some sort of clear judgement on each episode’s quality or artistic merit. I am not a reviewer. I am simply talking about episodes. Take that for what you will.
S1E1: The National Anthem
I don’t think I’ll ever understand the motivation behind this…thing. It is truly alien to me in a way that drives an instinctual anger and dismissal. So buckle up, this is gonna be a rant.
I hate to be “that guy” and complain that something doesn’t fulfill the requirements of a genre. Because, seriously, genres are barely definable, vague bowls that constantly spill out works that people try to force them into. And you can’t possibly label genres based entirely on subjective physiological reactions, like thriller. One man’s thriller is another man’s action drama. But if something is labelled as science fiction and not very packed with the tropes that would make it seem such, no problem, it’s just light science fiction in my mind.
But The National Anthem is literally not science fiction, which makes it a ridiculous debut for a sci-fi anthology TV show. National Anthem is a disturbing modern technology and media-focused drama. There is no scientific speculation involved. So to speak, there are no cameras in your eyes, no dystopian worlds, not even an expanded idea of how smartphones work today. The episode’s story, allotting for a massive amount of stupidity on the part of many people, is something that could happen now.
As for the episode’s quality, regardless of genre fulfillment? Let me put it this way. About halfway through watching this episode, I was typing “does Black Mirror get better?” into Google. Granted, the answers I saw in a Reddit thread were absolutely yes, and fortunately they kept me going until I saw brilliant pieces like The Entire History of You, which I’ll discuss later below.
According to lists cooked up by online magazines, The National Anthem shocks people with the same sense of dread and intrigue that the characters themselves feel, which apparently makes it groundbreaking. Sympathizing with characters in fiction? How novel! And allow me to be blunt: I sympathized with no one in this episode.
Alright, I know some people like this one, so let me just lay my grievances out so you can see if you agree with them or not.
First, the reporter character. She visits the princess’ supposed place of capture and gets a live phone recording going of the storm team breaking in to rescue her. So far so bad. When the team spots that it’s a dummy, they then see the impression of her behind the glass. I suppose not trying to be barely visible when recording an extremely dangerous team of armed men was on her mind. Or, you know, you could film from outside the building in the woods, like what an equally bold but not insane person might do. It’ll still get your news site a trillion hits either way, and wouldn’t risk the kidnappers actually being there, finding you, and reacting badly. Her actions endangered not only herself, but could easily have endangered the princess, for what I don’t see as any particularly tantalizing benefit.
The prime minister’s men immediately tell her to get on the ground, typical SWAT stuff, and this is where I open up Google: she runs away. With only a head start of a few yards What kind of protozoa thinks it’s a good idea to run from a specialist military squad who are trained to shoot and apprehend targets? Just lay on the ground! They’re not going to shoot you if you comply. Now you’re shot through the leg AND caught.
Then there’s the finger. Oh, the finger. How this kind of thing gets past the basic writing stage I’ll never understand. It’s obviously a man’s finger! And, I’m sorry, but the princess’s shining diamond ring bulging on a finger way too big and manly for it is the cutest thing ever. Did he shave the little hairs off, first? It should have come with a sticky note that says, “This is totally her finger, I swear!”
Not to mention, it’s asinine on the part of the terrorist. In real life, the blood on that thing would be checked in thirty minutes, so not only would they know it’s not hers (although anyone with eyes would have seen that), but they could very likely find the DNA of that person and track them down. Obviously that doesn’t work for everybody. Not everyone’s on the grid, but still, why take the risk? Basically, if you’re going to present a faked severed body part of a person you captured, you don’t use your own body part. By the way, the footage of the “princess’s finger” being cut off never pans the camera down to her hand. Did he just tell her to make pained noises and screams? Apparently everyone at the PM and major news organizations just takes this guy on good faith. No one, I mean no one, asks “Why doesn’t he show the finger being cut off?” But I did. These are the kinds of things that everyone in the country is watching, which means that every little possibility should be addressed. Otherwise, it makes the entire population of Britain look like imbeciles.
This is the part where the foundation crumbles. The sudden panic caused by the idea that he’s really hurting the princess, and that the PM was trying to cheat his way out of the sex act, would all work just fine if he had really severed her finger. Would it have been as poignant, that he let her go but did end up harming her? No, but it would have actually made sense on some level. When the porn actor hired for the fake act gets recognized on the street, blowing the prime minister’s cover, but no one thinks about the stuff I mentioned above, you have a bad case of selectively intelligent characters.
Also, maybe its because I’m not British, but I just couldn’t connect with the emotional conceit of this episode. A princess is no one to me (not that the fake-crying actress helped any). Are people in Britain really so devoted to their public royalty figures that they’d turn on the prime minister in the way that they did? Maybe I’m just a dumb yank speaking from my bullhorn, but I was expecting people to realize what the terrorists really wanted, and for someone outside the prime minister’s retinue to consider that it’s just a bizarre test of morals to undermine his authority.
And unfortunately, since that thought was in my mind the entire time, the twist was incredibly shallow. Like really, when a terrorist group captures someone so important and makes such an inane, useless request, no one thinks about what they really want? They could have asked for money, for the PM to step down, all sorts of concrete things. Instead they want to humiliate the guy by making him commit bestiality? So they want to make a point. Obviously that alone is their goal, and the fact that they succeeded isn’t tragic, it’s absurd. In real life, the government would be on this like wildfire. Every major news organization would be forced to falsely claim that the princess has already been killed, completely deflating the people’s dread and frustration with the PM and negating the time limit hostage situation. More likely than that, the government would completely throttle the media into letting this even get out, leak or not. But if we do want to go with the nonsensical concept of it happening in this way, I can think of at least two other ways a government body could have handled it way, way better. For one thing, I think everyone would immediately realize that the terrorist’s ultimatum doesn’t leave any room for him to give her back and fulfill his end of the bargain. Hmm…suspicious…nah he must be legit. Bring out the pig!
Oh, and the episode can kiss my ass with that little tacked-on epilogue where his wife won’t talk to him anymore. What on earth was the point of that? The wife character was horribly written in general and offered zero support to her husband throughout (and whining and saying ‘you don’t talk to me about things’ in the middle of the most disturbing crisis in his life is not supportive), and the man did what he had to do under the incredibly stupid circumstances he was placed under. That last little mental spit in the face from the writer made me take a break from the show for several days.
With a horny satyr giving away serious government information to see some boob, and apparently the entire population of a country watching bestiality for an hour(seriously, no one even turns away), I’m left feeling old-fashioned and optimistic about human beings.
This could have been a really great exploration into how the media can outright collude with the wishes of destructive forces, all in the name of keeping people entertained and informed. But no, this episode would have you believe the entire population of the United Kingdom has a bestiality fetish. For what other reason would they fight against a nausea-inducing tone blared through the streets, all to watch such a repugnant act?
Okay, sorry. It’s just that this episode really was pathetic trash of the lowest kind. Exploitative, shock-value filth, edgy creative writing 101 smut that does not even begin to qualify as science fiction. It is, by light-years, the worst episode in the series that I have seen thus far, and thus its placement as the first is utterly tragic. If you watched the first episode of Black Mirror and put it down in disgust, I implore you to keep going. There is some magic awaiting you, so just give the others a chance.
I wonder if, had I seen this episode later in the series, I’d have hated it less. Part of my hatred comes not from it’s content, but also the context. It annihilated my impression of the series and I had to really motivate myself and read encouragements about future episodes in order to try again. If it were just a terrible episode in the middle of the series, yes, I think I’d hate it much less. Perhaps someone involved in production and/or promotion, coming down from the absinthe, decided such a grotesque and downer episode would be good for making an initial splash. Well, it made one, all right.
But I’ve made my points. It inspired no emotions other than annoyance and disgust. On to something far better.
S1E2: Fifteen Million Merits
This is where I was satisfied with the idea that Black Mirror does in fact get better. Not amazing but not terrible, Fifteen Million Merits executes a slightly hammy dystopian vision with a lot of dedicated world-building. The world isn’t too high-concept, and has complexity to how it works. Ultimately, it’s an impressively done story of how nothing about you is recognized as valuable by society until the media entertainment complex decides that you’re interesting. Then you become a celebrity and get to do just that thing you’re known for, and nothing else. But hey, it beats the bike.
This episode was my jam, and partly due to bias, I readily admit. I absolutely despise every single one of those three-or-four-judge talent shows and how they’ve basically ensnared the reality TV bracket. But there’s more to it than that.
Merits did one of the best things a dystopia can do: when I watched it, I saw the world I live in right now. Maybe that’s why I was satisfied, if not blown away, by its cynical ending. Take notes, National Anthem. You can’t tear that kind of sociopolitical system apart. It feeds itself too well on the people’s desire for recognition, and to be given an opinion from a “judge” that they feel they identify with. You either earn merits doing what matters to you personally, or you don’t. But whether you call it money or merits, those little numbers run the world.
I enjoyed the collapsing, tragic non-romance between the two main leads. Never before have I seen such a poignant reflection of targeted advertising as when a man has the crush he’ll never be with displayed before him in pornography advertisements he cannot skip. Disappointment, temptation, guilt, disgust, rage, so many emotions that allow you to stay on pace with a character who gets relatively little dialogue.
Some of the characters could have been a little more subtle, in my opinion. The judges, for instance, have overly cartoony personalities (especially porn guy, who on earth would find him charismatic enough to be a judge on a show?), to where I couldn’t imagine the masses connecting with them.
Some parts of the world feel underwritten. Where do children factor into this world? Do they watch the same show where a guy is propositioning female singers to join his porn business?
Also, this world fat shames hard, which I suppose fits with a world that is based on a merit economy. You ride a bike and provide electricity to the state in order to earn money. There is just one aspect, however, of this that I felt was not considered. In so many of these “become a celebrity” shows, you have the sob stories, the guy with a paraplegic girlfriend with cancer, you know. Since there’s such an appeal to that sort of thing in reality TV, I kind of wish the episode had explored that. Instead, the world is focused entirely on merit and the division between being a worker bee and having your talent discovered. It would have been nice to see a person with mediocre talent, but who had a condition that made them unable to ride a bike. Their real talent would essentially be dragging empathy out of the judges and audience. People could compete to be the “most sad”. But no, instead the episode takes the overly simplified stance of “fat people are always viewed as useless and unmotivated people”. I know it’s dystopia, but I felt this lack of complexity hardest when that annoying bloke kept watching his comedic TV show exploiting overweight people. He was a bit of an irritatingly convenient hateable character to shine a more obvious light on what’s bad about the world. The episode would have been a fair bit smarter with him toned down a bit, and his attitudes spread out among several characters.
Overall, a good episode I feel like watching again to catch more details. I may like it even more by then.
One final thought, though: what was up with them using N.E.R.D.’s Outlaw as the theme for the porn ads? Is that supposed to sound like generically futuristic and intense music? Are British people not familiar with that song? Because to me it just made me picture all sorts of cheesy American action movies that have used it before.
S1E3: The Entire History of You
Brilliant. Enthralling. By the guy who made Peep Show. What more is there to say? A lot actually, more than my whining about National Anthem. I could do a thesis on this episode, but I’ll keep it simple.
I love the basic idea behind this kind of storytelling. Take a massively life-changing technology that has swept over most of the population, and use it to do a character study. Show how this one, slightly neurotic man has his life taken apart by the ability to see his own memories. Is the technology really at fault? Is he just a man with the kind of personality and circumstances that doom him to tragedy, and grains are powder to his keg? Because with a metaphor like that in mind, the name Grains is absolutely scintillating.
Initially, I found this episode’s ending a bit simplistic, but now I realize how fantastic it is. It could really have not ended in any other way, and it perfectly matches up with everything we’ve seen. It’s not even really the Grain that he wants gone, it’s everything. When he removes it and we’re immediately cut to black, it visualizes the extreme nature of the action, and even brought to light a certain interpretation: did Grain save him? What would his life had been had he been forced to live with the knowledge of what he had done? For all we know of the woman who went through the same thing that he did, maybe her Grain wasn’t really stolen, and she just thinks it was. Maybe after some similar traumatic events, she willingly allowed it to be taken? We’ll never know, and that’s the amazing challenge of something like Grain, or any other technology. Even for what it does to empower human beings, it also weakens them equally. One cut and a tug with a pair of tweezers behind the ear and you’re left with a gaping hole in your memory. Would you be willing to take that sort of risk, in exchange for what Grains provide?
National Anthem made me annoyed, bored, and nauseous, with no lasting thoughts about its messages. Fifteen Million merits made me ponder its ideas and ultimately rationalize them in the context of the real world. It’s stuff like The Entire History of You, however, that I don’t think I’ll ever be completely done thinking about. For that, it is a sublime work of modern, soft science fiction.
Quite the fascinating arc this show has in its first season. A godawful opener, a very promising middle, and a stunning conclusion.
How do you feel about these three episodes? If you enjoyed reading my thoughts on these, do let me know and I’ll make a post on the second season as well. I have some equally strong and divergent feelings on those as well.