As an anthology series, Black Mirror has never been perfect but — along with other shows like American Horror Story or Easy — it’s refreshing to have these self-contained stories as opposed to the currently popular trend of long-form storytelling that’s become exhausting in its overuse. Following its cancellation by BBC Channel 4 and adoption by Netflix, the overall level of quality seemed to drop with episodes as bad as the series premiere, “The National Anthem,” started to appear more often. Though the third season only had two episodes I’d consider particularly bad, “Playtest” and “Men Against Fire,” the fourth was nothing but terrible episodes and “Bandersnatch” managed to somehow be worse than them.
I couldn’t help but get this sense Charlie Booker had creatively exhausted himself, perhaps needing more guest writers to keep things varied, and was becoming more reliant on gimmicks as opposed to creating a thoughtful sci-fi morality tale. So, at first, I was dreading the new season — only to be relieved when finding they cut the number of episodes in half. Based on the plot summaries alone, it sounded like a case of getting back to basics as the speculative technology and human drama are intrinsically connected than dissociated with one another. It didn’t turn out exactly that way but it’s a step up from the previous season and definitely “Bandersnatch.” Though I think it started off a bit rough with…
It’s basically Brokeback Mountain with immersive VR tech, but it could’ve been so much more than that.
The immersive VR tech is actually the least of my problems — it’s taking the concept seen in “Playtest” and fleshing it out a bit, for the better. It’s that the story never really moves past the premise of two guy friends having sex with one another as characters in a Street Fighter rip-off, only briefly touching on other subjects without really committing to them. One of them explains how great it feels to play as a female character when it comes to the literal cybersex, showing a sense dissatisfaction with being in a male body when outside of the game. You almost think it may end up dealing with body dysphoria and trans identity in an interesting fashion but…nope! It would’ve made the whole episode more eventful than stretching out what would otherwise be a half-hour’s worth of story.
If there’s anything I could compliment, it’s that the ending argues in favor of normalizing polyamory and extramarital trysts than demonizing them as abnormal. Monogamous relationships are fine if that is what the people involved want — but society has tried cementing it as the only way to be in a romantic relationship. It’s probably why, along with the rigidity of divorce laws in the past, so many stories involve an unhappy marriage with one or both individuals being unfaithful. It’s a way to tolerate a situation they feel unable to escape from without the general social and familial repercussions that would come about from such abandonment. They were not only sold on this idea of “one true love” but that it’d last forever — the reality, of course, is never that simple and accepting it would relieve so much anguish.
The reason “Shut Up & Dance” is one of my favorite episodes is that, unlike so many others, it’s about the living nightmare that is our current internet culture. It didn’t need a sci-fi concept attached to get that point across when weirdly addictive social networking sites, trolling as a hobby, and harassment campaigns carried out by message boards filled with sadistic obsessives are all straight out of a dystopian cyberpunk story already. As time goes on, Satoshi Kon and Hideo Kojima (why, yes, I am a Japanophile!) are only further proven right in their cynicism about the internet. It was never leading to some New Renaissance but instead the further perpetuation of cultural detritus as well as a mechanism for which people are driven by their id, operating more on confirmation bias and self-validation than any self-proclaimed “logic” or “reason.”
Much like how I described “Striking Vipers” as “Brokeback Mountain with immersive VR tech,” I’d describe “Smithereens” as Collateral meets Phone Booth (I can’t be the only person who remembers them…right?) with contemporary internet culture as a theme but that’s meant as a compliment in this case.
There are things I could’ve done without, like the protagonist’s tragic background as the impetus for his actions or the cliffhanger ending that doesn’t punctuate the theme explored, but they weren’t deal-breakers. Because, even with those problems, it does enough right otherwise to make those minor issues whereas episodes from Season 4 were major due to their overwhelming presence. The premise should not have been a product of personal tragedy but of social alienation and the frustration with how internet culture has seeped into our reality for the worst. The best example being the protagonist’s anger over the performative empathy displayed by other characters throughout — touching on an issue I have with online interaction. A lot of times it can feel impersonal and insincere, based less on genuine connection than optics, that’s lead to the fetishization of concepts like “civility” while treating outright honesty as uncouth or even an act of aggression (something the episode “Nosedive” goes into as well).
It’s the same way I feel when someone I know personally wishes me a “Happy Birthday” on Facebook as opposed to calling me and having an actual conversation. Despite these sites literally being made to allow (as their descriptor implies) for social networking, often just make you feel more alone and disconnected from other human beings. It blurs the line whether there’s actually a person on the other end of a message and not just a well-programmed bot. What’s also profound is the realization that, though one can overshare details about their lives on them, you really aren’t heard on these social networking sites unless you’re a “somebody” and — if you’re a “nobody” — the only way to be heard is to ingratiate yourself to a “somebody.” That “somebody” here is the creator of the titular social networking site played by Topher Grace.
The episode could’ve gone the route where Grace was just another selfish Tech-Bro, but he’s not. You get a sense that he and the protagonists are, quite surprisingly, kindred spirits on two different sides of a social divide. While the protagonist is a victim to the everyday ramifications of an internet-addicted culture, Grace himself is a creator whose invention has grown so big and unwieldy that he can no longer control it while bound to the corporate bureaucracy that has formed from its ubiquitous use. It’s telling, when we first meet the character, that he’s interrupted during a sabbatical from media exposure and — when informed of the protagonist’s actions — is willing to have an honest heart-to-heart with him, moreso than those in the PR department who’re only concerned with damage control and keeping the company’s reputation clean. Yet even the PR people aren’t outwardly malevolent though, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, the worst kinds of evil are often committed for the most banal of reasons.
I wouldn’t claim it’s one of the best episodes of the series (it sure as shit ain’t “Fifteen Million Merits,” “White Christmas,” or “Hated in the Nation”) but, in this case, it is the best of the season. However, I actually enjoyed the next episode a lot more than most people — whose reactions were somewhere between annoyed befuddlement and intense loathing — but I can fully admit it was incredibly flawed as well…
Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too
Okay, I did argue that Charlie Booker should bring in more guest writers to keep things varied — but Miley Cyrus wasn’t the kind of person I was talking about. Even if he alone is credited as the writer for this episode, it’s hard to not feel that the entire second half was self-insertion rebellious fantasy plotted by Cyrus herself. This leads to the story featured feeling as if it’s two entirely different tales haphazardly combined.
The first half, which is certainly the better one, is about the dangers of parasocial relationships and getting attached to an idealized public persona of an entertainer. The first of the three titular protagonists, played by Angourie Rice, is friendless and such isolation causes her to worship a pink-haired pop star to an unhealthy degree. She eventually twists her affable father’s arm into buying a kawaii robot (the third titular character) based on said pop star that only furthers her obsession to the chagrin of Rachel’s sister, the second titular character played by Madison Davenport, who feels she needs to accept the difficulties and disappointment of reality than withdrawing further into the naive optimism the pop star represents. However, what makes all of this interesting is that the pop star herself really isn’t the person she advertises herself to be — she looks uncomfortable and robotic in public interviews while acting like a female Trent Reznor behind closed doors, writing a lot of dark songs about suicide and alienation.
At that point, my interest was piqued. I was expecting this episode to make some poignant observations about the relationship between the audience and the artist as well as how capitalism manipulates both to their personal detriment — much in the same way BoJack Horseman brilliantly does — but none of that happens. As the second half rolls around, Miley Cyrus’ aunt becomes a cartoon villain who drugs her niece into a coma and tries to replace her with a realistic hologram…‘cause money, I think? Ashley Too, upon viewing a news broadcast of the pop star’s coma, short-circuits and requires both Rachel and Jack to fix it. It was bad enough Cyrus’ aunt turned into Snidely Whiplash but, apparently, these pieces of merchandise have a full digitalized copy of Cyrus’ mind that’ve been limited in function for commercial purposes. Like…what?
As much as I think Cyrus voicing a foul-mouthed robot is hilarious (I have a thing for ladies that talk like scurvy-ridden sailors!), proving she should do more comedy acting in the future, it’s a plot turn that feels as contrived as it is nonsensical. I like the idea behind such a development, having Rachel’s illusions about Ashley O crumble and trying to appreciate the artist as an actual person. They didn’t need a cutesy robot or even the Evil Aunt to make that point, perhaps having Jack help Rachel sneak into a hospital to meet an Ashley O recovering from an accident instead. Rachel would see her idol in a position of vulnerability and lacking the superficial veneer of glitz and glam. Instead, the story becomes a Disnified kid’s adventure with a very convenient happy ending and Rachel’s newfound appreciation of Ashley O as a flawed but talented human being isn’t really dealt with.
The problem isn’t that the ending is a happy one, it could’ve been and worked, but it needed an appropriate happy ending in the way “San Junipero” did — there was a precedent set and the final moments punctuated it. As I stated before, this feels like it belongs in an entirely different story. It’s a disappointing ending, to both the episode and this season of Black Mirror, but at least now I’m not dreading the next one…
[Originally posted on 7/23/19 @ Medium.com]