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The warped, perfect world of ‘Black Mirror’

Tuppence Middleton in a scene from season 2, episode 2 of "Black Mirror," which is available on Netflix. © Zeppotron Ltd 2012/Courtesy of Netflix

At the end of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the titular candyman, played by Gene Wilder, offers a reminder to young Charlie Bucket: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted … he lived happily ever after.” The current era of splendidly funded apps that promise to bring modern conveniences to the screens glowing around humans — car services, laundry, personal butlers — try to offer that same promise.

But the thing about everyday life is that too much perfection can inevitably result in calamity — after all, ideals are still rubbing up against humans, with all their messy imperfections and feelings and other inconveniences. The British series “Black Mirror,” which premiered in 2011 on UK network Channel 4 and made its way to Netflix this week (and has a holiday special coming later this month), examines how technological ideals and human realities interact, and how the illusion of getting whatever you want can be even more damaging to the idea of a “happily ever after.”


“Black Mirror” has six episodes; two in particular stand out, in large part because they revolve around the ideas of memory and its functions. “The Entire History of You,” the first-season finale, opens with a jittery man named Liam (Toby Kebbell) at a job interview; it doesn’t go very well because of his nerves, and once he hops in a cab to the airport the viewer notices that he’s able to replay what just happened. This is because of a “grain,” an implant that tracks memories for replaying at will (known as a “re-do”). These re-dos, it’s later revealed, have supplanted mass entertainment as things to be enjoyed both communally — when Liam arrives at the dinner party, a friend lightly suggests that they all watch his abortive interview in order to give him tips for next time — and in private; they also take the idea of the baby monitor to the next level, as revealed by the scene where Liam and his wife watch their child’s memories from earlier in the evening.

“History” pivots on the relationship between Liam and his wife, Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), which is plagued by insecurity on Liam’s part; as soon as he walks into the party he notices her talking to Jonas (Tom Cullen), a dashing fellow who’d earlier joked about watching his old sexual encounters as a substitute for pornography. It later comes out that Ffion and Jonas were involved with each other, and that Ffion initially lied about how long they were together during one of their pillow-talk rundowns of past conquests; the climactic moment comes when Liam dials through Ffion’s memories to watch her sleep with Jason after she and Liam had been married, and long after she’d said she was last with Jason. The violation of trust made explicit and seared into the mind of the insecure Liam is too much for him to bear, and the episode ends with him alone and miserable, padding around the house replaying memories of the better times before going into the bathroom to perform what’s referred to as a “gouging” of the device hidden behind his ear.


“Be Right Back,” from the second season, also plays on the ideas of love and the ideal; it opens with Martha (Hayley Atwell) reeling from the news that her husband, Ash (Domhnall Gleason), was killed in a car crash on the day they’d moved to a house in the country. A well-meaning (if poor-timing-plagued) friend offers up the name of a service where the bereaved can communicate with their loved ones; the post-death presence is given life by old social media posts and photos, as well as other electronic crumbtrails. Martha is at first resistant to the idea, but once she hears Ash’s voice — or its electronic doppelganger — on the phone, she relents; chattering with him endlessly on the phone eventually results in her ordering a humanoid replica, if slightly more perfect than the real thing because of the flattering angles at which he posed for photos on Facebook.


The regret of not spending enough time with someone who’s just passed is a natural part of the grieving process, and in “Be Right Back” technology short-circuits that pain by allowing it not just to subside, but be robbed of its reason to exist. At least at first. The idea of a persona made up completely of one’s public posts has its drawbacks, which reveal themselves more fully to Martha over time: Ash never posted much about his sex life, so the couple’s first post-reunion bedroom encounter is initially awkward; he can’t travel more than 25 meters from the bathtub where his physical being was “activated” unless Martha is around; the songs he sang along with lustily before his death are deemed unworthy of his time after. He’s him, but he’s not, and the resulting grief makes Martha’s sadness even more potent. The way “Be Right Back” offers insight into not just the grieving process, but the way people portray themselves in increasingly mediated public spaces, makes it a powerful statement on contemporary culture, and how people want to be viewed by those they hold at arm’s length.


At times “Black Mirror” recalls the series that developed around Max Headroom, the computer-generated TV host voiced by Matt Frewer who became something of a pop sensation in the mid-’80s. “Max Headroom,” the short-lived series that aired in the character’s wake, was set “20 minutes into the future,” but the technology-based dread is similar 30 years on. Monitoring is constant; memories are monetized; the too-perfect façades are revealed to be uncanny. The lower classes are known as “blanks” because the government doesn’t keep electronic tabs on them; in “The Entire History of You,” one middle-class, yet grainless woman gets hung up on by emergency services when the person on the other end realizes that she’s untrackable, even though she’s describing an in-progress assault. Opting out of the grid means a loss of status — an attitude that eerily echoes some of the rhetoric coming from Silicon Valley’s CEOs and venture-capitalist angels, who see the future in absolutist technological terms.

“Black Mirror” isn’t entirely dystopian; the futures that its six episodes examine are uncannily similar to the present day, save the details that cause the show’s plots to move forward. But that resemblance to now is what makes its underlying messages about technology butting up against human life so powerful; the aspirational ideal of getting “everything [one] always wanted” might result in a far more harrowing fate than the disappointments and slights that are a part of day-to-day life.


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