The Complex Humanity of Black Mirror

In its third season, the series achieves an imaginative moral and narrative depth that counteracts its often-dark scenarios.


Vladimir Nabokov liked to examine cruelty and the human condition. That didn’t mean he was cruel; there’s no evidence he kicked puppies just for the fun of it. Similarly, Black Mirror likes to examine possible dystopias, but that doesn’t mean the show is cynical enough to endorse them. Instead, especially in season three, recently released on Netflix, a sort of humanity has entered that serves as a counterpoint to the particular version of Bleakworld on offer. “Fuck the plant, fuck the planet,” the main character in the first episode shouts at a wedding-gone-wrong, but the message is of course the opposite: We should care about the planet. We should care about each other—and we should engage, not look away.

I didn’t expect to go into season three thinking kinder, gentler thoughts in the context of a show that debuted in 2011 with an episode in which a British politician is forced to screw a pig for an hour. But there you go. Black Mirror surprises, and never more so than this season, written primarily by the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, although each episode has a different director. Who could predict the love story at the center of the season, episode four’s “San Junipero”? Or, even, that the path of episode one, “Nosedive,” would lead to a callow main character—played wonderfully by Bryce Dallas Howard—being rendered complex by the end, in a scene in prison that’s deeply cathartic?

Some critics have noted Black Mirror becoming darker this season, but to me at least, the characterization has become ever more humane, as if to provide balance. After all, what is unrelieved horror but a form of boredom? What is dystopia unrelieved by humor or some contrasting element but a slog through wastelands that only differ by degrees and, perhaps, the weight of a particular baseball bat applied to a particular head?

In season three we discover that even in the midst of technological forces beyond our control, the individual is still free—to strive to reject the oppressive, to stop being a hamster on a wheel as in “Nosedive,” or to break on through to the other side as in “San Junipero.” And most importantly, succeed or fail, the individual still has the choice to pursue an ethical path over giving in to darkness. “Hated in the Nation,” may be “dark”—as if somehow the real world right now is a continual laugh riot—but it features characters with a strong moral compass who possess a dogged endurance in the face of unspeakable bee-drone horrors.

Or consider episode three, “Shut Up and Dance,” in which every character is in trouble for failing to pursue a moral path, and each of them has been reduced down to a riveting quest that still allows a terrible chance at survival. We are riveted because we believe in the idea of empathy and the ability to atone for our sins. Even if it turns out someone we’ve expressed empathy for has sinned in a way too terrible to be redeemed, we often still give the benefit of the doubt to the next person.

What the best of these episodes share is a dislocation caused by opening up the context, as if experiencing a telephoto lens that keeps widening our perspective far beyond expectation. With an eerie precision, our sense of the context and characters changes because the scriptwriters keep pushing inexorably outward, often past the point where a lesser show would end.

In that context, it’s striking to examine why the worst episodes don’t work, while still being superior to similar examples from shows like Night Gallery back in the day. Episode two, “Playtest,” shares the season’s common thread of introducing a sympathetic or ultimately sympathetic character, Cooper (Wyatt Russell), someone not embedded in the power structures of the world. Black Mirror spends several minutes letting us see how likeable he is—even though careful viewers will deduce he’s probably a day-friend, not a week-friend, or a many-years-friend. So far so good.

But “Playtest” as an episode doesn’t share the quality of opening up, in a literal or thematic sense, that Black Mirror often excels at, where you can think of the opening up as a form of generosity. When you push past the expected point, you’re not just hopefully creating something more interesting, you’re also saying you trust the viewer. “Playtest,” on the other hand, tends to close things down into a personal context that’s less interesting.

When Cooper runs out of money in London while traveling across the world on a cathartic trip following his father’s death, he winds up volunteering for a simulated-reality experiment. While the acting is perfectly fine, what follows actually puts the character into a smaller and smaller box. We do not widen out into societal or cultural contexts, or even geographically into wider and wider physical spaces. There is less and less movement of any sort as the episode continues—until we’re trapped in a haunted house, filled with horrors specific to the protagonist but possibly not the viewer. That this includes Shelob with a human face like a cheap knock-off from the Donald Sutherland version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (formula = unsettling human face on animal body, causing general queasiness and a re-examination of foundational understanding of biological mutations) and a high-school bully dressed like somebody from the1800s is inescapably banal. That claustrophobia you feel is boredom—your own worst fear. You'd be better off dropping a spider with a human face into the middle of Knausgaard's My Struggle.

Although there’s fun to be had in how the episode comments on and messes around with over-used horror movie techniques like jump scares, even a horrible stink-sandwich like the movie Cabin in the Woods has played around with these clichés before, and been devoured by them. The entire episode may be impeccably shot and directed (by Dan Trachtenberg, who recently helmed 10 Cloverfield Lane), but, in the end, who cares—about the character’s attempts to survive, or about his mom? A thirty-second mom, really; for moms that last a lifetime, see Psycho.

Black Mirror has set such a high bar as an anthology series based on what you might call “an acute examination of dysfunctional tech horrors or the horror-implications of said tech” that a spider in a haunted mansion just doesn’t cut it, any more than the Disney ride does. Or maybe augmented reality just doesn’t cut it and that’s the point. Because once the episode reaches the VR-augmented mansion, there is really no resolution involving the unraveling of different levels of reality that will satisfy, even in an anti-cathartic way. Although, if you thought Jacob’s Ladder was brilliant, scintillating cinema, you may disagree.

In a similar but more successful vein, episode three, “Shut Up and Dance,” playtests a different kind of renovation: Taking the premise of a movie like Saw and placing it out in the wider world, with different types of connections and commentary. Part of the success of the episode is the actual physical motion that occurs within it, a widening out and a meeting up with other characters facing the same dilemma as our protagonist. There’s no yawn-inducing trauma from being chained in the same filthy, visually uninteresting room while a disembodied voice comes on over the intercom, followed by an announcement that today’s menu, like the day before and the day after, will be meatloaf. Thus, even this very simple idea of movement—while the info-age subtext makes clear everyone is chained together in a filthy room and fed on a steady diet of bloody meatloaf—makes the concept at least somewhat fresh. You don’t always need a torture room to be tortured in the age of globalization. Just beware: There’s a little red eye looking down on us, and it’s not Sauron, or God, but surveillance that anyone can tap into.

In fact, perhaps the least convincing aspect of the main character, Kenny (Alex Lawther), being blackmailed through video of him jacking off isn’t that, given our internet culture, he might’ve gotten 15 minutes of fame instead of shame had the video leaked. It’s that the video is captured from the webcam on the teen’s laptop and not, say, from the eye of a wireless Teddy Ruxbin cybertoy, or the eraser in a mechanical pencil, or a chronically depressed refrigerator bent on revenge for the stuff left rotting inside.

But that aside, as the photographer Kyle Cassidy—someone who’s not only photographed John Carpenter but watched a metric ton of horror movies—noted as we watched this episode together, “Shut Up and Dance” may not do anything particularly new, but it does it extraordinarily well—and unlike in “Playtest, “we do care about the main did-bad-things characters throughout, at least in the moment, and we are largely invested in the epic (to them) aspects of their struggle.

Here, it’s probably wise to mention that one reason Black Mirror works so well is it does a superlative job of casting episodes—there are topnotch actors in every role, consummately chosen and given great direction. If some of the old Night Gallery and Twilight Zone episodes no longer really work, sometimes it’s that the acting pulls us out of the story in a way that’s not as bad as Dark Shadows but might as well be. “Shut Up and Dance,” with its ultimate deus ex machina manipulation, is the best example of why that matters.

For one thing, Jerome Flynn, most famous for his rakish role in Game of Thrones, pops up gloriously and unexpectedly as the mid-life, middle-class version of his fantasy-realm character, harried and stressed and utterly convincing. Yet it’s his counterpart in an agonizing alliance of convenience, the teenager played by Lawther, who in all of his reactions is so excruciatingly perfect that you’re horrified, wanting to look away and yet mesmerized and for a long time really rooting for him to get out of this—while also wondering just how many acting awards he’ll be up for.

You could argue that “Shut Up and Dance” says something we already knew, because even those of us who have committed no crime are indentured to our insecurities and petty secrets. Those who don’t like the episode, including my wife, are right to think that ending with a montage of people in distress while a sad Radiohead song plays could be considered papering over a lack of formal closure. But, then, through our devotion to LOLCats, wise owl photographs bearing fortune-cookie truths, and other internet memes, we know everything already anyway, so every truth is banal and made fresh only by a new and different context. I may be half-joking, but Black Mirror isn’t; the final twist in “Shut Up and Dance” plays hardball with the idea of who you root for, and why you root for them in deeply uncomfortable ways.

If you need to beware of the devices around you that might surveil, you also need to beware of the propaganda put in your head, as in episode five, “Men Against Fire.” The episode fits comfortably into what I’d call the show’s renovation mode, inhabiting a horror, comic-book subgenre you might call “conflicted cybernetic soldier.” The fear of being altered to become the perfect weapon can take many forms in storytelling, from Dr. Moreau-like mutant scenarios to lost-Nazi-tech Hellboy versions. In “Men Against Fire,” a soldier (Malachi Kirby) experiences a glitch that, in a war setting that seems ur-Balkan, makes him see feral mutants as human. He then must make a terrible choice given to him by a psychologist played by Michael Kelly, infamous as the chief of staff on House of Cards. (Another great bit of casting—Kelly brings the memory of that terrifying performance with him, giving a minor role major depth.)

With its themes of wiping out genetic impurities and exploration of military conditioning, “Men Against Fire” contains harrowing and heart-felt moments, but the episode’s geopolitics are far outstripped by the complexities and horrors of modern regional warfare. Juxtapose episode five with a show like The Last Panthers, which does a credible job of conveying the complex allegiances in post-war Serbia, and you realize “Men Against Fire” sorely needs some additional real-world grit, an amoral context, to muddy up and mess up the clarity of the central situation. Because, honestly, how can you not see this situation as Good versus Evil? The intricacies of a choice of whether or not to remember atrocity seems like small beer in the wider context. Nor are the victims in this episode given much interiority, which might have added depth. As a result, the episode rises above mostly due to a good twist at the end, an excellent performance from Kirby, and cinematography so fine-grained it seems deliberately to mimic a virtual-reality experience.

In considering these three “simple” episodes, it’s worth noting that most other anthology shows don’t display a tenth of the sophistication evident even in Black Mirror’s half-successes. It’s just that Black Mirror has spoiled us by so often being great, and so we keep pushing and prodding it to forever and always live up to its best. Some day Black Mirror will take a baseball bat to its best plot and we will rise as one to rage on social media, thus proving most of the show’s more obvious points.

Put another way, especially regarding the idea of renovation versus innovation, a flub like “Playtest “is an episode that uses element A (augmented reality) to comment only on element A (augmented reality, like this parenthetical) and possibly the psychology of element B, a specific character who in his Everyman-who-can-travel-cheaply-abroad aspects carries little societal weight. Even though more successful, neither “Men Against Fire” nor “Shut Up and Dance,” for all of their merits, quite rise above our baseline idea of average Black Mirror quality.

But then you encounter an episode like episode six, “Hated in the Nation,” and you find ample evidence that Black Mirror’s best work displays complexity in a way that resembles the verdict of “good synthesis” scrawled by professors on English papers likely to get an A or B rather than a C-.

In “Hated in the Nation,” Black Mirror more or less fuses elements X, Y, Z1, and Z2 to create a focused mystery narrative that also comments on any number of issues critical to us now. Mechanical drone bees in artificial hives have taken the place of real ones to help fertilize flowers, in a near-future where colony collapse disorder has claimed all bees, and many other animals are extinct. Against this backdrop, someone hacks a bee to kill a public figure reviled on social media for hateful comments. The hashtag #DeathTo trends and turns out to have sinister origin and real-world effects, while people through the United Kingdom play along as if words don’t have consequences.

The complexity in episode six builds because the relationship between the two main women characters, both police detectives, largely doesn’t follow noir-fiction clichés, and this personal anchor of character is juxtaposed not just with exploration of the sociological dimension of how people behave on social media, but also the cutting edge of drone technology. And not only the cutting edge of drone tech, but also the cutting edge of ecological preservation. It then expands to include not just the general consequences of these elements “gone wrong,” but a specific catastrophic disaster: With a nice sly nod to the mass hysteria several decades ago over “killer bees” and other invasive species, the episode manages to fuse several themes at once into a whole that’s dramatically satisfying.

Drones as an invasive species, for example, is a wonderfully original way to think about them, and it jolts you out of the perspective that they’re just going to become part of the skyscape, as natural as a crow or a starling. The parallel structures of human social interaction and bee hives make a powerful statement in the context of recent scientific studies finding that bees express more originality than previously thought and that humans express less, more of so-called “conscious” thought consisting of automated responses.

So is episode six “just” a commentary on social media? No. The one individual the detectives question about the initial murder, who posted something harmful on social media, teaches a grade school class of giggling kids, and sees her free speech as something metaphorical. She clearly does plenty of good in the world. The words “Death to … ” aren’t action, are they, when the single voice emanates from the middle of a hive mind? And the way in which the central action occurs in the context of mecha-bees tasked with the purpose of fertilizing flowers so agriculture can continue and millions of people not starve provides a wider environmental context that cannot be overlooked, even if many viewers forget it.

One idea I’ve seen expressed recently is that Black Mirror’s creators are somehow Dark Mountain acolytes unable to craft a subtle message about modern technology—and especially about social media (which, famously, hates to be critiqued by perceived luddites). But this idea seems refuted by “Hated in the Nation.” I would argue that episode one, “Nosedive,” also refutes it. The desperate search of the protagonist, Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), for high ratings from her fellow human beings to sustain an overall rating that allows her to buy a new apartment, keep her job, and in general experience a better life is as old as civilization, or at least as old as capitalism.

If, in Black Mirror’s near-future scenario, you actually chalk up points or demerits via your smart phones, then perhaps the point is just that social media can accelerate the process of being ever more caged within a Baudrillardian hegemony. Certainly, the point doesn’t seem as simple as modern technology is “bad.” Rather, it’s that modern tech may allow us to express terrible inherent built-in negative aspects of the human condition if we let those tools rule us. That there is a harrowing and a winnowing involved that makes the pace of life (and thus our insecurities and sense of place on the social ladder) more excruciating and deeply felt—and thus more visible and thus more repugnant. Perhaps even while reading this paragraph of an article you’ve grown to despise. (Please rate me three out of five if you must, but know how hateful that is because I love you, and rate you six out of five.)

The structure of “Nosedive” has a striking similarity to that of “Shut Up and Dance,” except instead of being pushed forward by an unseen person, Lacie is pushed forward by her own concern about her social standing. For this sin, she must embark on an odyssey of a trip to her childhood friend’s wedding, where she is to be the maid of honor. If she’s lucky, the high ranking of her fabulous friend’s guests will up her own ranking, overcoming a recent downturn in her social fortunes.

The irony is that in making the trek to the wedding, during which all sorts of misfortunes accumulate, Lacie displays fortitude and gumption. Along the way she meets a female Snake Plissken in a big-rig who gives her a counter-culture example to aspire to, she must fast-walk across highways, hitch rides, abandon broken rental cars, and in all ways she becomes reduced or perhaps lifted up by the experience. It’s a clever tightrope walk both for the script and the actor—to go from disliking someone to rooting for them—and it’s further evidence that Black Mirror isn’t cynical about its characters’ fates.

The moving “San Junipero,” though, takes a lack of cynicism to new heights for the series, with a tale of two women (Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who meet by chance in a mysterious city and whose lives become entangled in unexpected ways. You could call “San Junipero” Black Mirror’s penance for “Playtest.” The brilliance of the script lies in how neither character conveys the secrets of the city directly in an info-dump kind of way. Instead, they lay down breadcrumbs, alluding to the mystery in a natural way that keeps the foreground of the episode uncluttered by exposition. I find it hard to imagine Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, or most other anthology shows being able to resist a more explicit hint, and yet we understand very clearly what is going on. Exposition instead is reserved for emotional content, the underlying sadness of the lovers’ situation.

The speculative element is beautifully subsumed in the character development and, as with many Black Mirror episodes, this subtle use of the near future scenario allows us to experience the couple’s dilemma all the more acutely. In depicting an interracial couple and ruminating on aging and death, “San Junipero” also exemplifies a commitment to diversity and demographics not commonly served well by horror shows. The final scenes of “San Junipero” leave it up to us to think about what life means and where it resides.

Technology is hard to write about, whether on the page or on the screen, which is why in so much uncanny fiction (mine included) smart phones don’t work and laptops inexplicably die. The burden of showing modern tech visually in a way that doesn’t become dated is often insurmountable because the contamination is already in the creator’s subconscious. Even lauded recent movies like Midnight Special wind up reflecting a kind of entrenched 1950s Tomorrowland aesthetic. The challenge isn’t just the right look-and-feel, but often the right stand-in for an electronic reality that isn’t particularly visual. Do it wrong and you wind up with Tron-remake bastardizations or a kind of bulkiness or weight that means inert objects meant to be in the backdrop intrude on the foreground of the narrative.

So one of the crowning glories of Black Mirror—and yet another reason for its success—is that even when it has to find tech surrogates, the show has a lightness of touch and a seamless quality that has nothing to do with the kind of blank seamlessness of Apple productions. Much of it finds a kind of liminal space, too, that corrects much of the somewhat hamfisted True Detective approach to cinematography; for example, if Black Mirror maps a highway from above, you’re still getting the gorgeously dark thick-snake-like quality of that, but it has some actual damn meaning. The default for Black Mirror’s look-and-feel seems to be a varietal of Darth Vader noir most evident in the battleship scenes of The Empire Strikes Back; or, to put it another way, it’s a dark, rich Pinot Noir, if Darth Vader had owned a vineyard that made Pinot Noir, Cabs being a little too unsubtle.

But nor does Black Mirror seem wedded to a certain approach to cinematography, adapting to the needs of individual episodes. “Shut Up and Dance” has a washed out late-’70s realism to it, while “San Junipero” commits, in the initial scenes, to a late ’80s style that, for me, as someone who lived in that era, felt preternaturally real. Rather than replicating the actual 1980s, Black Mirror manages instead through set design, costumes, and blocking to replicate the feel of various iconic ’80s movies. The stunning result imbues the scenes with a nostalgia not achievable by straight-forward historical reconstruction—a nostalgia important for believing in the beginning of the relationship at the heart of the episode.

Black Mirror’s episodes may feel claustrophic at times, make us paranoid about reality and our relationship with it, but that continual questing and changing of the equation—through layering, through cinematography, through inspired acting and the striving of everyman characters—is a form of hope and marks the best of season three. There is at the show’s base an essential curiosity about the world, even if expressed darkly, that drives it. Black Mirror’s themes are wide and broad enough they could easily switch to making the show about the 16th-century court at Versailles, with no speculative element, and still be making the same points about the human condition.

Do you want Black Mirror to have a less bleak view of tech? Well, did you want Breaking Bad to be Breaking Good? Do you want Westworld to suddenly become a kiddy carousel ride? Game of Thrones to never kill a character again? I thought not.

At the end of the last episode of the new season, we catch a glimpse of a dogged woman detective shadowing a mass murderer, under the glower of a distant forest crag. Despite so much, she is still driving herself forward, not allowing the horrors she’s seen stop her from doing her job. Fortitude. Endurance. When Black Mirror works, it’s because it makes the hard choices. Or, at least, not the expedient ones.