Despite being a show about “the horrors of technology,” the best thing about Black Mirror has always been its compassion for its characters and its exquisite articulations of psychological pain – things that transcend technology. Season 3 is no exception.
If Seasons 1 and 2 were an indictment of voyeurism, Season 3 is an indictment of both cyber bullying and outrage culture, two manifestations of the same conundrum that boils down to this: in our hyper-connected world where we are all expected to be digitally publically available and active and open, violating social norms can result in hyper-amplified, hyper-vicious reprisals. Technology is the veil that forces us to present entirely artificial, plastic selves and suffer the consequences of non-conformity (“Nosedive,” and to some extent “San Junipero”). This same veil provides an outlet to indulge in sin, and then, suddenly to be punished for it (“Shut Up and Dance”). Most of the time it’s other people doing the hurting, but in “Playtest” it actually is the technology, needling in, finding weak spots, destroying your psyche. And as shown by “Men Against Fire,” this particularly digital problem is really just a culmination of decades of loaded, coded language that can be used to incite action, including violence. This is commonly known as propaganda. Now, we are all our own propagandists.
Creator Charlie Brooker is clearly most deeply interested in mob mentality and the way technology can enable a mob (real or virtual or even imagined) to bludgeon unfortunate folks who have found themselves on the wrong side of a crowd. Brooker has always gone to extremes to make the victims of the mob unsympathetic – he needs to explain why the crowd would turn on them, after all – but he’s got an “Enemy of the People” view of crowds, that we are monsters when we can get away with it.
This little quote is a good summary of what appears to be Brooker’s point:
He likens the population to insects, says we revel in cruelty, that it’s a weakness that should be bred out of us. Recurrent theme is he wants people to face the consequences of what they say and do. Wants to force that on them.
But that’s not a description of Charlie Brooker. That’s a description of one of the show’s antagonists, a mass murderer and terrorist who appears on the incredible final episode, “Hated in the Nation.” “So it’s a moral lesson?” says a cynical cop trying to catch him, one of two refreshingly competent and three-dimensional heroines. “Well, fuck him.”
Brooker’s turned the mirror back on himself. We may be insectoid and beastly to others, we may have astonishingly little compassion for others or regard for the ramifications of our words or behavior, but everyone – even the beasts and insects – still has the right to live. Nobody should be bred out. This seems like a pretty simple statement, but mass media narratives are so often built around revenge, chosen ones, and the casual destruction of miscellaneous bystanders that it’s actually quite profound.
So what’s left? What’s left is the love between Yorkie and Kelly in “San Junipero,” or the love Cooper feels for his parents in “Playtest.” Hector’s guilt and Kenny’s shame in “Shut Up and Dance.” Stripe’s moral code in “Men Against Fire.” What’s left is Lacie finally screaming “Fuck you!” in “Nosedive.” What’s left is bodybags, in “Hated in the Nation.”
It’s a brutal show, made all the more so by Brooker’s incredible ability to elicit empathy or at least sympathy for his characters, the license he gives them to do what they need to do to feel some semblance of comfort in the cruel world he’s given them – even when they make the “cowardly” choice. This is an especially rare accomplishment in horror, where probably the most commonly-voiced criticism is “But why would they stay in the haunted house?” In Black Mirror, the haunted house is the haunted world, and Charlie Brooker can tell you exactly why – despite their better judgment, despite what the self-help manuals would have them do – they stay.