"Black Mirror" Has Found The Subject It Was Made For
There’s an unofficial trilogy in the new Netflix episodes, and the episodes feature some of the best work yet from Charlie Brooker’s series. Spoilers for “Hated in the Nation,” “Shut Up and Dance,” and “Nosedive” ahead.
In "Hated in the Nation,” the last and longest of the six new Black Mirror episodes which arrived on Netflix on Friday, actor Kelly Macdonald lifts her gaze to a hovering sculpture of a corporate logo formed out of bee-shaped drones, delivering a line that sums up the series with terse perfection: “I didn’t expect to find myself living in the future, but here I fucking well am.”
Here we fucking well all are, carrying around tiny computers we feel naked without; ordering all of our purchases from vast warehouses where pickers dart around, desperate to make quota; and using apps to rent out the portions of our homes, our vehicles, and our labor that we’re not using. The future doesn’t arrive in a rush of chrome and silvery unitards. It’s a slow creep forward, peppered with the occasional notions of disconnectedness, those flashes of “I guess this is what we do now” moments that Black Mirror revels in. It’s a speculative fiction series that sometimes doesn’t bother with the whole speculative part at all. Like the show’s very first 2011 episode, the Piggate-predicting “The National Anthem,” the latest batch of Black Mirror tales features one plot that could plausibly take place today.
With these six new episodes of Black Mirror (with six more coming next year), that brings the total number of available episodes to 12 (plus a Christmas special). After having been dribbled out over several years, the number of existing Black Mirror installments has abruptly doubled, so, inevitably, there’s unevenness.
Take, for instance, the soldier-centric “Men Against Fire,” the obvious dog of the latest bunch, which features a twist but feels like it’s waiting on a second, more biting one that never arrives. There are also surprises, like the Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis romance “San Junipero,” which actually skews positive — the biggest twist of them all.
But the defining quality of the new season is the throughline that ties together three of its episodes, “Nosedive,” “Shut Up and Dance,” and “Hated in the Nation": a consuming interest in online humiliation and how the internet has enabled and accelerated public judgment and derision. Black Mirror has tackled shaming before: “White Bear” imagined a whole theme park devoted to it. Crowds would file in each day to participate in the organized, communal punishment of a woman who participated in a heinous crime — just a nice day out with the family.
But in the trio of new episodes above, the series’ biting, cuts-both-ways, too-plausible-for-comfortable-distance approach to public condemnation heads, terribly and unforgettably, to the internet, a better venue for infusion into day-to-day life. In “Shut Up and Dance,” online shaming is weaponized. In “Hated in the Nation,” it is made apocalyptic. And in “Nosedive,” it is internalized in ways that suggest this is the topic Black Mirror was made for.
Public shaming is what powers “Hated in the Nation,” taking the form of a crime procedural in which Macdonald and Faye Marsay star as Karin and Blue, cops investigating a string of murders. The targets — a columnist who wrote a scorcher of a hot take, a rapper who went against the script on a talk show, a girl whose unfortunately posed war memorial photo went viral — are united only in sharing the sort of immediately recognizable, frictionless detestability which internet users can’t resist.
The homicide victims were, respectively, dismissive of someone with a disability; cruel to a child; and disrespectful at a monument for the dead; all acts awful in a simple, easily agreed upon ways that makes online rage against them uncomplicated and fulfilling. Each is shown taking in the bile of their Twitter mentions with differing degrees of exhilaration or trauma, depending on how prepared they were for the barrage of hate. A hashtag, #deathto, is tied to a website promising that the person tagged the most at the end of each day will be the next casualty, and it starts picking up steam.
It sounds like an especially gruesome adaptation of Jon Ronson’s book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, or an update of the crummy 2008 death-by-web-traffic Diane Lane thriller Untraceable, with the added bonus of killer robotic bees. But the episode resists sermonizing — it refuses to be straightforwardly parsed. When the first victim receives a cake decorated with the words “Fucking Bitch,” she cheerfully cuts herself a piece — she is, after all, a professional troll, calculating her opinions to be as enraging as possible in order to kick up a fuss online.
When the police track down the suspect who sent it, the woman turns out to be a schoolteacher who blithely claims freedom of speech and refuses to accept that she’s done anything out of the ordinary. “It’s not real, it’s a joke thing,” she shrugs, sharing more in common with the target of her ire than she might like in her feelings that these provocations don’t actually “count.” Even the episode’s perp, who’s intent on performing an act of terrorism to prove how language has been rendered meaningless, pulls off what is essentially a massive, bloody feat of shaming. It’s not a wakeup call — it’s evidence there’s more than enough borrowed self-righteousness to go around.
There’s enough that, in “Shut Up and Dance,” the threat of having one’s bad (and sometimes beyond-bad) behavior exposed is enough to turn a group of people into puppets on strings, obeying texted commands from unknown blackmailers. It’s all connected to a computer program called Shrive that claims to clean out malware, but while it’s at it, allows Shrive’s creators to spy on the misdeeds committed by the computer’s owners. That’s why the main character Kenny, a marshmallow-soft teenager played by Alex Lawther, ends up scrambling through a day of escalating stunts, following orders from an anonymous and seemingly malevolent group.
In an echo of “Hated in the Nation,” these demands start with the delivery of a cake, but soon find him sobbingly carrying out an armed crime. Other victims/culprits turn up on paths that intersect with his, their eyes darting around with the panicked airs of trapped animals. Among them is Hector (Game of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn), a husband and father who’d made plans for a dalliance with an escort. Instead it's Kenny who comes knocking on his door, bearing some very bad news.
The trick of “Shut Up and Dance,” as it sprints toward an ending even bleaker than the one in “Hated in the Nation,” is in how it plays with the perceived sanctuary of our private time with our computers — all the emails, the web browsing, the purchases, the messaging, the porn — and how damning it might or might not look if it were all exposed to the world. It’s the Wikileaks of private citizenry, and not all the data being held over the characters’ heads is as conventionally ruinous as a married man attempting to solicit a sex worker. The big question mark through the episode is Kenny — who, as far as we’re initially shown, was merely caught jerking off by his hacked webcam (“HELLO,” reads the anonymous email that arrives as soon as he’s done, “WE SAW WHAT YOU DID”).
Everyone poops, and everyone wanks, and the resulting video seems more potentially embarrassing than life-ruining — that is, until Hector delivers a monologue to Kenny about how his mother will see his orgasmic face on Instagram, about how his co-workers will nickname him “Spurty Magoo,” about the way the photos will linger forever: “There’s no cure for the internet, it would never go away, it would be glued to your name, a fucking stain on you.” The episode plays with our sympathies for Kenny, but also toys with transparency as foisted on the unwilling masses: You shouldn’t mind who looks if you don’t have anything to hide, right?
“Hated in the Nation” and “Shut Up and Dance” are both grim-as-fuck tales about the persecution of morally questionable figures by gleeful online mobs and sadistic hackers. In comparison, “Nosedive” takes place in a pastel-bright suburban landscape in which everyone gives each other a star rating for every social interaction. Photo posted online? Small talk in an elevator? Buying a coffee? Every time, ratings are exchanged out of a possible five, with the results averaging into an overall score that determines social status and one’s access to everything from car rentals to being allowed through a door. It’s a portrait of shame in a more insidious sense, in which everyone’s graded on their ability to conform to chirpy, Pinterest-ready perfection, and any truths and emotions that are too ugly or too dark need to be swept away.
Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), the episode's hopeful protagonist, works hard to maintain her 4.2 — look how carefully she takes a bite out of a sugar cookie before putting it back down next to her latte and snapping a photo. So maybe she’s lonely, maybe she’s dissatisfied; surely with a higher score, happiness could be possible. And when an old frenemy named Naomie (Alice Eve) calls to ask her to be maid of honor at her high-profile wedding, Lacie readies a painstakingly rehearsed, utterly bullshit speech sure to nab her all sorts of five-star ratings from important attendees.
What makes “Nosedive” the best of the new Black Mirror episodes is the same thing that makes it exemplary of what the series has always done best: It shows the future at its most terrifyingly, plausibly near, centered on tendencies we already have magnified and allowed to grow monstrous, and no one onscreen seems to notice. (Would we?) Certainly, Lacie doesn’t, as she hurries along to play her part in the idyllic, impeccably scripted wedding of the woman to whom she was formerly a bullied sidekick.
She would happily play that role again, if only for a place in her photo stream, in which everyone makes homemade tapenade and goes for beach vacations and never feels anything but blissful. It’s an Uber-ratings-customer-service-surveys-Instagram-likes-hot-or-not-FOMO hellscape in which everyone’s terrified of being downgraded into oblivion, of literally being voted out of polite society, and so every action has been made insincere and practiced. It’s the enforced conformity of Mean Girl, made into a lifestyle.
“Nosedive” ends on a note that, compared to the other two episodes, is practically giddy — a burst of random cruelty positioned in the exact opposite way than it’s used in “Hated in the Nation,” as an instance of punch-drunk freedom in a world of enforced sweetness. But to look at it as an upbeat ending, an affirmation to be yourself and screw what everyone else thinks, would be a mistake. Its hero, embodied through a performance from Howard in which a cultivated exterior barely covers the anxiety underneath, is still totally screwed — the alternative to not playing the rating game as best you can is to live as an outcast (as symbolized by an unfettered but solitary character played by Cherry Jones). “Nosedive” presents online shaming as a way of life, and, with “Hated in the Nation” and “Shut Up and Dance,” makes for a hell of a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god trilogy. Or maybe a look-what-we-have-to-look-forward-to trilogy. Guess only time will tell.