Grim-Dark storytelling and the problem with cynicism in Black Mirror

Related imageA caveat to start: I’ve only watched one full episode of Black Mirror.  Take that for what it is.  But, the episode I watched felt so deeply wrong, so much like really terrible good television that I have to say something about it.  It was well shot, well acted, with a script crafted to tell multiple, unconnected, character stories and arcs in the short space of fifty minutes. In short, it was what good television should be.  But it was terrible.

The story revolves around a teenage boy, working a low wage job at a diner and living at home, who’s web cam is hacked one night to record him masturbating to pictures on his screen.  The video is sent to him with cryptic texts demanding that he follow instructions exactly or the hackers will post the video for all the world to see.  Embarrassing, indeed, and clearly something most of us would be horrified to contemplate.  I will point out that the young actor here does and exceptionally good job of conveying the sheer horror and torment he goes through, and throughout the episode builds his depiction well as the magnitude of those stakes slowly increase.

We see him follow directions in a panic, only to discover that he is one of several people who have been ‘activated’ this way.  He receives a cake on a rooftop from one, visits another in a hotel room, and goes with him to a car that was deposited by a woman at the beginning of the episode.  There is a sense of urgency, panic, and confusion as what they are asked to do escalates, from carrying a cake around, to robbing a bank.  And the characters all do this activity on the assumption that they are preserving the secrecy of their ‘mis-deeds’, long-term consequences (of things like leaving work, or scaring your friends with your driving) be damned.  And that, in and of itself, might prove useful fodder for some kind of message or meaning to the story.  People so consumed with their outward appearance of propriety or decency that they willingly follow an increasingly dangerous trail to preserve their image in the face of an invasive internet culture. Oh, and it could even have been a message about the dangers of call-out culture.

But, that’s not the message.  The message is far darker and, in the end, lacks all meaning. Each of the characters, we learn, is being blackmailed for specific actions that the hackers seem to have deemed immoral and worthy of public shaming.  The woman at the beginning is a CEO who has apparently sent racist emails to co-workers.  The married man in the hotel is waiting for a sex-worker to whom he has been sexting.  We don’t get a clear picture of what the man on the roof has done…and odd omission that there might be more to say about given that he is the only character of colour.  But, I digress.

The real darkness comes near the end where it is revealed that the teenager we’ve been following wasn’t just looking at porn and jerking off, but rather looking at pictures of young children.  The end of the chase is him meeting an older man in the woods (who was caught for the same reason) and being instructed to fight to the death with the winner walking away with the bank robbery proceeds and, presumably, his freedom.  The boy doesn’t want to fight and instead tries to kill himself with the gun he was given, which turns out not to be loaded.  Oh, and the hackers are watching and recording all of this via a drone that hovers overhead.

In the end, each character feels like they have escaped, but in a twist we probably all saw coming, their secrets are revealed anyway and their lives are blown up.  It’s revealed that the boy is the winner of the gladiator match, but as he is walking away bloodied and traumatized, we see cops pulling up and hear his mother’s call terrified about the images of children found on his computer.  His life is certainly over in the most brutal way of any of the characters.

What are we supposed to learn from this? What meaning do we take forward into our lives from this story? Rather than answer these questions, the episode spends most of its time running down the psychological and emotional impact of the torture we are witnessing these otherwise normal people go through. It’s a cinematic display of pain, pathos, and vulnerability with no redemption or empathy.  It’s just torture porn, dark and demented for its own sake.

The characters don’t learn anything from their experience because their lives are ruined anyway, so the whole point becomes watching their pain unfold.  We don’t see the consequences on how they might be treated once the kind of torture they were subjected to is revealed. So, no one else connected to their lives gets to learn anything either. The hackers are clearly having fun with their games, but because they aren’t revealed or in any way challenged, they learn nothing.  So, we’re left with the cynical view that the age we live in is one where arbitrary justice is meted out in viscous pleasure games devoid of empathy or a desire for a better world. It’s cynical not just because that’s a really cold take on humanity, but precisely because it doesn’t go anywhere.  The world we live in is cold, and it is going to stay that way.

And that takes us to the main character.  His pain is on display for us to understand, but the ultimate reveal plays on our cultural obsession with seeing those who are attracted to child porn or children and unequivocally evil and unredeemable.  I shouldn’t need to say that child porn is bad, though I remain far more concerned about those who produce it than those who consume it.  Sex abuse of children causes deep harm, cannot be consensual, and reflects power relations that deny them dignity and autonomy. But to say it is evil and treat it with such callousness is both cruel and only serves to keep us further away from meaningful responses to the problem.    In this case it is deeply troubling because of the cynical way the character’s pathology is presented to us.  It’s a deceptive ploy to make us sympathize with his agony and then pull the rug out by revealing his status as ‘evil’.  But it’s also cynical because of the ‘clues’ we are given throughout that this is what is going on.  We see him interacting with children in a way that is supposed to code him as a creep, we see him being bullied, harassed, and unable to make connections with the people at work to code him as a misfit.  And we see him as a loving son with a mother coded as being ‘inattentive’.

So those of us who ‘saw it coming’ can be satisfied in having sussed out his deviance.  And those of us who didn’t can well up with relief that all the pain we’ve been witnessing has been justified.  Nowhere in the story is there space for empathy, building accountability through transforming harmful behaviour, or even understanding that a confused, bullied teenager shouldn’t have his life destroyed because he doesn’t see the full impact or violence of his actions.  He’s not trying to preserve his image of success or marital bliss, he is just trying to survive.  The fact that his struggle to survive is played alongside these other struggles, creating parallels or equivalencies we’re never able to interrogate, is cold-hearted and deeply unhelpful.

Okay, so what right?  Well aside from the fact that Black Mirror is a tv show that has garnered acclaim and quite a following, it’s also garnered a position as a progressive or insightful glimpse into societal flaws, technological dangers, and the creeping authoritarianism of modern culture.  And it deserves none of this praise.  No one who truly believes that culture and creative arts can help in building better worlds can support using cruelty and cynicism to do this.  Let’s be clear, cynicism is not the same as satire, a genre that I love and that has propelled critical thinking to new and meaningful places.  Cynicism is what happens when you wallow in the disaster that is our world, when you make art that exposes cruelty without meaning.  To use a pop-culture term, it’s the ‘grim-dark’ filth that is lauded as edgy and compelling (Westworld, Game of Thrones, and I would say the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale).  It’s not the same thing as 1984, which revealed human compassion and courage in the face of authoritarian darkness.  And it’s not The Parable of the Sower, a dark dystopian tale deserving of TV adaptation to cast a useful black mirror on our society.  At a time when we need to confront the brutality of power with honesty, we don’t need shows that depict brutality for its own sake.  We need shows that confront, with honesty, courage, and empathy to help us feel out, together, ways to go forward.

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