Black Mirror: Be Right Back

"You're not enough of him. You're nothing."

This was the first episode of Black Mirror that fully engaged my emotions. The darker aspects of technology and social media were there, but only to set up the story.

Hayley Atwell (Captain America, Agent Carter) gave an outstanding performance as Martha, a woman devastated by grief after the death of her boyfriend, Ash. Domhnall Gleason (Star Wars VII, Harry Potter) gave an equally outstanding performance as Ash, and as the simulacrum that Martha eventually acquired to replace him.

We didn't get much of the real Ash, but it was enough. Martha and Ash were very real and adorable together. I particularly liked the way she said offensive things she knew he wouldn't hear because he was too engrossed in his smart phone. We didn't see the accident that killed Ash, but I think they hinted that it happened because Martha wasn't along to make him put his smart phone in the glove compartment while he was driving. In other words, an addiction to social media probably killed him.

Martha's grief got to me. Even the exhausted way she moved and talked felt genuine. When she finally gave in to her friend Sara's suggestion and started talking with 'Ash' via computer and phone, it seemed to help her just a bit. Maybe if it had remained at an online level, a step removed from reality, it could have been a good thing. But Martha's unexpected pregnancy pushed it further than it should have gone. By the time she took online 'Ash' to her ultrasound appointment and panicked when she dropped and broke the phone, she had already become emotionally dependent on him. (Martha's pregnancy was probably also meant as a reminder about how we are naturally replaced in life by children, by new individuals, not by simulations.)

Then an actual physical version of 'Ash' was delivered to Martha's door in a big box that looked like a cross between a coffin and a beer cooler, and Martha "activated" him with a foil packet in water, like a really big sea-monkey. At that point, I started thinking horror movie -- but it never quite went there. The reconstituted 'Ash' never felt like the real thing, even for a moment. He didn't eat, sleep or breathe. He didn't initiate anything that happened in his relationship with Martha. He wouldn't argue with her. Even worse, he didn't like the Bee Gees any more. Sad and pathetic, but not horrifying.

When Martha couldn't bear having 'Ash' around any more, she took him to a Victorian lover's leap and told him to jump. He wouldn't do it. Maybe if he had, she eventually could have retrieved her original feelings for the man that she had loved. The simulacrum of Ash sullied his individuality. It ruined her loving memories and turned them into, well, ash. The man deserved her love and her grief, not her eternal distaste.

The real Ash told Martha that when his brother Jack had died, his mother put all of her photos of Jack in the attic. As soon as Martha's daughter said she wanted a piece of her birthday cake to take up to the attic, I started to cry. 'Ash' wound up in the attic forever, a plastic ghost, a full-sized toy, a living photo. Martha's daughter enjoys playing with 'Ash' for a few minutes every week, but Martha is reluctant to climb the stairs.

This episode made me think about how much of our online presence is really us. I've written a few thousand reviews, many of which contain bits of personal information. Have you read many of them? Do you think you know me? 'Be Right Back' could also be taken as a condemnation of online romantic relationships. But hey, I only fell in love on the internet that one time. I know better now.

Bits and pieces:

-- There was a bit on the car radio talking about "intelligent synthetic flesh". I was creeped out when 'Ash' instantly grew a mole that Martha said was missing.

-- It's interesting that when 'Ash' was brand new, Martha concealed his presence from her sister, as if she were ashamed of him.

-- Martha's isolation after Ash's death was increased by the fact that she worked at home. She appeared to be an illustrator or cartoonist, which of course went well with the plot.

-- The producers of this series seem to enjoy inflicting uncomfortable sex scenes on the audience. Martha in bed with 'Ash' made me shudder.

Easily the best episode so far. Four out of four toys in the attic,

Billie Doux is the founder of Doux Reviews and has been reviewing her favorite shows for quite some time. More Billie Doux.


Hank said...

What I think is brilliant about the episode is that Ash's online presence/addiction not only probably killed him but ends up bringing him back to "life" as the basis of the plastic Ash. His online addiction shapes his personality but also places limitations to that personality. He doesn't grow or change or even fade like a photograph would. Your social media presence is only a small part of the mosaic that is your life. It isn't enough for Martha.

I also don't think her daughter visits plastic Ash every week. I think she only allows her daughter to see him every year on his birthday. That makes the story so much sadder.

Billie Doux said...

Thanks, Hank. That's a good point.

I think I remember Martha's daughter asking her mother if she could go up to the attic early and not on the usual day of the week because it was her birthday. But I could be mistaken.

Lucas Stegman said...

Does anyone know where the Lovers Leap scene was filmed?

tamajinn said...

I was confused by something - synthetic Ash can't be far away from the person who activated him. Does that mean Martha can't leave the house? Or does she take him with her and make him stay in the car? It seems like a plot hole, but I did love the episode. They made it feel so possible.

Natira said...

My understanding is that sythetic Ash can't go far away from his activation point (in the house) alone, but with his administor he can go everywhere.