Black Mirror: White Christmas

“It’s Christmas.”

The first two seasons of Black Mirror are all misery, no catharsis. Charlie Brooker’s bleak dystopias seemed possible, but the combination of awkward situations and unrelatable characters resulted in more cringes than tears. “White Christmas,” the 2014 Christmas special now available on Netflix in the US, has misery aplenty, but the sympathetic characters make its grimness more compelling.

The Netflix logline for this episode explains that “Three interconnected tales of technology run amok during the Christmas season are told by two men at a remote outpost in a frozen wilderness.” Armed with only that knowledge and some certainty Jon Hamm was involved, it took me awhile to figure out what the episode was doing. At first, I thought “White Christmas” was functioning as a clip show: Jon Hamm’s Matt and Rafe Spall’s Potter might only be a storytelling device, and the little vignettes about technology were ideas, perhaps, that Brooker had not been able to make into a real plot. (I was wrong.)

In the first of those vignettes, Matt uses a neural-ocular chip to coach a wannabe pick-up artist. The young man’s earnest efforts to win over a beautiful young woman were both sweet and creepy; he didn’t deserve his brutal end. The parallels between the young woman’s schizophrenia and the young man’s crowd-sourced Cyrano de Bergerac was classic Black Mirror: at what point does a connected life become the same thing as the loss of self and reality? (The little hints that Matt was lying—as when he claimed to hear about the death on the news, or that he was the only one watching—were fun, too.)

The second vignette is most evocative of previous Black Mirror episodes. In addition to the above-mentioned hobby, Matt had a day job: forcing digital clones of real people to come to terms with the misery of their life trapped in a “cookie” that functions as a smarthome-cum-personal assistant. I could not imagine doing that to a digital version of myself, but Black Mirror, via Matt, tells us there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have the empathy to realize how miserable the human-cookie would be, and those who, like Matt, are stone-cold assholes.

Assholes who know exactly what to say in every given situation, that is. After years and years trapped in the same cabin, Matt finally gets Potter to open up. Potter’s story is haunting. One fight led to his girlfriend “blocking” him: using her “Z-eyes” chip, she fuzzed him out so she couldn’t see or hear him, and vice versa, just as Matt’s wife did to him. As Potter tells it, her actions are unwarranted, but—especially in an episode in which the other two stories are about men lying to and manipulating women—it’s probably best to take his version with a grain of salt.

Indeed, the “White” in “White Christmas” might refer to the heaping grains of salt we have to take with all three of the stories we see. Throughout, there are hints that we’re not getting all of the information we need (Where are they? What are their jobs?) and that the world they live in might not make sense (Where did the clock come from?).

I loved the way it all came together at the end: Matt’s stories about blocking and cookies, the foreshadowing (in the first vignette) about how you can never quite know what’s going on with a person, the sense that the cabin acts as a sort of island purgatory, in which the men tell stories about themselves to feel better about their actions.

A huge part of the success of that cohesion comes from both actors. Jon Hamm excels at smarmy charisma; his fate—to live in a world in which he can have no human interaction, since everyone is blocked from him, and he from them—is poetically just, since manipulating people is both his job and his pleasure. Rafe Spall, on the other hand, made me sympathize with a stalker, which is a pretty phenomenal reach goal. That he must suffer twice, with his cookie-self living a thousands years of misery, and his real self in jail, made me feel horrible for him.

But that’s part of the point of Black Mirror, in general and this episode, in particular. We’ve all read the studies about how easy it is to become a cyberbully: when the victim is at a distance, separated by a screen, it’s easier to be cruel than if we had to encounter their pain in person. Matt mourns the loss of his marriage, but doesn’t mourn the geeky guy who was poisoned by a bad date. The cops are willing to subject Potter to a thousand years of misery just because they can with the click of a button. It’s only Potter, arguably the worst character (he is a murderer) who underscores the best of humanity: although himself nothing but code, he realizes the implications of suffering for all the people, real and unreal, in the world.

Bytes of Cookies:

• I loved the implication that Scotland, at least, got supercold due to climate change. (I have no idea if that’s how it’s supposed to happen, but I also assume that Scotland doesn’t get that snowy every Christmas.)

• The “cookie” devices were charming to look at, which made them even more horrifying.

• The cookie pun was neat, too: if you allow cookies on your web-browser, they do provide a history of you.

• I wonder if there’s a Christmas Carol parallel at work here, with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future represented by the stories the characters tell.

• I sort of love the idea of blocking people. I think I’d mostly use it for public situations, like riding the bus or grocery shopping.

• On the other hand, I remain horribly creeped out by the idea of a neural implant. Anybody else?

Four out of four Christmases.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


Mallena said...

Great review, this was a complicated episode and you did it justice. Jon Hamm was so great in this, I really enjoyed it. I'm not sure I understood everything that was going on, I'll watch it again, gladly. "Be right back" and "Fifteen million merits" were my other favorite episodes. I love this type of program, I love The Twilight Zone also. I am very picky, like my bread lightly toasted and am very detailed oriented. I would make myself a very good virtual assistant.

Josie Kafka said...

I wonder if I would make a good virtual assistant to myself. Would I finally get up on time? Or would virtual Me hit the snooze button for me?

Billie Doux said...

This episode was one of their best. It showcased the genuine horror of the "can't even die" scenario really well, a scenario I find very creepy. And Jon Hamm was so good as Matt -- so charmingly and horribly despicable. Poor Potter.

I'd probably be an excellent virtual assistant if the alternative was nothingness. But I can't imagine creating a cookie self as a slave. I'd adopt her instead and make a little house for her and play games with her and leave the TV on to her favorite channel when I went to work. I'd get her a little cookie cat, access to the internet...

Excellent review, Josie.

Josie Kafka said...

Perhaps we are nothing more than cookies for our cats.