The second series of Charlie Brooker’s dark satire and science fiction series Black Mirror has been receiving a good deal of critical attention. Brooker returns to exploring the relationship between society and technology, and the effects social media in particular have on our relationships and psychology. In comparison to the often abrasive instances of bestiality and self-mutilation which made up the first series, the first episode of the current, ‘Be Right Back’ was viewed to be surprisingly sentimental and less unsettling than its predecessors. But should this lack of sensationalism consequently mean that the new episode is any less discomforting or unsettling?
The episode focuses on a young couple, Martha and Ash, who are destined for tragedy. Pointedly, Ash is conveyed as a social media addict, his phone a veritable appendage with which he continually checks and updates his various pages. When he is killed in a crash, Martha is signed up to an “online service” by a friend, which creates an artificial Ash by duplicating his voice and image from all of the online and private materials it is given. The most extreme form of this duplication comes in the guise of a kind of clone: a synthetic body which adopts both Ash’s physical and personal characteristics.
Martha’s attitude towards the service develops throughout the episode, her initial disgust turning into rapid attachment and dependency on the virtual Ash, until finally she grows too uncomfortable and frustrated with the imperfect clone. In a climactic scene she half-heartedly instructs the clone Ash to jump off a cliff, which would be a dénouement following the pattern of aggressive and emotion-wrought conclusions of the first series. However, Brooker in ‘Be Right Back’ opts for a more subtle, but I would argue far more unsettling ending; Martha instead keeps the clone-Ash in her attic, and the final scene depicts her allowing her daughter to speak with it alone while she waits tearfully downstairs.
Some reviewers have grasped on to the episode’s commentary of artificial intelligence, and the implications of Ash representing the blurring between human and technology. But it is maybe more disturbing to consider Martha’s behaviour, particularly her reluctance and ultimate failure to destroy the clone. The uncomfortable issue is that Martha is not really so different to us today. We don’t need an “online service” or new piece of technology to create virtual personalities in our own minds: we already have access to the vast database that is the internet, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube. With easy access to these materials, having a constant virtual reminder means that the bereaved of us today can struggle to reach acceptance. Continual virtual existence disrupts the the Kübler-Ross model, commonly referred to as the “five stages of grief” when facing a personal loss. We can easily get stuck at the ‘denial’ stage.
It doesn’t just apply to a bereavement either. Sites like Facebook are incredibly useful for keeping up with old friends and those who have moved away, their virtual personalities being an alternative to the real thing. But the same can be said for former friends and exes – and anyone else who has undertaken a “Facebook stalk” will agree with me that social networks can make forgetting and accepting the less literal loss of a person quite a lot harder.
On the face of it, ‘The Entire History of You’ written by Peep-Show co-writer Jesse Armstrong, not Brooker, may seem to reveal a more strongly technophobic slant. The stark and largely serious episode echoes the same theme of virtual personality which pervades ‘Be Right Back’: the narrative is populated by people who have been implanted by a piece of technology called “the grain”, a chip of sorts behind your ear which records and stores all of your memories. Essentially, it serves as an analogy that Facebook lives inside your head. Jealousy and aggressive altercations ensue, ultimately leading to relationship breakdowns, a trope suffusing Black Mirror as a whole. At the close of the episode the central character, Liam, is depicted wandering alone through his house, haunted by happy memories of his now-gone wife that are replayed by the grain. The final gruesome image shows him taking a razor to his neck and cutting the grain out from underneath his skin.
With this act of self-mutilation, ‘The Entire History of You’ categorically rejects the technology which has affected such psychological turmoil. ‘Be Right Back’ ups the ante, and reveals greater cause for concern by accepting the technological into the human ‘real’ and allowing the psychological repercussions to remain. We are seemingly unable to stop our dependency. This conclusion is perhaps a sign of how emotionally and irrevocably entangled we have become with social media which is markedly altering our psychology. Furthermore, the distinctly non-dramatic conclusion is perhaps a reaction to the modern condition which novelist J.G. Ballard termed death of affect – a lack of appropriate emotional response due to the excessive violence, sexualisation and sensationalism presented by an ever present media. The new subtlety of the first episode of the second series may internally reflect on the media tactics used in other episodes of the programme itself.
So yes, perhaps ‘Be Right Back’ may be less graphically disturbing, but it is the lack of action, the acceptance of the virtual into our lives which is the most fundamentally unsettling.
Image by Roland