Thursday, November 3, 2016

Damnation (Salvation?) and Technology in Black Mirror

All week I've had two songs stuck in my head: the soul-crushing "Exit Music (for a film)" from Radiohead's 1997 tech-angst masterpiece "OK Computer", and Belinda Carlisle's sugar-bop scrunchie anthem "Heaven is a Place on Earth", from ten years earlier. The reason for the manic-depressive playlist in my head is the Netflix show "Black Mirror".

You hit a certain age and everything reminds you of ten things that were very similar. You aren't cynical, but you've seen and heard a lot, and pop culture is aimed at young people who spend a lot of money on shit they don't know they don't need. "Black Mirror" is one of those wonderful experiences that makes you struggle to find something it reminds you of. The series is a master class on plot twist embedding, re-purposing pop music, and leaving the viewer haunted and questioning the way only a good book usually can.

The standout episodes from season three include the first episode, which focuses on our cultural obsession with social media instant gratification in the form of views and likes, and the third and fourth episodes, which may be the best two hours of television I've seen this year, including the final two episodes of "Game of Thrones" season six, which I loved.

I never would've thought a television villain would top Cersei's triumphant wine-tasting as she watches the Sept of Baelor, full of her enemies, burn to the ground on her orders. But the troll in episode three of "Black Mirror" pulls it off, in part by staying off the screen.

(Black Mirror spoilers from here on down.)

The episode, masterfully titled "Shut Up and Dance" in another pop music reference, focuses on a sad, weak kid who gets a virus on his computer. His sister borrowed it. He understandably barked at her not to do that and took it back, shutting himself in his room. We know he's a sad, weak kid because he's a busboy at a greasy spoon. He gives a little girl a toy she left behind by accident. Her mother thanks him, taking in his popsicle stick physique and sad dog eyes. The buff cooks call him a knobber, which is the Queen's English for something less than civil. We never see him at school, but are left to guess he's underage due to his riding a bike to work and his later confession to be waiting to take his driver's test.

At home, in his room with his laptop, he locks the door and pulls down his pants. Next scene, he's washing his hands. We get it. He gets a message from an unknown e-mail saying "I know what you did". A hacker taped his solo session without his knowledge and threatens to send it to all of his e-mail contacts if he doesn't do as he's told. This moment was psychologically scarier than anything I saw on the visceral season premier of "Walking Dead", and I mean that as a compliment to "Black Mirror" rather than a knock on the former. (Sorry Glenn, sorry big ginger gent who also died.)

The boy does everything he's told, meeting others whose online sins have left them vulnerable to the same troll or team of trolls. The boy buddies up with Bronn from "Game of Thrones", who has a name, but to me he's Bronn. Bronn is a husband who the troll caught seeking a prostitute because "you get bored and want to fuck a twenty-something". They're forced to rob a bank and Bronn is told he can go home. The boy's punishment continues, though, and we're left with this nagging feeling like, why is he being pummeled so hard for having a good English wank? Shouldn't that be the very definition of a victimless crime?

The boy is forced to fight a man to the death, and the man reveals he was "looking at pictures of kids". We realize the boy has done the same and think, "You fuckers, you just made me feel bad for a pedophile for forty minutes." We remember his kindness to the little girl at his job. We remember how protective he was of his computer. We remember all those times we thought "but all he did was masturbate, this seems harsh" and it all makes sense. Plot twist embedding at its finest, subject matter aside.

Somehow, floss kid manages to win the fight against the older perv and it cuts back to all the people the troll had been blackmailing. They receive that grinning troll meme-emoji-whatever the kids call it and the troll wrecks their lives anyway. Radiohead blares as the beaten-up boy receives a call from his mother, shrieking about what he's done, and the police grab him.

The real trick with "Black Mirror" is it makes you think for days afterward. Who was the real villain? The troll was absolutely merciless, but his victims were far from innocent. At the same time, who the hell was (s)he to do that to four human beings (s)he had no context to judge? We lack context, as the troll does, and I think that's the point. The boy's family is destroyed, and they are innocent. Bronn's family is likely destroyed, and we don't know if his infidelity was brought on by a frigid partner, we don't know if his wife was cheating too. Another character is revealed to be a CEO who forwarded a racist e-mail, but we don't know if she's racist in her hiring and firing, or merely guilty of distasteful humor. The fourth character's "crime" is even never revealed, we just see his family imploding in their living room. Lots of collateral damage. No context. The trolls are merciless, omnipresent, and unaccountable. The secret destroyers are so terrifying, we're left wondering if it's okay to pity a potential pedophile. That's how you hammer home a point. I was overwhelmed with the horror of the plot and the beauty of the writing structure all at once.

After all that, a palate-cleanser was in order, and episode four provided not only that, but the most uplifting television sequence since the end of HBO's "Six Feet Under". "San Junipero" is a love story between women where thankfully the fact that they're both women is incidental. It starts in a setting so eighties you can smell the Aqua-net. This is a story of a reluctant lover (the hilariously named Yorkie) being won over physically by the more experienced party girl Kelly. Then Yorkie has to get Kelly to admit there's something between them emotionally, and she's worth Kelly overcoming her fear of emotional attachment.

If all that sounds pretty standard, it is, until we find out the party town is actually virtual reality, and in the real world, Kelly is elderly and dying of cancer, and Yorkie was paralyzed in her youth in a car accident following a coming out to her parents that didn't go well because religion. The first emotional thing Yorkie convinces Kelly to do is to visit her in reality.

Then we learn San Junipero isn't just for ill people. The consciousness of dead people who've spent time there can be saved there for as long as they want. (They never really explain how this is funded, which is the only little wart on a flawless hour of television.) We realize they've created Heaven.

The rest of the story hinges on Kelly's decision to either join the husband and daughter who predeceased her without being "saved" in San Junipero, or to enjoy Yorkie's company for as long as they both choose to be there. Kelly marries Yorkie so she can let her off life support, but we aren't sure she'll join her.

Cue Belinda Carlisle cooing "Ohh, bay-be do ya know what that's worth? Ohh, hea-vun is a place on earth". Of course Kelly joins her as the credits bleed in, but that's where the cut gets devious. During that one synth part of the song, we see shots of Kelly and Yorkie dancing in slow-mo ecstasy, followed by side-by-side high-tech U.S.B.s, stored by robots, likely the devices containing Kelly and Yorkie's...collective consciousnesses? Souls? In a cut shot, we see all the blinking lights of all the "saved", and one last "hea-ea-vuhn" from Belinda. You cheeky bastards. If I'm not doing it justice with my writing, I sincerely apologize. It's brilliant and needs to be seen, heard, and felt.

Does it matter that the gods in the machine gave Yorkie the romance she deserved to have during her life? Should that cheapen it somehow? Does it matter that, in this instance, the gods we made were kinder to us than the gods who made us? Fluff that '87 'fro and spin with your love on the dance floor like you're young and carefree again, but know that with a show this good, the questions it generates will linger on your mind for days afterward.

The key to great sci-fi is that it doesn't stretch reality too far, it only advances us two or three steps from where we are today. For a terrifying, exhilarating look at where we're headed, watch "Black Mirror".

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