Black Mirror finally returns with a nightmarishly effective take on social media validation run amok
There will be spoilers
Finally, new Black Mirror graces our screens. It’s been nearly two years since the unsurprisingly bleak Christmas special in 2014. Since then, Netflix has acquired the show as an original series and committed to two seasons totalling 12 episodes, the first half of which are now available. Black Mirror did well for them as an import and introduced America to the wonderfully grim British techno satire and presumably they’re hoping for that cult following to catch on globally. For those that don’t know, the show is an anthology series, meaning each episode features an unconnected and self contained story with a new cast, taking a look at near future scenarios with technology that’s within the realm of science fiction but only just.
It’s just the type of provocative, somewhat risky, water cooler show the company seems to love backing. Given the transition, it’s understandable that there was a degree of apprehension as to whether or not it would still have the same vicious edge that made it such a hit in the first place. With Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones remaining at the helm and Netflix having a reputation as a very creative friendly company to work with, the show is in safe hands.
Episode 1, “Nosedive”, stars Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie Pound, living in a world in which social media has moved from online to offline. A person’s entire worth in determined by how others rate not just the usual online interactions but also those undergone in person, even down to insufferable small talk. As someone who is a bit alienated by the selfie centric, food snapshot society of today, this tapped into a very real underlying anxiety I often feel when I look at Facebook or Twitter. Lacie seeks the help of an individual specifically trained in increasing people’s rating. His advice? Surround yourself with high rated people, because their input carries more weight and will allow you to climb society faster.
The performative aspect of this certainly draws parallels with Season 1’s excellent “15 Million Merits” except this is somehow even more terrifying. Previously the concert stage was the facade but here it’s the real world and everyday life becomes the stage and it becomes incredibly difficult to discern what is real and what isn’t. We’re given insight into Lacie’s daily preparations, as she looks into the mirror not to inspect her appearance but rather to perfect her smile and laugh, to make it as pitch perfect in order to extract as high a rating as possible out of each interaction. Now imagine that philosophy applied to literally facet of life. A completely arbitrary number deciding where you can and can’t go, what you can and can’t experience. At one point, during a heated argument with her brother, who appears to be going through a rough jobless period in his life, Lacie tells him the reason she hasn’t gotten romantically involved with anyone is because she’d be too embarrassed to introduce them to him since his societal rating is a mere 3 out of 5.
This being a Black Mirror episode, it’s only a matter of time before everything goes to shit for Lacie, as she experiences a startling quick downward spiral, culminating in her having her phone taken away, eye implants ripped out, and locked up in prison. There’s a sense throughout that she knows how utterly insane the entire system is but she’s so desperate to win over her peers and ascend the societal ladder, she’s powerless to resist playing the game. Black Mirror typically has especially striking final moments and “Nosedive” ranks very highly in that regard. From the pent up anger of having to pretend and lie in each and every moment of daily living, Lacie and her cellmate erupt in a flurry of joyful insults, trading increasingly obscene abuse, to a rapid fire shot reverse shot climax. It’s unclear whether either two of will see release anytime soon and even if they were to be freed, they’d just be walking back into a worse prison. It’s a type of bittersweet and somewhat hopeful note the show very rarely ends on.
This episode’s visual design is incredibly strong. Presumably the show has a significantly larger budget than it used to on Channel 4 as the scope and scale of the world is significantly beyond anything seen in previous episodes. It’s overly vibrant, as if smudged in a super saturated pink Instagram filter. It’s an appropriate motif that permeates throughout. Its gaudiness makes the whole thing hard to swallow, just as people attempting to makes their lives work within the confines of this false madness are just difficult and hard to tolerate without wanting punch in the face constantly. Like much of series’ social commentary, it’s a hyper exaggerated version of current trends but it works because of how carefully and thoughtfully realised it is. While the notion of a society like this actually emerging is perhaps unbelievable, the echoes of truth that resonate are undeniable and throw a supremely sinister shadow over the entirely of social media.
It’s reassuring to know that despite a two year break and a channel switch, Black Mirror hasn’t lost any of its bite with one its finest episodes yet.