Black Mirror: What’s the Point? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Welcome to this Wisecrack Quick Take on Black Mirror Season 4!
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Written by: Matthew Theriault
Edited by: Mark Potts
Produced by: Emily Dunbar & Jacob Salamon
Black Mirror: What’s the Point? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here and today we’re diving back in to Black Mirror. The fourth season of this modern Twilight Zone just dropped on Netflix, and with it some truly thought-provoking episodes including a loving homage to Star Trek, an Apache among helicopter parents and a rather utopian alternative to Tinder. In the wake of season three’s super popular San Junipero the show has traded its trademark pessimism for a slightly more positive tone, injecting a measure of justice and happiness previously unseen in the series. But it’s in the season finale where the show does something drastically different. Black Museum not only provides the high concept technological nightmare we’ve come to expect, but reflects on the legacy and function of the show as a whole. Black Museum asks: What is even the purpose of Black Mirror?
Welcome to this Wisecrack Quick Take on the Philosophy of Black Museum. And obviously- Spoilers ahead. The episode follows a young woman named Nish as she’s given a private tour by proprietor Rolo Haynes of the eponymous Black Museum, a tourist trap that houses a collection of “authentic criminological artifacts.” Viewers will be sure to spot a number of prominent props from past episodes including the DNA analyzer from USS Callister, the parental control pad from Arkangel, the bloody bathtub from Crocodile, and even the strange symbol-marked ski-masks from White Bear. These are more than just easter eggs. They’re visual clues to the viewer that Black Museum is a metatextual reflection of the show itself. The artifacts it contains serve as physical representations of the episodes they appeared in, and even the name Black Museum is deliberately evocative of the show’s title, Black Mirror.
Like the holiday special White Christmas, Black Museum is an anthology within an anthology, with three separate subplots loosely connected by Rolo Haynes’ narration. In utilizing this same anthology structure, Black Museum is mirroring the format of Black Mirror. But if the exhibits in the background represent past episodes, what do the three new gadgets – Dr. Dawson’s symphatic diagnoser, the Monkey stuffed with Carrie’s consciousness, and Clayton Leigh’s holographic holding cell– represent? Each item is an interface for human consciousness; a more direct means of what television and social media already do today. These fictional items represent the different ways our current technology both connects – and disconnects – us as a society. Dawson’s implant connects him and his patients, signaling their sensations to him via the hairnet-looking headgear. The upload which inserts Carrie’s mind into the back seat of Jack’s brain allows her to see and feel as he does. And the thin screen separating Clayton’s consciousness from the museum’s visitors creates emotional distance akin to the distance between fictional characters and desensitized audiences. Dawson’s subplot comments on media’ ability to let us empathize with characters and experience thrills without any physical ramifications. “Imagine if you could feel what a patient feels, minus the physical consequences.”
Jack and Carrie’s story reflects media’s ability to turn us into voyeurs, Clayton’s story reflects on the guilt-free gratification we get from consuming violence in media. In all of these cases, technology allows individuals to experience things vicariously. “Like a hitchhiker. Like a passenger. Vicarious sensations. She sees what you see. She feels what you feel.” This episode dramatizes what all fiction generally does, and what Black Mirror as a television program does specifically. All fiction is delivered to us via a medium – in the case of Black Mirror, through television Television itself is, in Rolo’s words, “a receiver for human experiences.” And one that often, as Rolo says, offers: “No privacy for him, no agency for her.”
With a particularly compelling show like Black Mirror, we become increasingly invested, and share in the same sense of joy in San Junipero as Kelly and Yorkie, the same indignation as Bing in Fifteen Million Merits; the same initial prejudices and gradual awakening as Stripe in Men Against Fire. For philosopher Martha Nussbaum, this kind of connection is emblematic of narrative’s role in moral development. Narratives, according to Nussbaum, free us from the parochial confines of our own lives and places us in a position both like and unlike our own. “Like, in that we are emotionally involved with the characters, active with them, and aware of our incompleteness; unlike, in that we are free of certain sources of distortion that frequently impede our real-life deliberations.”
For example, Take, a character like Bing in 15 Million Merits. His love for Abi may remind us of our own lives, but, unlike Bing, we’re not sent on a downward spiral when that love is lost, yet we can still experience it from a distance… Black Museum, however, explores the danger of this distancing effect through Dr. Dawson’s subplot, and it is here that the episode looks at the potentially desensitizing nature of the series’ own violent imagery. In a series which premiered with the Prime Minister of Britain fucking a pig, maintaining that same sense of shock requires increasingly more shocking scenes. Thus they need to surprise audiences in Shut Up and Dance by revealing that the protagonist they’d been rooting for had been in to kiddy porn. Only to be topped in the subsequent season in Crocodile as experience an average human being transition from innocence to infanticide. Per Rolo as the show progressed, our “relationship with pain had shifted.” We’re not merely desensitized to the violence on screen, we take a twisted kind of pleasure in the discomfort it inflicts upon us. “See, it’s like eating chilis. You acclimatize fast. First time you had a jalapeno, bet you spet it out. Too hot. But persevere, and it becomes addictive.”
But Black Museum is ultimately not apologetic for engaging in such extreme emotions, arguing through its third subplot that the show is not empty sensationalism, but rather has a purpose motivating it. In the main exhibit of the Black Museum, we see what remains of Clayton Leigh, the alleged murderer whose arrest and execution had been alluded to throughout the episode. Like Carrie in the monkey, his consciousness continues on even after the expiration of his physical body, albeit this time as a self-aware hologram.. As the museum’s grand attraction , visitors are invited to pull the switch themselves, not merely inflicting real torture on this Leigh, but in the process creating a sentient souvenir, that eternally experiences the moment of execution. “It was beautiful. Every time you finish juicing him, out pops a conscious, sentient snapshot of Clayton. Not a recording. A true copy of his mind, perpetually experiencing that beautiful pain, stuck forever in that one perfect moment of agony.”
Similar to White Christmas in which the cookie of Joe is confined to a virtual cabin for what he experiences as hundreds of thousands of years, it’s the the punishment made perpetual– that most offends our innate sense of proportionality; even had he committed the crime, no finite offense could merit infinite punishment. As such, the show forces us to empathize with one character who may be a murderer, and another absolutely guilty of man-slaughtering a child on Christmas. We don’t merely feel bad for them; from the safe distance of our side of the screen, we feel their pain with them. Likewise, we feel a sense of vindication when our audience-surrogate Nish – revealed to be Clayton’s daughter and carrying her mother inside her head – enacts retribution against Rolo. It’s not just that Nish seeing the suffering of her father or hearing the story of Carrie engendered empathy in her; it’s that such empathy then motivated her to moral action.
This is Black Museum’s statement about how Black Mirror sees itself and its purpose. It is not desensitizing spectacle and empty entertainment. It’s not even a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology; after all, the same mind-sharing method which caused Jack so much grief is shown as being beneficial to Nish and her mother. Rather, Black Mirror sees itself as serving the same role as a long line of literature and science-fiction shows which connect us emotionally to their characters in order to engender empathy and in turn encourage us to enact justice. In the episode Arkangel, our empathic attachment to the constantly-surveilled Sara is supposed to incite us against similar “Big Mother” surveillance systems pervading our lives.
Or in the episode Metalhead, our investment in Bella’s survival against what is essentially Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog invites us to scrutinize the militarization of autonomous machines. In all these cases, Black Mirror is able to raise our concerns for these societal issues as effectively as it does only because it first causes us to care for the characters it’s crafted. Black Museum is the whole of the show Black Mirror distilled down to a single episode, preserving the same content, the same format, and most importantly, the same purpose: to see ourselves reflected in the black mirror that is our television screen or smart phone, engaging emphathically with the characters we’re connected to by that screen, and by doing so expanding our moral imagination and motivating us towards justice. Thanks for watching guys. Peace.