Sunday, December 21, 2014

Episode of the Week: Black Mirror - "White Christmas"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

2014 Christmas Special

Thanks mostly to Ryan Murphy (I never thought I'd say that), who at the end of American Horror Story's first season announced that the second would tell a completely different story, anthologies have had something of a resurgence lately.  Now we've got True Detective, Fargo, and the upcoming American Crime Story too.  But those aren't anthologies in the truest sense, since they tell one story in a full season, before moving on to another one.  The UK's brilliant, subversive Black Mirror is a classic anthology, recalling the days of Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, telling single-episode short stories with completely different actors, characters, and tones.  Over the course of seven episodes, this series has reminded us how satisfying that model could be.

The basic logline for Black Mirror is that it's "the sci-fi version of The Twilight Zone," and that's mostly pretty accurate.  The "black mirror" in question is every blank screen -- phones, laptops, tablets, televisions -- that people of today are slaves to, and each episode aims to tell a story about the power of technology in some way.  In creator Charlie Brooker's mind, technology is an amazing advancement that has improved our lives in many ways, but the overreaching power that it has can also be horrifying and suffocating.  What's smart about these stories is that he takes aspects that are already prevalent in our culture and stretches them to extremes, presenting a world that could plausibly exist as a result of unchecked progress.

A few weeks ago, the show finally arrived on Netflix, allowing those in America who didn't already acquire it illegally to watch and see what all the hype is about.  Without a doubt, the buzz about the show has never been higher, as publications that had already seen the show have been posting articles about why you should watch and newcomers have been fervently tweeting about their experience.  So whether it was deliberately planned this way or a matter of pure serendipity, the Christmas special that aired this past week in the UK (and will be shown in America on December 25th) couldn't have come at a better time.

"White Christmas" is wickedly structured, functioning like a mini-season, broken down into three segments that serve as mini-episodes.  Brooker is a great ideas man, and each of these segments feel like they could sustain an entire episode, but the fact that he condenses them doesn't make them any less satisfying.

But before it reveals its true nature, the episode plays it coy at first.  It starts off like it's going to be some post-apocalyptic story, as we meet Joe (Rafe Spall) and Matt (Jon Hamm), two men who have apparently been in a cabin in the middle of some snowy landscape for five years.  That half decade has been marked with very little chatter between them, but on this particular day -- which is Christmas, to be exact -- Matt tries to make Joe open up by telling him a story of how he came to take this "job" that they're on.

In this world, every human has been given something called a Z-Eye, which allows their eyes to serve as camera, among other things.  Matt uses this feature to start up a service where he helps awkward guys get dates by using watching them through the Z-Eye and giving them tips through an earpiece.  With Matt at an offsite location, he's free to look up information on women to give the men an extra advantage.  He helps Harry (Rasmus Hardiker) who infiltrates a random office Christmas party and hits it off with Jennifer (Natalia Tena).  "White Christmas" deftly lays out its reveals, even the smallest ones, like the one where we find out that not only Matt, but a whole group of men, are watching Harry.  And perhaps if Harry wasn't trying to tick boxes on a mental checklist he's been given, he'd be able to tell that Jennifer is suicidal before she takes him to her home and forces him to drink a mysterious liquid that kills him while Matt and the others are watching.

As it turns out, that love guru business is not even Matt's job, which we learn when he launches into another story.  This segment passes it over to Greta (Oona Chaplin), a woman who is undergoing a procedure to take out a chip that has been in her brain for a week collecting data about the way she thinks, and putting it in a "cookie" that will be able to virtually do household tasks that Greta herself is too lazy to do.  By all accounts, this copy is just like Greta.  She thinks like Greta, she feels like Greta, she has the same preferences as Greta; and it's Matt's job to train this copy.  Here's where the genius of Jon Hamm truly comes in.  We're so used to seeing him on Mad Men playing Don Draper, who even at his worst, always has a cool restraint to him.  As Matt, he's an oozing jerk, and it's wonderful to watch.  The way he tortures this "cookie" Greta into realizing her purpose is absolutely horrifying.  "It'll be much easier if you just comply" is enough to send chills down spines.

After having heard two of Matt's stories, Joe is ready to open up about he came to take this job at the cabin.  Once again, it's important to note how masterfully constructed "White Christmas" is.  Though these three segments are separate stories, their ideas and themes are all swirling around the same drain, and concepts that get introduced in one segment carry over into a later segment.  In Matt's first story, we learn about "blocking," a legally binding process that makes it so that anybody you block appears as a muffled white blob, and vice versa.  It's another example of Brooker pushing an existing part of our culture to its extreme, since blocking is something we already do on Facebook and Twitter all of the time.  But this is much more frightening and powerful.

As Joe tells it, once he found out that his girlfriend Bethany (Janet Montgomery) was pregnant, they got into a fight because she didn't want to keep it, and in a fit of rage she blocks him.  They remain apart until he sees a silhouetted blob walking down the street one day, pregnant.  Because the blocking extends to offspring, he can't see his child either -- the only hope he has is to watch the two of them from afar every Christmas when they visit Beth's father's house.  One year, however, Joe is watching the news when discovers that Beth died in a tragic train crash, thus lifting the block and allowing him to see his child.

The nesting doll of twists just keep unraveling, as Joe does his yearly Christmas visit, only to discover the little girl he can now see is Asian, and actually the child of somebody Beth had an affair with.  Confused, he confronts Beth's father about this and Joe is so enraged that he accidentally kills him.  You start to see where the next twist is going before he does, which just makes the whole thing more agonizing.  It turns out that Matt is interrogating a cookie of Joe because the real version is in jail and won't speak.  Once Matt gets the confession out of Joe, he thinks he'll be absolved of the crimes he committed in the stories he told Joe, but the police decide to put him on "The Register" (the parallels with a registered sex offenders list are clear), which blocks him from everybody in the world.

This episode isn't without its flaws.  Matt's punishment seems a tiny bit too cruel, when all is said and done.  (Though could it be an intentional callback to the themes of the show's best episode, "White Bear"?)  And if you think about the Z-Eye and the concept of blocking for too long, plotholes begin to appear.  Blocking seems more impractical than helpful, but that and Matt's punishment work on an emotional level.  The whole episode is structured like a two-hander between Joe and Matt, and in the end they're both imprisoned and isolated, the former in his own head and the latter in the real world.  "White Christmas" also holds up to multiple viewings, providing different pleasures each time, like the best Black Mirror episodes.  The first time around you're left guessing where the story is going, but the journey is so compelling that the twist doesn't feel like the ultimate goal.  On second viewing, all the ways in which Joe and Matt's conversation is clearly an interrogation enrich the experience.  ("It's a job, not a jail," Joe says at one point.  "Often the same thing," responds Matt.)

Those three mini-stories connect the episode with some pretty powerful themes, chiefly the idea of people using technology as a shortcut to real emotions.  Randy uses the Z-Eye to hit on girls instead of trying to forge a genuine, honest connection with them.  Greta gets a cookie to do everything for her.  Beth blocks Joe so she doesn't have to tell him the truth about her pregnancy.  It's also all about people not knowing the full implications of their actions.  The Z-Eye, the psychological torture of the cookie, the totality of blocking -- they're all things that these people have easy access to, so they don't really put much thought into the grand effect.  And when you think about it, are we any different?

If this all feels a little familiar, that's because it's supposed to.  "White Christmas," is clearly and cleverly riffing on ideas presented in previous episodes of the show.  The Z-Eye functions in a similar way to The Grain in "The Entire History of You," the idea of having a not completely real but close enough copy of a person was explored in "Be Right Back," and using illusions to make criminals come to terms with their crimes was presented in "White Bear."  In that way, this episode does what Christmas is supposed to do: provide comfort and remind you of the things you love.  It turns out I love Black Mirror very much.

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