The Internet will kill us all.
This edict holds together the six new episodes of Black Mirror coming to Netflix on 21 October, episodes that have taught and thrilled and warned me, and will doubtless do the same to you next week. Charlie Brooker’s savage show about our lives being toppled by technology gets its hooks into the very ideas that define gadgetry we currently embrace, and, keeping things ruthlessly recognisable, shows us a transmogrified version of ourselves. We see who we very well could be.
If you know not what Black Mirror is, a brutal, brilliant discovery is due you. These are individual episodes (ranging from roughly 50 to 90 minutes in length) that play out as self-contained parables and cautionary tales about tech and the way we let it into our lives. If it sounds heavy, that’s because it is. This is compelling, thrilling, wonderfully produced television, yes, but also television that will make you sit down and reflect—and perhaps even switch off your phone for awhile.
If you have seen seasons one and two and the (ultimately disappointing) Christmas special, you may think you know what to expect. You do not. Watching Black Mirror all at once instead of it episodically trickling down to you is like gobbling up a gigantic bar of very dark chocolate; you stuff your face far too much and then, like Augustus Gloop, you feel stupid and fat and—it must be said—scared.
Worry not, I promise not to spoil but—merely—to tease.
Written by Brooker and assorted writers and directed by an assortment of filmmakers— Joe Wright (Atonement), Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane), James Watkins (Eden Lake)—the new episodes feel more cinematic as they flex their Netflix budget and come together to form an unforgettable, uneasy mix. The stories are what-if nightmares those of us who spend too long on the Internet can easily conjure, and that’s what makes Black Mirror’s noose snugger. In the episode Hated By The Nation, for example, we’re thrown into a world where people are voted to death via popular hashtag, and a chancellor flails about to get his own imperilled neck off the list.
That one—with its feature-length running time—is comparably the weakest episode of the lot. It sets things up superbly but ends up playing with too straight and clichéd a bat, while it could—and should—have been far kookier. Yet, it works better than most recent thrillers seen in theatres, with its astonishing conceit and the irresistible catch-22 at its heart. The other brittle link is the beautiful but fatally flawed San Junipero, about a love so enormously Eighties it is dashed hard not to see the final twist coming a mile away.
The rest are jawdroppingly good. Playtest, about an augmented reality horror video game, takes forever to build on its concept and characters and pretty much warns you that it will now go on to say boo an awful lot, but it is still psychologically solid and unsettling enough to make you jump. Or whimper. The theme, of us getting hooked to virtual adrenaline spurts and chasing them recklessly and gratuitously, hits home, hard.
It is, at times, frighteningly relatable. Nosedive takes us to a world where ‘liking’ is actual currency. It explores an absurd setup, where people are ranked on every social interaction, and where their online clout affects their real-life standing. It sounds rightfully insane. And yet…somewhere that idea where the charm and likability of people affects their actual status feels kinda idyllic. Not only do we live in a world where relatives call us up wondering why their latest vacation pictures have not been Liked, but where we ourselves have begun to react to degrees of Liking. I, for one, have now begun to see who Likes and who ‘Loves’ articles I post online, feeling invariably warmer about the latter. I am aware it doesn’t make sense, but we are all Pavlov’s hounds.
That stunning episode, directed by Wright and co-written by the actress Rashida Jones, sees Bryce Dallas Howard play a girl who tries to game the system by liking everyone—she swipes 5 stars even to those rude to her—in order to be reciprocally voted up. It is an understandably safe way to go through life, but far from the most satisfying. As someone who has rated movies for well over a decade, all I can say is that you should call it, and star it, just as you personally see it. Everything else leads to catastrophe.
The most fascinating thing about Black Mirror is how it is the most effective in the least far-fetched future. Shut Up And Dance, a harrowing episode about guilt and surveillance, seems to be set next week rather than others which may be set two to ten years from now, and it is this relative realism that makes it all the more devastating. It is a tale of sinning, and of all sins being equal—but perhaps not. It is also, perhaps as this entire Black Mirror season may be called, an elaborate act of trolling. Want television you’ll love? Here’s something to break your goddamned heart.
The Internet will kill us all. And like everything else Black Mirror shines at us, we know that already.
Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.