Just an episode title? Or a description of what happened to Black Mirror’s standards?
The first two series of Black Mirror (it’s a British show y’all, we don’t talk seasons) were full of brilliantly disqueiting technology-based dystopianism. It’s also pure Britain: dry as a bone, unsentimental, and resoundingly pessismistic. The first episode is about a British politician being forced into a form of intercourse with a pig through a series of escalating threats to a royal (because real life can also be weird like our speculative fiction, a certain Prime Minister is said to have performed similar acts, under no such duress). He has intercourse with a pig, live on TV, which pleases the nation and alienates him from his wife. The second episode features a man who takes a spectacular risk in a repressively tolerant prison by spending his dead brother’s life savings to help a woman win a talent show, only she doesn’t become succesful singer, she becomes a porn star, whose performances he can no longer afford to pay not to see. When his savage threat to cut his own throat on live TV is seen only as a performance and not a protest, he is rewarded with a penthouse and a show. He’s just another talking head distracting the masses from their servitude. I’ll stop there, what am I a Black Mirror episode guide? The point is, in the very best episodes of Black Mirror, absolutely no one comes out clean, especially not the viewer. Even when we feel like we have a clear moral center, the final twist reveals the rot at that center. We watch the credits wondering what dark things we are capable of, hoping the opportunity to find out never arises (I do, anyway, what kind of degenerate are you?!).
“Nosedive” is the first episode of the show since Netflix swooped in make sure they continued to have a massive streaming hit for themselves. The British showrunner, Charlie Brooker, is still there and there is British talent behind the camera (“Nosedive” is directed by *shudder* Atonement’s Joe Wright), but the acting talent, many of the writers, and the scene of the stories has shifted to America. Bryce Dallas Howard, you know Opie’s daughter, is the star of the first episode which takes place in a world chock a block with American accents and American style longings for the trappings of someone else’s domesticity. Rashida Jones (yes, that one) is co-credited with the teleplay. We aren’t in, er Britain, anymore, Toto (or whatever your machine name is, robot dog, please don’t kill me). The biggest worry for Black Mirror fans is that the change of venue and production model will hurt the show.
The first act of “Nosedive” features the kind of excruciating build-up that made Black Mirror a sensation; it’s Hitchcockian suspense powered by an amphetamine cocktail. Part of that tension is the expectations that come from the fact that we are on series 3 (no, Jon Hamm’s Christmas special doesn’t count as a whole series, even if I aged an entire year watching it): we all know that whatever happiness or certainty about her life Lacie Pound thinks she has will be ripped from her by the very technology that she was using to make herself happy. That’s Bryce Dallas Howard’s character in the show, Lacie Pound. She is a normally shaped woman, which means the struggle to deal with the, er, pounds is real. I respect the struggle, but the name is a bit on the nose, not a great sign, even if Howard gives a great line read on her personal disgust with her name at the very end. Lacie’s got great metrics. She’s a 4.2 out of 5.0 on the ratings scale that has come to dominate social interactions and private lives. Implants in everyone’s eyes guarantee that the rating of every soul is transmitted to your cerebral cortex and you get instant feedback after every personal interaction. Access to your job, favorable rates on apartments, customer service: it all depends on your rating. Lacie wants a new apartment and it is only really affordable if she’s a 4.5. She’s a striver, so she comes up with a plan (with a solid assist from the consultant class) to get a bump from a better rated person which should make all of her dreams come true. This set up is dispatched very quickly. I glanced at the time left in the episode and when I saw there was 40 minutes left after the first act, I couldn’t handle the stress (no, I don’t like Ben Stiller movies, why do you ask). I went and watched episode 1 of The Fall’s new series instead. Yeah, I went to the show about a violent serial rapist and the cop chasing him to take a break from Black Mirror. So far, so good.
The nosedive in ratings that cripples Lacie’s life takes some avenues I wasn’t expecting, which is again, all to the good. Publicly freaking out during a customer service interaction gives her a good shove into the abyss (sidenote: how many service professionals secretly wish the world worked like this? Or that security would intervene so quickly and helpfully during a negative interaction?) and the indignities pile on thereafter (as they do: those who have will be given more, those who have not, will have even what they thought they had taken away from them — the Bible can be real harsh, y’all). In short order, Lacie has gone from flying to a wedding ready to get that 4.7 bump to bumming a ride from a sub 2.0 truck driver and deluding herself into thinking any kind of bump is still possibe. That truck driver, who is played by brilliant flippin’ actress Cherry Jones, lays it all out for Lacie, with the worn bravado of a renegade who still gets a kick out of refusing to let the bastards grind her down. She tells Lacie how freeing it can be not to give A SHIT about what other people think of you and to just let go. Lacie rejects this advice in the moment, but she gets a thermos of booze and some time at the bus station to work out how she’s going handle the confrontation she is orchestrating at the wedding which went from being a plan for improving her life beyond her wildest dreams to becoming an unfocused opportunity for revenge.
Look, if you know anything about storytelling of any kind, the rough shape of what happens over the last act of the episode has just been sketched in flaming letters in the sky (I do wish I had a better link for you there, but it’s not an easy Google Image search away, so . . . ). The writers might as well have whipped out a megaphone attached to a concert-grade speaker rig to shout at us: THIS IS WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT. This is the equivalent of “After this job, I’m gonna retire to be with my family” in an action movie. That’s a drag. One of the reasons we, as Americans, turn to British produced TV shows, is precisely because such emotional sign posts are either absent or treacherous over the pond. Black Mirror is always at its best when it betrays our morally superior safe space as viewers, when we get the sudden look in that black mirror that makes us want to scream. “Nosedive” doesn’t confront us like that. Instead, viewers are treated to Lacie’s angry lashing out at Naomie (NayNay!), an obnoxiously fit and clearly game for it Alice Eve (you know her from Star Trek). It’s all so anti-climactic. We’ve been prepped to despise Naomi and her machinations for maintaining that 4.7 life that people consume to ease the pain of their own sub 4.0 existence. We want Lacie to go off, we want her to savage Naomi (and Lacie’s speech is only OK, so that’s a let down on its face). This is still the Black Mirror universe, so Lacie gets arrested after her outburst and she has her eye implants removed and she is in a cell afterward. Her lashing out did not achieve the desired social result but it gave her a personal catharsis. The episode ends with her and the man in the cell across from her yelling obscene insults at one another with the relish of kids discovering a new expletive. It’s a deliriously happy trading of imprecations, both of them clearly pleased to discover that someone else has finally had their despised societal shackles removed.
I’ll repeat that: both characters are entirely pleased with themselves, albeit in prison, for mentally escaping the dystopian hell of constant pressure to conform to other’s expectations. “Nosedive” presents a world that is the logical result of the way digital interactions bend our behavior to strive for likes and ratings. It is a hellscape of self-policing combined with harsh social penalties delivered by the group for violating expectations and norms with no forgiveness at all. It’s not puppies and light. But “Nosedive” ends with the possibility of an escape from that mental prison. It’s a particularly (white) American kind of punk, the “at least I’m free” ending. It’s also the kind of concession an American executive passive-aggressively extracts from a show because they are afraid that true darkness won’t play in Peoria. Sure, if you are tuning in from your Gilmore Girls rewatch and the darkest thing you’ve ever watched is a rapey episode of Law and Order: SVU, this Black Mirror episode is plenty dark and scary. But if you are a Black Mirror O.G., this ending is practically rainbows and sunshine. Not only is it optimistic (rebellion and spiritual freedom are desirable and possible), it specifically refrains from condemning us, the viewers. We feel for Lacie and her efforts within a high stress society, but we are never forced to reckon with the sins committed in enabling that society. Lacie always means well. Yeah, she refuses to let a co-worker into work once he falls from grace and she has a fight with her brother, but those are blips without consequences and she is otherwise sin free. Make no mistake, though. In the “Nosedive” world (and in the real world) 4.2s are oppressors. We know that because 4.7s are oppressors (we hate Naomi, remember?) and 4.2s don’t come by 4.7s honestly; they have to play a vicious game to get there. “Nosedive” should have been a merging of Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” with The Gulag Archipelago. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote searingly of the moral compromises survival in a vicious place requires (I would link to that text, but it’s still copy protected — just find a way to read the end of volume II, especially “The Ascent” and “Or Corruption?”). As a Gulag survivor, he was always acutely aware of the terrible things he did to ensure his own survival. Lacie never has to deal with her own complicity in a system that she helped perpetuate, which means we never have to deal with our own social sins either. That is not very Black Mirror at all.
Now, I have not seen any more of this series of Black Mirror, I’m experiencing it real time(ish)- I have a job and it is not reviewing TV shows and movies (sadly). It’s possible that this season recovers from its nosedive (yes, I intended that, and I will not apologize) and finds its edge and willingness to make viewers’ consciences bleed again. But “Nosedive” itself is too blunt and afraid of the killing blow to live up to Black Mirror’s (admittedly ludicrously) high standards, and that’s a shame.