Brow Beat

The Black Mirror Christmas Special Is Brilliant and Disturbing

Jon Hamm stars in “White Christmas,” which aired Dec. 16 in the U.K. and comes to DirectTV’s Audience Channel Dec. 25.
Jon Hamm stars in “White Christmas,” which aired Dec. 16 in the U.K. and comes to DirectTV’s Audience Channel Dec. 25.

Photo by Hal Shinnie for Channel 4

The title of Black Mirror, the rightly celebrated British anthology series about the sinister side of technology, refers to all of the screens that surround us. The phones, tablets, televisions, computers—the very screen you are reading this on: They are all black mirrors, reflecting ourselves back to ourselves, darkly. Each of the show’s six, masterfully constructed, newly-arrived-on-Netflix episodes is completely self-contained—and most end with a sickening twist. The episodes brim with ideas that are utterly sensible extrapolations from our current cultural and technological moment, and yet are so much more fanged, fierce, and sour than the often Pollyanna-ish predictions we make about future technologies, and, more to the point, how we will use them. You think it would be cool to record everything that’s ever happened to you and call it up for review whenever you want? Watch “The Entire History of You” and get back to me. Black Mirror is, roughly speaking, about the future, but what it reflects back again and again are basic human flaws, magnified with the help of increasingly powerful tools.

Joining the six episodes made so far is the Black Mirror Christmas special, “White Christmas,” which aired in the U.K. Dec. 16 and will come to DirectTV’s Audience Network on Christmas. Such specials are a seasonal British treat: Many popular shows over there pump out an extra-long episode for the holidays. This one is 90 minutes and stars Jon Hamm. But the Black Mirror Christmas special, like the series as a whole, is a snack you nosh on knowing it will probably make you deliciously queasy. Black Mirror is a series that indicts our relationship to technology even as it feeds and relies on it. Charlie Brooker, who created the show, knows that we can’t, or won’t, turn off our screens, even as he outlines all the ways those screens are alienating us.

I won’t explain everything about “White Christmas,” and I certainly won’t describe the ending, since that would ruin some of the fun—or, since fun is strange word to use with regards to this show, its sickening wonder. But I will tell you some of what happens, so turn away now if you want to keep each detail a surprise.

Our protagonist, Matthew, is played pitch-perfectly by Hamm in grinning, slightly smarmy mode. As the episode begins, he has been holed up in an endless snowstorm with Joe (Rafe Spall), a laconic, fragile man, for five years, and they are all but ignoring each other. But today is Christmas, there’s a holiday song on the radio, and Matthew wants to chat while cooking a Christmas dinner—anything would be preferable to the boredom. What then unfolds are three distinct stories embedded within the larger narrative frame of their conversation. The first  makes clear what Matthew is doing in this frigid place, the second depicts his former day job, and the third explains what Joe is doing there as well, all three stories interlocking and building upon one another with increasingly elegant horror.

In the first section, Matthew introduces us to his hobby: playing a twisted Cyrano De Bergerac to a young nerd looking to run the game on an unsuspecting woman. The geek crashes an office party with Matthew’s voice in his head. Things go well before they go extremely wrong, with Black Mirror deftly conveying the odiferous funk of macho groupthink—and the ways that severe reliance on technology starts to resemble a mental illness. The voice in your head may be Siri, but it’s still a voice in your head.

The second story, like the fourth episode of the series, “Be Right Back,” plays like a macabre and disturbing interpolation of Spike Jonze’s much softer-hearted Her. A woman (Oona Chaplin) has a copy of her consciousness made—a luxury service that helps her organize her daily life: Who knows how you like your toast better than a version of you? But the copy of her consciousness, no longer attached to a body or seen by society as anything other than a bit of code, feels that it’s real. Forget Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice becoming free to explore the vast reaches of time and science while remaining more or less content to live in a cell phone. Forget, also, those other sentient AIs—like the little boy in AI or the robot in the upcoming Chappie—who are abused by humanity but at least have a corporeal home. This is much worse; consciousness is given almost no value and no freedom. Past a certain point of intelligence, Siri isn’t just an assistant: She’s a slave.

As these stories are unfolding, Matthew and Joe both make reference to another new technology: blocking. In “White Christmas,” wearable tech has advanced beyond the rudimentary stages of Google glass and become Z-eyes, irremovable implants that let you take pictures and record things and, if you must, “block” other people. As used in “White Christmas,” blocking makes the person who is blocked and the person who has done the blocking look like grey, fuzzy outlines to one another. They can’t hear each other or communicate, and the blocked party has no recourse.

The terminology suggests a lineage with blocking someone on Facebook or Twitter.  But here in 2014 we tend to understand blocking as essentially protective: It insulates people from unwanted attention and (often misogynistic) threats—though of course it also keep ex-friends and other irritants out of your feed. While Black Mirror understands the protective quality of blocking—the episode expressly deals with some messy, vile misogyny—it is more concerned with the ways blocking can be abused. In “White Christmas,” blocking is largely something women do to men in lieu of communicating with them. It’s the technological equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears, an all-powerful silent treatment that can, sometimes, take on draconian legal backing.

If that sounds a bit wrong-headed, “White Christmas,” like the most disturbing episode of Black Mirror that exists, the similarly titled “White Bear,” asks questions about what we are willing to do to the least worthy amongst us: the convicted, the guilty, the criminal. When technology makes it easy to ignore, ostracize, manipulate, and torture the worst of us, might not the rest of us comply?

Merry Christmas.