(In honour of the nature of this show, this will be as spoiler-free as I can make it and still qualify as a review… This should be quite a challenge.)
The great thing (or at least one of the great things) about shows like Black Mirror is that you think they’re going somewhere, and then you realize they’re going somewhere else. That’s relatively easy to do badly, but Black Mirror does it very, very well. Here, as in the best shows of its type, you think it’s going somewhere until you realize it’s going somewhere better. This is something the show has done throughout its two, three-episode seasons and judging from this year’s Christmas special (the first new Black Mirror since 2011), it’s in fine form.
The show opens on a two-person drama: Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall locked together in a cabin in the dead of winter. Spall, looking confused and played-out, encounters a well-rested and charming Hamm making roast potatoes (Scottish style) for Christmas dinner, and sipping wine out of tiny glasses. Dialogue ensues, mostly from Hamm at first, as he tells a long story about the use of a personalized, biologically embedded social media program.
Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, has done several stories before on the subject of social media, predicting, with possible great accuracy, the day when our iPhones will be literally fused with our heads rather than metaphorically. Some of the strongest episodes of the initial Black Mirror series dealt with the ramifications of this technology. In this story, the metaphor is being able to “block” people in real life. When you see them, you only see a fuzzy outline, and you can’t hear their voice. This is mutual: a way to literally cut someone out of your life. The idea is that this effect is temporary, unless it lasts for a long time, in which case the image is “burned-in” to the brain much like an old CRT monitor with no screen saver.
The concept of taking social media into the physical world is the essential technological conceit of the episode. Black Mirror is very skilled in that, like old-fashioned science fiction, it doesn’t ask the viewer to believe several impossible things at once, only one at a time. It presents only one (or perhaps two) slightly impossible concepts, and even those are more in the category of “science eventuality” rather than “science fiction”. The irony is that by the time we’re actually able to “block” people by touching our temple, the whole concept of “blocking” will probably be horribly passe.
While this episode really only tells one story, the unity of all the various tales doesn’t come into sharp focus until right at the very end, which is another typical storytelling tool for this sort of drama. The trick to making that work is to have all the diversions be just as absorbing and interesting as the central through-line, and in this case it really works. This 80-minute special is really three episodes of Black Mirror all at once, on top of each other, although the first 30-40 minutes has a continuous through-line that you could be mistaken for thinking represents the main plot.
As told by Jon Hamm’s character, the first story adds the concept of dating to this new world of social media, playing out an electronic version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Then, as it seems to do quite often, Black Mirror takes a turn into an exploration of relationships and sex, with all their attendant power and control issues. These take the episode up to its appropriately shocking climax, or rather climaxes, one you see coming (or at least I did) and one you don’t. It’s a powerful one-two punch to end a powerful, challenging and never less than entertaining Black Mirror.