Pity and Punishment: Black Mirror’s Dystopian Vision

Black Mirror, Produced by Annabel Jones and Charlie Brooker

Black Mirror has become that most abject of things – a TV show that we talk about in the past tense even as it airs new episodes. The tech-focused science fiction anthology show dominated conversation when it debuted in 2011, winning awards, insinuating itself into your social media feed and (then; creepily) your actual conversations with breathing humans. Because the declared point of the show was to serve as a sort of “Twilight Zone” for the era of recommendation algorithms and Twitter mobs – it offered well-acted, tightly-written one-hour teleplays that each focused on some way in which technology is making a dystopia around us – the very fact of its sudden, tech-fuelled popularity, the savvy way it was sold, seemed to underline or emphasize whatever it was the show meant to say: even criticism of technology must be a product of that same tech.

The common wisdom is that the show lost a bit of bounce after it moved from Channel 4 to Netflix. Even “Bandersnatch,” a much-discussed two-hour 2018 episode that allowed the viewer to choose among various pathways through the narrative, attracted accusations that the show’s format was exhausted. If Black Mirror no longer seems, to quite so many critics and viewers, like the future of television, that may be due to a sneaking suspicion that the show is complicit in what it indicts. To watch too many episodes in a row feels a bit listening to the angriest man in your office indict the nature of work, gesticulating in the air, while with his other hand he clicks his signature on yet another lucrative deal for the company. It’s not hypocrisy that makes such people tiresome – no one who participates in a large economy can avoid hypocrisy. It’s simply that they can’t tell you the way out because they haven’t found it.     

And yet I have found, on revisiting them, that the show’s early seasons have a potency and clarity that make it unlike anything else on television; the best episodes linger like nightmares.They are acrid and clarifying in the way that Armando Ianucci’s work can be at its best, or the films of Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, or dirtbag-left podcasts like “Chapo Trap House” and “TrueAnon,” or the increasingly disturbing and brilliant video-essays of YouTube auteur known as ContraPoints. What all these have in common is that they offer, at times, an excessively nihilistic vision of contemporary political life that nevertheless makes you feel relieved that you are not alone in your cynicism and despair.

The infamous pilot, “The National Anthem,” imagines a terrorist group that kidnaps a member of the royal family, and refuses to release her unless the Prime Minister performs a degrading, pleasureless, and disgusting sexual act on live television. It’s a ridiculous scenario; in summary. It even has the unpleasant “can you top this?” savour of something a teenage edgelord would invent to shock his friends. (The show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, is a talented dramatist whose major prior dramatic series work, 2005’s “Nathan Barley,” is unwatchable now precisely because it tries so hard to be shocking.) But the script and the direction fully commit to this ridiculous situation; they leave room for pity. We sympathize with the Prime Minister, who exhausts every option to save the kidnapped princess until he has nothing left to do but … well, this is a family newspaper. We also sympathize with his wife, who cannot look at him, even weeks afterward. An ugly premise is rescued by Brooker’s willingness to see it all the way through.

My favourite episodes of Black Mirror – the ones in which the show lives up, for me, to its reputation for originality – are the ones that seem to deal with technology, but actually deal with punishment. The link should not surprise us; the major driver of technological development in countries like the U.S. and Great Britain is the need to build new ways to punish native populations of other countries for standing between our elites and their resources. The major driver of fascism, in all advanced economies, is the desire of some of the same elites to bring these high-tech “disincentives” to bear on the population centers of those same economies, so as to obviate the threat posed by organized labor, or the organization of other exploited constituencies. So an honest TV show about technology is ultimately a TV show about punishment. 

Thus multiple episodes depict people who have mysteriously found themselves trapped in dark and absurd scenarios, in which they are subjected to inexplicable punishments, with a big reveal toward the episode’s end that shows that these apparent victims are criminals – they have committed grave and repulsive crimes, usually involving a child, and immersive virtual-reality technologies are being used against them to facilitate punishment. Some critics of the show see these episodes as flimsy – drumming up our sympathy only to hit us with the surprise revelation that we’ve been wasting it on an unworthy object. Certainly the show’s repeated use of this basic plot threatens to become repetitive. And yet I think these episodes are among the most powerful and poignant that the show has done, precisely because they force us to reexamine our instinct to ration our sympathy, to turn away from the torture of a fellow-creature on learning that that creature has been a torturer themselves. In forcing us to feel pity where most would choose to withhold it, these episodes challenge capitalism more directly than the show generally does. It is, after all, capitalism that has taught us to think in these terms in the first place, to feel that we must always balance some set of books, that we must never waste sympathy. In a recent essay, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism?”, theologian David Bentley Hart quotes Baudelaire: “Commerce is, in its essence, satanic. Commerce is the repayment of what was loaned, it is the loan made with the stipulation: Pay me more than I give you.” Capitalism cannot function unless we treat “What does this person deserve?” as the first question to be answered in every situation. 

Even those critical of capitalism sometimes seek to put their compassion on an austerity regime, talking about who does and doesn’t “deserve” second chances. Too much human sympathy would, indeed, spoil certain kinds of left-revolutionary projects too. I might, out of pity for his victims, kill a land baron who has turned security forces against his tenants, but to become the kind of successful and efficient revolutionary who simply kills all the potential land barons, and everyone they know, and a few thousand random others just to be sure matters never reach such a point, I have to unlearn my instinctive creaturely revulsion to suffering. Black Mirror is truly subversive, in these episodes, because it immerses us in horror and pity – and then raises the question of deserts.  


  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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