Technology is the ultimate sci-fi villain. It is cold, distant, and seemingly out to pull each of us from our own lives and into a singular, lonely existence. Still, most sci-fi gives that villain a gun and a personality and a big motive behind all of the anti-humanity propaganda, i.e. Terminator, The Matrix, hell even Avengers: Age of Ultron. The disturbingly on-point Black Mirror does no such thing; its villains are silent, patient, and utterly at the whim of the person controlling them.
This theme continues in the special holiday episode of the show, “White Christmas” (now streaming on Netflix), a two-hander in which Matt (Jon Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall) decide to pass the lonely hours in the middle of a remote wilderness by telling stories centered around the season. There isn’t much endearing Christmas cheer to be found here, as you’d expect from the aggressively cynical series, but if nothing else it succeeds as yet another high-quality installation in one of the hands-down best anthology series ever created for TV.
Instead of focusing on one story, White Christmas triples the normal output of a Black Mirror episode by presenting a trio of interconnected technological horror tales, with that cabin-in-the-snowy -woods framing device book-ending everything. As Matt, Hamm gets to explore the upbeat, cheery side of his range rarely seen from his Don Draper counterpart. He’s decorating the tiny cabin with Christmas tinsel and cooking a turkey, attempting to get Joe to engage in a little spirited conversation, hinting that the two have been locked there for five years for some undisclosed “work.” Hamm can do off-putting charm in his sleep, so he settles into the new role with ease. He also forms an interesting rapport with Spall, one that grows more and more sinister as we learn one of them may be more knowledgable about their current situation than they initially let on.
Black Mirror fans will see right through the facade presented by that framing device, but as a nest for the subsequent stories, it’s more than adequate. The first story takes on a bit of a romantic comedy trope, with Hamm helping a lanky nerd pick up women via an “Eye-Link.” With a slow start and lackluster payoff, it’s the least surprising and most straightforward of the three. Another delves into the backstory of Joe and the reason for his ultimate residence at the snow-laden outpost; its novel concept – the ability to “block” a real life human being, a la Facebook or Twitter – is Black Mirror firing on all cylinders. It’s an obvious idea, one so preachy and angry you can practically feel series creator Charlie Brooker yelling at you through the TV, yet it functions and flows with effortless and tragic abandon.
But it’s the second installment that grips the most. It tells the story of a woman named Greta (Oona Chaplin, in a small but powerful role) preparing for surgery, whose every thought we hear through airy voiceover. The subsequent 25-minutes of body horror and existential awareness ropes in stinging commentary on everything from slavery to the true meaning of sentience and even the preternatural laziness of something like the Philips Hue lighting system. Like the best episodes of the show (“Fifteen Million Merits,” one of my personal favorites), the second story takes a popular modern day technological achievement – reality TV, pay-to-play apps, Siri – and ratchets it to an extreme: a societal hierarchy based on reality TV, pay-to-play apps that decide your class, Siri exhibiting real consciousness.
If the show could have any big knock against it, it’d be its lack of subtlety. But thanks to that blatantly forthright angle of storytelling, it’s also doubly affecting. There’s no guessing metaphors or deciphering dialogue. Brooker and the writers are telling you, all of us, what the problem is and where it could lead. The fact that all of this doesn’t crumble into a pile of preachy finger-wagging is because it’s done with such suave style and perfectly captured bleakness. Siri is really your slave, that ex you blocked on Instagram could be spiralling out of control – and it’s all because of the little black screen in your hands.
As such, it takes a tough stomach (metaphorically) to get through any of Black Mirror, “White Christmas” included. This is a grim, oppressive, pessimistic world view of a TV show, one that assumes the minute humanity gets any new piece of tech, it’ll be used by one person to harm another. For these reasons and more, it’s easy to describe Brooker’s creation as “prescient,” but the spookiest thing about Black Mirror is its undercurrent of apparent historical fact; I watched the show on my TV, took notes on my iPad, and wrote this review on my computer, with intermittent Twitter checks, email updates, and texts sent with nary a human connection in sight. If the best sci-fi cribs itself from the truth, consider “White Christmas” the most current episode of one of the best modern sci-fi stories out there.
Anyone looking for a feel-good trip into the near-future can turn away now, because Black Mirror's Christmas special is as absorbing, off-putting, and ultimately devastating in its singular significance as any episode that's come before.