Warning, spoilers ahead.
To my knowledge there are three ‘feel good’ episodes of Black Mirror. “San Junipero” from season 3, where two elderly women spark up a romance in a futuristic virtual reality as two young avatars, and the season 4 episodes “U.S.S. Callister” and “Hang the DJ.” Sorry to people that think “Black Museum” should be included. Junipero had a happy ending as Kelly and Yorkie are free to live out their days in a virtual paradise indistinguishable from the senses until they both feel they want the party to stop. But Callister and DJ have are much more muddled and seem to have more sinister implications beneath the surface.
A Recap of the Two Episodes
In Callister we find ourselves caught between two worlds as we follow the life of ‘nice guy-psychopath,’ Robert Daly. Even though he’s CFO at his company, he’s treated like a punching bag wrapped in doormat and is clearly not respected by anyone except Nanette, the new girl. When Robert gets home we see him tap into a custom built, funhouse-mirror version of ‘Space Fleet’ (a tributeStar Trek), where he is free to physically and emotionally torture digital copies of his co-workers. It’s important to note that these copies can only die when Robert wants them to, trapped under the merciless thumb of Robert for all of time. Once the digital copy of Nanette shows up, through creepy and invasive means, she does not want to play along Robert’s depraved hellscape.
Most of the episode revolves around the digital copies as they try to figure out a way to kill themselves since the sweet release of death is more appealing than being a monster’s plaything. The digital copy of Nanette manages to anonymously coerce the ‘real’ version of herself through blackmail. This sets forth a chain reaction that leads digital Nanette and her crew to freedom from Robert’s tyranny. Robert, on the other hand, is stuck in a black void and unable to exit the game as his real body lies in a stupor, where we can assume no pizza delivery men will come to his rescue, and he’ll die of dehydration.
Hang The DJ is set in a bright yet placid world that’s ominously peppered with menacing looking guards in the periphery. Everyone in this environment has submitted themselves to a dating program that not only selects a partner for the user but the duration of the relationship as well, in order to gain insights that that will eventually lead to their “ultimate match.” Our two protagonists, Frank and Amy, are two peas in a pod. Conversation flows naturally as they exchange lightly barbed insults and awkward but flirtatious glances, they decide to check the “expiry” or expiration date and much to their annoyance, it’s only 12 hours. After a great night of laughs, the intimacy between these two is palpable, but they both submit to the system which has their best interests in mind and go their separate ways.
What follows next is a slew of horrible relationships and depressing sex scenes but as fate, or the system would have it, Frank and Amy cross paths again. Soured by their previous experiences they decide not to check the expiry date on their device, cue the cute couple montage. In the middle of the night, when people are prone to question everything in their lives, Frank’s burning curiosity gets the better of him and he checks the expiration date. It tells him five years but recalibrates to a number of hours and the pressure of this information tears the two lovers apart before their allotted time is up.
The system allows for one final night together before they get to they are forced to go with their supposed ultimate match. Not wanting anyone else, Frank and Amy decide to buck the system and run away together as they climb into the unknown. They scale the wall as everything around them appears to have been a giant illusion, perhaps a nod to “The Truman Show.” Once on the other side Frank and Amy see 997 other versions of themselves as they log their 998th rebellion, proving to the system that they are an ultimate match as they transform into data points, signaling the end of the simulation. The next scene is in a bar, presumably where the ‘real’ Amy spots the ‘real’ Frank.
We got what we wanted, Nanette and her crew got away from Robert and Frank & Amy got to be together. But Black Mirror wouldn’t be Black Mirror if everyone came out unscathed, consider the ethics of what had to take place for these happy endings.
In Callister, Robert’s controls were disabled as his game was in the process of deletion, essentially leaving him for dead. Real life Nannette will hear about his death and will no doubt feel implicated in the role she played. She was a caring person who admired Robert’s work and will have to walk around with that guilt and the fear of this anonymous entity that ordered her to complete her tasks.
The Frank and Amy that we saw on screen for the majority of the time were faced with existential dread towards the end of the episode. They were confronted with the fact that everything they knew was a lie and that they weren’t real, I’d like to think they were comforted in their last moments together knowing that their feelings for each other were.
The question of giving someone’s consciousness equal rights as someone with a body isn’t exactly a new theme, it has been explored in a few other episodes of Black Mirror. Most notably, the White Christmas episode featuring Jon Hamm, you may recall his character leaving a “cookie,” a disembodied consciousness, in solitary confinement for six months in a row.
These two episodes do leave you feeling warm and fuzzy until you realize that a man was killed for being mean to the equivalent of “Sims” characters, and thousands of lovers realizing they’re basically numbers on a spreadsheet before they get wiped out. I suppose it’s all in how you choose to see it, but the fact that we can root for ones and zeros over their flesh and blood counterparts speaks to the quality of the storytelling in Black Mirror.