Season four of the science fiction series Black Mirror reveals the shows unfortunate underlying nihilism and human fatalism.
There are no spoilers in this article. I am addressing the tone and context of the newest season, and not the specific content.
I can still remember the first episode of Black Mirror that I ever watched, and how mind-blowingly spectacular I found that first season. The two subsequent seasons didn’t disappoint, either. In many ways the exploration of how technological and social trends in the near future could go completely awry echoed many of the things I had been writing about. Often it felt like seeing my own concerns on film, but done extraordinarily well.
Something changed between the third and fourth seasons, both for me and the show.
What has changed in me is a desire to consume and contribute to the compulsive cynicism that has come to color our cultural climate. Cynicism has become a negative virtue signal that prevents healthy, adaptive, productive dialogues and actions. While it also holds an important key to reflection on the self and the world around us, when taken too far it creates a feedback loop of hopelessness and ill will. At this point it would be hard to argue that cynicism hasn’t become a regular, obtrusive norm of public dialogue.
In this way I now see Black Mirror, especially the new season, as skating a little too close to the nihilism of low brow cultural icons like Rick & Morty. Both of them are very clever, and often bitingly funny, but all of that intellect and humor rides an endless wave of ‘everything-is-fucked-anyway’ therefore ‘it’s-all-meaningless-bullshit’. That kind of thing is way cool when you wanna ideologically high five your edgy bros, but it is not really helping us to see positive, hopeful ways ahead.
As for what has changed in the show, well that is more a matter of scale. “People can be the most frightening shits there is,” was always reflected in the Black Mirror. Yet it seemed to be more of an undercurrent, a subtle reminder, so as not to throw technology under the bus alone.
Season four felt like a shift. Instead of seeing mostly unintended consequences, or the results of technology and social system evolving along sinister paths, we are now seeing the darkness of individuals and groups. It is not that the dark portrayal of individuals and groups is inaccurate, just that there is already overkill in that message.
There are many examples of this, but none more clear than The Walking Dead, nor the plot devices it resorted to once the zombies were a bit more under control. The shows producers have been trying to reign it back in since Negan’s merciless killings, but at this point the story line has sort of backed it in to a corner. Humans being no-good-rotten-shits is pretty much the only conflict holding the franchise together. And it has become a bit tiresome, to be honest.
There are almost 7.5 billion human beings, each of whom are involved in a few or many transactions with other humans every day. Almost all of these are beneficial to both parties and often to humanity as a whole. The overwhelming norm of humanity is goodness. Using species-deprecating cynicism as the core of your show is not only a tired cliche, but is either deceitful or disingenuous.
Imagine that humanity is a family household. How do the narratives that get the most attention in that house shape it and its members? If there is constant negativity, distrust and suspicion – what outcomes are they likely to produce?
This is not to say that television shows or other cultural phenomena should not hold a light up to our faults and follies. That is an incredibly important aspect of any artistic endeavor. However there is one major issue I can think of that almost nobody with any clout seems brave enough to tackle – scientific materialism and naive realism.
In fact, although it has always been inherent in the show, the promotion of those dogmas was even more pronounced in season four. By the repetitive equivocation of brain as mind, Black Mirror actually contributes to the most pervasive and unquestioned doctrines of our times. Which is unfortunate, because exploring the folly and fault in that sort of thinking would have thrust the show into all new territory and made it a true maverick in art, popular culture and entertainment.
Maybe it is time for the Black Mirror to look into itself.