Thursday, December 27, 2018

Holiday "Classic" Recap: Black Mirror: "White Christmas"

“Buddy, look, at this point, being bored by anything other than snow would be a relief. So, come on. Chit chat. Conversate. Something.”

Up until now, the only episode of “Black Mirror” I’ve ever watched was “USS Callister.” Like that episode, “Winter Wonderland,” from the fourth season, serves as a warning against technology run amok. It weaves together three related stories into one narrative with some great twists to make everything come together at the end. If you want a shiny, fuzzy, happy holiday episode of television, this isn’t it. It’s not even a dark but meant to be heartwarming tale like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which I don’t especially like, by the way…I know, I’m not human). It’s fully, unapologetically dark. There are no happy endings for anyone in this story. In these trying times, maybe this is the holiday story we deserve.

The episode is framed around two men, Matt and Joe, who have found themselves working in an isolated, snowy cabin for the past five years, for reasons that (intentionally) aren’t entirely clear. It’s Christmas, and Matt wants to be festive. Joe, however, just wants to wallow. Apparently he’s hardly said anything to Matt in the past five years. Matt convinces Joe to sit down and share a drink, and they start talking. It becomes apparent that people end up in this cabin for doing something horrible, and Matt starts probing Joe about what that might have been. Instead, Joe first wants to hear Matt’s story.

The first of the three stories of this longer than usual episode (it clocks in at about 73 minutes) explains the horrible thing Matt did to wind up at the cabin. He used to run an online, sort of Twitch stream type group where he would give nerdy guys advice on getting laid. Around the holidays, his go-to move was having his clients crash office parties, since in his opinion, women seem to be especially uninhibited at office holiday parties. His client, Harry, quickly zeroes in on two women, Amy and Greta. Amy is blonde and bubbly, Greta has dark hair and is withdrawn. Naturally, Harry is drawn to Greta. Matt has Harry interact with Amy to make him seem more desirable to Greta. He does eventually get to talk to Greta, though, and they develop a rapport. Greta sees him talking to Matt and the peanut gallery, though, and that makes him think he hears voices like she does. She takes him back to her apartment. Matt thinks he’s about to get lucky, but Greta thinks she’s basically found a suicide partner. She decides to free Matt from the voices by force feeding him some awful concoction that makes his mouth bleed. Greta, by the way, is played by the great Natalia Tena, aka Tonks from the Harry Potter movies. Matt is about to burn all evidence of his little peep show ring, but he steps on one of his kid’s toys and his wife hears the commotion.

As Matt and Joe continue to converse, Joe wants to know what Matt actually did for a living. That leads into the second story. In this universe, there is a technology where you can have a “cookie” temporarily implanted in your head that takes on your personality. Once the imprinting is done, the cookie is removed, and the digital version of yourself basically becomes your slave, running all the devices in your house and keeping your calendar. It’s like the concept of a smart home taken to the nth degree. The fact that it’s imprinted with your personality is supposed to make it so it knows things like what temperature to keep your house and how you like your toast without being told. Matt’s job is to basically break the imprinted cookie so that it will do the bidding of its original. He first starts by being nice and conversating (sound familiar?), but if he gets resistance, he uses a process to make time seem to pass exponentially for the imprinted cookie, until sitting there with nothing to do breaks them. This brings up all sorts of ethical dilemmas, since the imprinted cookies are basically sentient. It’s also worth noting here that everybody in this society seems to use a technology called “Eye-Link” that is basically an implanted computer with social media and everything included. You can even “block” people so they just become an outline and can’t talk to you (and vice versa).

Anyway, Matt eventually gets Joe to tell the story of how he came to find himself at the mysterious cabin in the woods. He was dating a woman named Beth, and things seemed to be going reasonably well, even if her father didn’t especially like him and he (Joe) tended to get a bit angry when drunk. There’s a scene where Joe and Beth go to karaoke with friends where Beth seems especially pensive and gets completely sloshed. Joe later finds a positive pregnancy test in their trash can and confronts Beth. Beth says she doesn’t want to be pregnant and Joe has no say in the matter. Joe obviously thinks he should have some say in the matter, and this leads to a huge row where Beth blocks him. She never unblocks him either. And she keeps the kid. Beth eventually turns the original block into a “legal” block, so Joe can’t even see the kid. He/she is just an outline. He stalks Beth’s father’s house every Christmas so he can at least see their outlines, and sometimes he leaves a gift.

Everything changes when Beth dies in a horrible train accident. Joe goes back to Beth’s father’s house, hoping he can finally see his daughter. He’s got a present for her that says “From daddy” and everything. When he finally sees his “daughter” (the block died with Beth), he is in for a huge shock. She is clearly Asian, meaning one of Joe and Beth’s mutual friends was actually the father. Beth’s father finds Joe, and the two have an argument. Joe is just devastated by this revelation, and without realizing what he’s doing, shoves Beth’s father and kills him. He then flees the scene. Beth’s daughter goes out into the blizzard to find help and appears to not survive either. At this point, we realize that Matt and Joe weren’t in a cabin after all. Matt has been talking to Joe’s cookie, trying to get a confession out of him. He has been told by the police that if he’s successful, he’ll get some leniency for his own involvement in the peeping tom ring and related murder. Joe is sentenced, with his cookie punished by being advanced years over the course of Christmas. Matt is released, but he’s put on the “registry” where he will be permanently blocked (with a conspicuous red outline and everything) by everyone else in society forever. It’s quite the merry Christmas!

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