It’s unnervingly fitting that Black Mirror: White Christmas focuses less on societal issues (as covered in the show’s other, self-contained episodes) and more on technology and the normal people who wield it. After all, Christmas is the season of giving big, highly desired gifts to loved ones, always with the best intentions in mind. But sometimes those intentions only lead to pain. In Charlie Brooker’s dystopian British Christmas special, technological advancements meant to make our lives easier instead break down communication and dilute our sense of humanity. Brooker doesn’t even go for some futuristic tech like drones or artificial intelligence, instead extrapolating out from Google Glass and implant tech that already exists.
Through three interlocking tales and a frame story deftly handled by Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall, we learn the consequences of humans using technology to reform how we see the world and to force those closest to us into new roles or contexts. This special is supremely disturbing but necessary holiday viewing.
Spoilers for Black Mirror: White Christmas! If you haven’t gotten a chance to watch it yet, try the Channel 4 website.
Already the innocuous title has you shivering. Joe Potter (Spall) wakes up in a cell-like bedroom in a remote, snowed-in outpost. When he walks into the cozy kitchen, he finds Matt Trent (Hamm) is roasting potatoes and humming along to Christmas music. It’s clear that this unchanging (well, except for the clock) outpost serves as some sort of existential purgatory. We know that both Joe and Matt were sent here, but at first it’s unclear if it’s a reward—an idyllic vacation for good behavior—or a terribly isolating punishment.
As he amiably makes a proper English Christmas meal, Matt informs Joe that the two of them have been at this mysterious outpost for five years, and that he still has no idea what the latter did to be sent here. Trading lunch and his own confessions for intimacy, Matt slowly gets Joe to open up to him—but not before the viewers are treated to three stories about this five-minutes-into-the-future technology and its devastating consequences.
The first story was my favorite of the bunch for how absolutely fucked up it is. Before we even know what Matt does for a living, we learn about his hobby: Playing Cyrano de Bergerac to would-be Casanovas through the Google Glass-like Z-Eyes. As he coaches shy, awkward Harry (Rasmus Hardiker) through crashing an office Christmas party and picking up an on-the-fringes beauty Jennifer (Natalia Tena, a.k.a. Tonks from Harry Potter and Osha in Game of Thrones), a roster of dudebros cheer him on. In return for sealing the deal, the guy with the Eye Link lets the rest of his pick-up artists’ club watch the main event through his eyes.
What begins as Matt passing on his suavity and privilege becomes a situation of horribly mistaken intent when Jennifer misunderstands Harry talking to the voices in his head as him having Dissociative Identity Disorder, just like her. As Harry’s club watches on in paralyzed terror, Jennifer forces a poisoned drink down his throat so that they can both escape.
There’s no way that any of the pick-up artists could have helped Harry—even Matt, who immediately shouts orders to Harry to leave once he realizes how unhinged Jennifer is. Their inability to physically affect the situation is a recurring theme through the other two stories, which also see technology forcibly distancing humans from their loved ones. Though let’s not forget that Matt’s first reaction upon Harry’s death is to order his cronies to destroy all of the evidence.
In the case of the second story—in which Matt explains what he actually does for a living—the person whose life spoiled Greta (Game of Thrones’ Oona Chaplin) ruins is herself. The Greta with whom Matt interacts is a copy—Greta’s consciousness copied into a device called a “cookie,” set up as the perfect housekeeper because she knows exactly how Greta likes everything. But in addition to having all of Greta’s knowledge, the copy is also a sentient human railing (appropriately so) against what is effectively slavery. She may have a digital body and a command center at her fingertips, but her sole existence is catering to her original’s every whim, including just-right floor temperature and slightly undercooked toast.
In facilitating cookie-Greta’s orientation to her infinite sentence, Matt is gentle yet firm. He enters the conversation knowing he will break Greta down, even if it means turning the time dial on her prison to skip ahead into two weeks or even six months of nothingness. When he finally returns—a minute or so later for him, agonizingly long for her—she’s desperate to do anything, just to have something to do.
Greta’s story is the least sensational of the three, and the only one that doesn’t involve death. In some ways, its conclusion is much worse: Cookie-Greta remains a prisoner, her days filled with meaningless chores, while the real Greta doesn’t give her enslaved double a second thought.
Now that Matt has revealed himself to be quite the unsavory opportunist, it’s finally Joe’s turn to confess what makes him “a good man who has done bad things.”
All of the Black Mirror: White Christmas advertising hinted at a world where people can block each other in real life. Matt’s wife blocks him after she discovers his twisted hobby, but we see the near-future technology at its best (and by that I mean worst) in Joe’s story.
When Joe finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant, he’s overjoyed—only to learn that she doesn’t want to keep it. During the ensuing argument, she blocks him and then leaves without removing the block. An impulsive, emotional reaction during a fight becomes a physical obstacle to reconciliation. Because in the world of Black Mirror, to be blocked reduces you to a static-y silhouette; neither you nor the other person can hear each other, though you can still inhabit space and manipulate objects. It’s basically the fade, except that the person blocked can still haunt the blocker by their mere presence.
Joe later discovers that Beth has kept the baby, though she continually refuses to let him into the child’s life. His only connection to her is her father’s cabin, where Joe returns, year after year, to leave presents for his child. Because blocks extend to offspring, Joe can only make out that the child is a girl.
After Beth’s death, the block is lifted and a rapturous Joe heads to her father’s cabin to finally meet his daughter… only to discover that her father is Beth’s coworker and friend. In a rage, he attacks the child’s grandfather—the goriest use of a snowglobe ever—and flees. Joe is eventually arrested for the grandfather’s murder, but it’s only once Matt forces him to confront the rest of the story that he realizes that Beth’s daughter ventured outside to go home and wound up freezing to death under a tree on the property.
As Joe finally confesses, the outpost transforms into the grandfather’s cabin, and Matt disappears. Turns out he was talking to Joe’s cookie the entire time, teasing out a confession in return for taking away his prison sentence.
But we’re not done yet! Because Matt never reported Harry’s death, he is put on “The Register,” which blocks him from everyone. The man who can talk to anyone is forever shut off from all human interaction. And while the real Joe is going to jail, cookie Joe is trapped in the cabin (his own private snowglobe), with the police who interrogated him turning it up to 1,000 years per minute, all while “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” blares without end. See how everything comes together! I love this show.
Matt is like an Angel of Death, coaxing his clients into their new, drastically diminished roles. Part car salesman, part customer service representative, he employs the same mix of oiliness and compassion that we see in Hamm’s Mad Men persona Don Draper. He is a man with a special set of skills, which he knows how to adapt to a variety of companies and situations. Of course, the more he helps other groups dehumanize subjects, the deeper he digs his own grave.
Weirdly, Matt is more sympathetic in guiding awkward Harry through his love life—his passion project on the side—than when conditioning Greta into accepting her servitude or prying Joe’s confession out of him. It must be because of the three, Harry is the only flesh-and-blood human. The Greta and the Joe that Matt encounters are copies; as much as they’re engineered to match their hosts 100% in the knowledge for which they’re prized, they are disposable.
The closer people get, the more quickly they dispatch each other. It’s not an easy act, but people fool themselves into thinking that it’s the only choice. Cutting themselves off from peers who don’t understand, from loved ones they’ve betrayed, or even from themselves is easier than living with the consequences of those actions. For a holiday all about togetherness, it’s a disquieting conclusion.
There was something wonderful about this not being a feel-good Christmas story, of it skewing the seemingly good tropes of the holiday into a darker cautionary tale. If you too liked it, you’ll want to check out more dark Christmas stories.
Photos: Channel 4