Black Mirror Blurs the Line Between Virtual Reality Horror and Real-Life Fear in “Playtest”

Charlie Brooker’s delightfully bleak Black Mirror returns on October 21, with six episodes dropping at once on Netflix (the series’ new home after formerly airing on the UK’s Channel 4). However, New York Comic-Con attendees got to catch one of the episodes, “Playtest,” two weeks early at a special screening. This cautionary tale, about an American tourist playtesting a radical new virtual reality program in London, both feels like a Black Mirror episode and not. It’s the series’ funniest installment by far, which sets it apart from its graver counterparts. If you love self-aware horror movies, you’ll plug right in to this bizarre tale. If not, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper to find enjoyment in “Playtest”—but there there is a dark, classically Brooker moral lurking beneath the layers of this episode.

SPOILERS for Black Mirror 3×02 “Playtest.”

While Brooker has claimed that there’s not really an episode order since they’re dropping all of the installments at once, he also conceded that people will probably just watch the episodes in their order in the Netflix queue. Perhaps that’s why the Black Mirror Twitter account tweeted out the official order:

While not the first episode of the season, “Playtest” was our first introduction into this new Brooker/Netflix collaboration, with a goofy American dude as the fitting protagonist. Brooker told Deadline that one difference between the previous seasons on Channel 4 and now is that “because they’re all going up at once in a way, there’s a bit more variety of tone amongst these six stories than we’ve had before. So we’re not just unrelentingly jet-black. There’s a lot of jet black within the show still, but we also bring in a few sparks of hope now and then to keep things interesting.” “Playtest” bounces all along the black spectrum, eventually hitting jet-black but also very gray for much of the time—and I have to say, I was a little disappointed at the contrasts in tone within the space of an hour. The story lacked the solemnity we’ve come to expect from “Be Right Back” or the heart-pounding action of “White Bear.” While Black Mirror has always been self-aware, “Playtest” was shit-eating-grinningly meta, like every other horror movie in recent memory.

I’m cooking up a separate piece on the surprising number of parallels between “Playtest” and Fear, Inc, but for the moment, let’s look at “Playtest” on its own.

On the surface, Cooper (Wyatt Russell) seems to be the perennial American tourist-slash-thrillseeker: He sneaks out of his parents’ house in Syracuse, NY, without even telling his mother where he’s going, then proceeds to spend the next few weeks or months jetsetting. Australia, Thailand, India, England—snapping selfies in front of monuments as he checks cities off his bucket list. But as his enthusiasm wanes with each city, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s not just running to the thrills but running away from something. Yet by the time he reaches London at the end of his whirlwind worldwide tour, he’s ready to go home… though not before spending his last week with Sonja (Killjoys’ Hannah John-Kamen), a fetching match on Black Mirror’s Tinder equivalent. However, a one night stand turns into something more akin to an Airbnb when Cooper’s credit card is mysteriously maxed out and he can’t afford the plane ticket home. He could call his mother, but he’s been avoiding her calls since he got into the taxi outside his front door. He’s been avoiding her since his father died after succumbing to Alzheimer’s; mother and son never had the same bond as father and son, and now their relationship is rent down the middle. So, rather than put his tail between his legs and ask Mom for money despite not returning her calls for weeks, he decides the better option is to crash with Sonja and pick up odd jobs (via an app of the same name) until he has enough to get home. At which point he’ll totally talk to his mother. He just can’t do it over the phone.

Black Mirror season 3 Playtest television review

The image of his mom calling becomes the episode’s recurring motif, as Cooper does everything but open his phone. In fact, he has a number of pre-generated excuses for not picking up, ranging from “I’m at work” to “I can’t talk right now.” The latter does prove true, as Cooper lands a lucrative gig at Saito, a mysterious video game company that guards its trade secrets as fiercely as the twist in a horror movie. From the moment I heard that Black Mirror was doing a video game-centric episode, my thoughts immediately went to various controversies associated with that industry. Was this to be a cautionary tale about players becoming desensitized to violence? I was thrown, and a little disappointed, when that wasn’t the case—though perhaps that’s the niche that “Men Against Fire,” about military drones and mutants, aims to fill. Instead, “Playtest” examines VR, in the form of enigmatic game developer Shou Saito’s latest brainchild: a fully immersive VR experience in which subjects are dropped into a haunted house—the same one from Saito’s critically hailed horror game—and their minds supply the scares. But not to worry, because none of it is real; it’s all transmitted through the “mushroom,” a little device embedded in the back of Cooper’s neck. At Sonja’s urging (likely because she works for a website that would love the scoop), he sends her a surreptitious cell phone photo of the device while Saito employee Katie (Wunmi Mosaku) is out of the room; his mother calling yet again almost gives away his corporate espionage, but Katie turns off the phone and proceeds with implanting the mushroom and then leading Cooper to the haunted house.

For Cooper, these self-generated fears include a hyper-realistic spider, his childhood bully dressed as an old-timey creepster, then a grotesquely giant spider with said bully’s face. It’s like tapping into someone’s dream, where images and memories and fears bleed together into impossible phantoms, made twice as terrifying because of the layers upon layers of emotional baggage they contain. But as Cooper spends more time in the haunted house—with Katie in his ear—his mind begins churning out scenarios and characters that are less outlandish but much more nefarious. Like Sonja, who has tracked him to this super-secret location with a revelation that Saito’s last few test subjects have gone missing, and they need to escape before something horrible happens. But when Cooper wonders how she could have possibly known where he was, Sonja’s pleading expression turns predatory, in the kind of chilling face-heel turn in the climax of Scream and countless other horror flicks. She pulls a knife on him, murmuring creepily about how “you should have called your mother, Cooper” and stabs him. Screaming in agony, a desperate Cooper has no choice but to rip the skin from her face and impale her on the knife that’s been shoved through his shoulder to the hilt.

Black Mirror season 3 Playtest television review

But just as quickly as it’s happened, Sonja and the knife are gone, and Katie is reassuring him that he’s not supposed to feel any of it. Cooper doesn’t care; he wants out of the test, money be damned. As he builds to hysterics, Katie calms him down and tells him all he has to do is make it to a room on the top floor for the access point, and they’ll extract him. But because a prime rule of horror movie survival is that you never go up the stairs, you know that something more awful than anything he’s already faced awaits Cooper.

His father, suffering from Alzheimer’s. Right? That’s what I was thinking the moment that Cooper confided in Sonja about how the disease tore his family apart. Here we have a story about someone facing their greatest fears; it couldn’t go anywhere else. But it turns out his father is a red herring, and Cooper’s true fear is not about the dead, but about the living: He sobs to Katie that he knows, he just knows, that his mother’s dead body, swinging from the ceiling, must be what’s behind the doorknob.

But it’s not that, either. Katie lied to him: The room wasn’t an access point, it was a test to see if he would continue to blindly follow their instructions. As Katie laughs cruelly in his head—her voice lingering even after he tosses away the earpiece—Cooper begins to lose details. He can’t remember where he is, why he’s there… or even who he is. He looks at himself in the mirror and can’t recognize the person there.

Black Mirror season 3 Playtest television review

Reduced to a husk of his former self, Cooper doesn’t recognize Katie or Shou Saito when they burst into the set; Saito’s humble apology for accidentally wiping Cooper’s mind doesn’t even register with the bewildered victim. Saito employees drag Cooper away to be put “with the others” as the room begins to warp and shift…

…and Cooper is back in Saito’s office, suffering the mother of all panic attacks from the VR. Katie disconnects him; she and Saito are stunned to learn that the game was far too realistic for any human to take—and he was only under for a few minutes! Cooper grabs his stuff and books it out of there, somehow scrounging together enough money to come home. But when he arrives at the house, his mother is locked in her bedroom, sobbing. Approaching her the way you would a demon-possessed child, Cooper discovers that she’s holding a landline phone. “I have to call him,” she says, looking at her son through blank eyes smeared with tears and mascara. “I have to make sure he’s safe.”

…and Cooper is back in the very first room he entered, before meeting Saito and entering the haunted house, going into cardiac arrest. A distressed Katie reports to Saito that Cooper’s phone went off right after they put the mushroom in, the signal interfering with the implant. He was only under for 0.04 seconds before his brain short-circuited; he screamed out for his mother before dying. As Saito employees put Cooper’s corpse into a body bag, Katie fills out an error report, making note that the subject’s final action: “Called Mom.”

Very Twilight Zone-y play on words, right? No wonder everyone was telling him, “You should’ve called your mother”—Cooper wound up doomed by the one thing he was trying to escape. The irony definitely got our audience laughing, albeit in a strained way. Plenty of moments in the episode elicited giggles, from Cooper blowing on his debit card before trying the ATM again (only to find his funds wiped out) to a moment when he opens a cupboard door and then comments to Katie, “He’s gonna be right behind the door, isn’t he?” It was the most I’ve ever laughed during a Black Mirror episode, which bothered me; it felt as if none of us were taking the cautionary tale seriously enough. I couldn’t help but equate the lack of gravity in parts with the episode’s American protagonist. (Only the second one after Jon Hamm, but he was much graver in the Christmas special.) Was this lack of subtlety a sly commentary on the show’s non-British collaborators?

Black Mirror season 3 Playtest television review

But as I’ve had a few days to think about “Playtest,” I think that Brooker intended the pervasive humor to act as a coping mechanism, as it is in real life, and a distraction from the real horrors lurking beneath. Like Cooper, we laugh off the more ridiculous scares, because they’re shallow, generic—ooh, spiders, yawn. But as Cooper explores the house, he draws closer and closer to his true fears—of losing his mother to Alzheimer’s too, of erasing his entire sense of self. Placing Cooper in the most cliché setting, with creaky floorboards and banging shutters and mysterious flickering lights, was actually incredibly subversive: It doesn’t matter where he is, because his mind is the real haunted house.

Which brings me to what I believe is Brooker’s thesis for “Playtest”: No technology can devise anything as awful, as torturous, as the inside of our own heads. Just like in “The Entire History of You”! Being able to rewind and parse through your best and worst memories is one thing, but Liam’s (Toby Kebbell) true undoing is the suspicion and jealousy that his wife maybe cheated that corrodes him from the inside. Cooper may have spent months seeking out external thrills through tourist packages, but the real, heart-stopping scares lurked inside of him all along.

Black Mirror season 3 Playtest television review

Other Reflections

  • Brooker has called this episode “our Evil Dead 2.” No surprise, considering how much of it is spent in a creepy old house. In fact, a lot of Black Mirror episodes wield immense horror in a house: “The Entire History of You,” “White Bear.” And if anyone were going to make a house the site of reversals and fear of what’s outside, it’s 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg, who helmed this episode.
  • When Katie tells him that the VR implant is called a mushroom, Cooper jokes, “Like Mario?” “If you like,” Katie responds with a smile. But what other connotations could it have? ‘Shrooms for tripping? The kind of fungus you pick in the woods without knowing which is safe and which is lethal, thus signing your own death warrant?
  • It’s incredibly disturbing how little Katie and Saito seem to care that their product killed someone. They treat Cooper’s death more like a product—a game, or a phone—malfunctioning rather than a human loss. I’d love to look closer at that NDA and see if he signed away the rights to his body (if such a thing is even possible in Black Mirror’s world). Related: Consider this forwarded.
  • Part of what keeps nagging at me (in a wonderful way) is that we don’t actually know how much of Cooper’s fears about his mother’s dementia were real or not. He could have been avoiding her calls because he couldn’t torture himself by having the same conversation over and over; or she could just as easily have been of sound mind and just worried about her son.
  • One Redditor pointed out that Hannah John-Kamen had a small part as a reality star in “Fifteen Million Merits,” lending credence to the shared-universe theory.

Read the rest of of our Black Mirror coverage: “Nosedive” | “Shut Up and Dance” | “San Junipero” | “Men Against Fire” | “Hated in the Nation

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