Trying Too Hard: Black Mirror, “Nosedive”

The comparison I keep seeing on social media is that “Nosedive,” the first episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror, resembles the insane dystopia of Community‘s MeowMeowBeenz episode, where the ability to rate each other on a scale of 1 to 5 devolves into a dystopia where the Fours and Fives rule and exile the Ones. The fact that Parks and Recreation creator and star Michael Schur and Rashida Jones co-wrote it (from an outline by Charlie Brooker) strengthens the ties to that American sitcom. But where MeowMeowBeenz satirizes the disaster of “Yelp for people” while skewering The Hunger Games and the entire dystopian genre, “Nosedive” opts for a subtler horror that gets under your skin.

Spoilers for Black Mirror 3×01 “Nosedive.”

For one, the future is pastel: Inexplicably, the inhabitants of this near-future dress in color tones so soft it almost hurts to look at the screen, as if you’re staring into a searingly bright light. The Easter-esque garb, plus the fake smiles they wear above their clothes, signify the blandness of this future: Your every social interaction, from buying coffee to making small talk in the elevator, is rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, with each rating sending your overall average soaring or dropping. There’s almost total transparency to the ratings, so that people punctuate their encounters with a polite smile and a point of their smartphone. By the time you’ve made your goodbyes, you’ve heard either the sweet tinkle of an upvote or the sad, video game-esque spiral of a downvote—the latter making you immediately second-guess said interaction, especially if you upvoted that person.

Black Mirror season 3 "Nosedive" television review

That’s exactly the problem for Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), a relentlessly cheerful and hopelessly average woman: curvy without being overweight, neither executive nor entry-level, shoving herself into the same bubblegum-pink dress and lipstick as everyone else even though it’s not really her color. She’s a solid 4.2 thanks to her reliable star-nabbing behaviors such as Instagramming her latté and cute little smiley-face cookie (which she delicately bites into, only to spit out the crumbs when no one is looking) or researching her colleagues so she can make the most winning small talk every morning. Because Lacie has lofty aspirations of 4.5 or even, dare she hope, above. She marches into every interaction determined to make it positive, five-starring everyone from the stranger on the street to Naomi (Alice Eve), her childhood best friend who is living her best life as a 4.8: strengthening her trim form by doing yoga in a tiny bikini, charmingly eating homemade tapenade with her too-handsome-to-be-perfect boyfriend—and soon fiancé, thanks to a glittering rock she shoves into the camera while shrieking delightedly.

Black Mirror season 3 "Nosedive" television review

But Naomi doesn’t call up her childhood summer camp friend just to humblebrag; she wants Lacie to be her Maid of Honor! She wants her oldest friend to be there, and Lacie is thrilled. Certainly to celebrate Naomi’s marriage to Paul (“You’ll love him,” Naomi says, unfazed that her best friend and fiancé have never met), but also because of all the 4.5s and higher who will be in attendance. As part of her yearning toward upward mobility, Lacie is trying to move out of the shabby apartment she shares with her brother Ryan (a cringing 3.7 shut-in whose only ratings come from his gamer buddies) and into an exclusive condominium complex for 4.5s and above. She can almost see her perfect life within her reach, and not just because the sales pitch includes a hologram of a svelter, shinier-haired version of her nuzzling a hunk. All Lacie has to do is bring the perfect, nostalgic speech to the wedding, and she’ll get more upvotes than she knows what to do with. She puts down her nonrefundable deposit without even considering that she doesn’t even fit into the size-4 dress Naomi already picked out without checking with her.

For all that we get this setup, the episode is called “Nosedive,” thanks to a tragedy of errors that besiege Lacie on her way to the wedding. Her flight gets cancelled, and only 4.2s are allowed on the next flight—and thanks to a fight with Ryan and accidentally spilling coffee on a stranger, Lacie has been downvoted to a 4.183. Yes, the ratings get that granular, and that’s enough to knock her out of the upper-middle class she’s been comfortably part of up until now. A panicked, expletive-laden outburst at the airport gets Lacie punished with a full point deduction for 24 hours, leaving her as a 3.1; this gets her an outdated electric rental car that doesn’t have the right adapter for the gas station, which puts her on the road hitchhiking as she misses the rehearsal dinner and her chances of getting there for the ceremony the next morning grow grimmer and grimmer. What doesn’t help is that the more bedraggled and desperate she gets, the lower strangers whizzing by in their cars rate her, until she’s a pathetic 2.6.

When we meet her at the start of her day, Lacie’s every action is colored by the self-conscious sense that the people around her are constantly watching and weighing every particle of her being, ready to upvote or downvote the tiniest gesture or expression. Part of her fight with Ryan is his horror at watching her practice her speech, down to the precisely-timed tear and catch in her voice, that makes her appear more sociopath than sympathetic. And while that low-grade paranoia is clearly the framework that has surrounded every bit of self-expression in this future, the sad truth is, no one’s constantly watching Lacie, because she’s ordinary. She’s not #blessed like Naomi; she’s just another person. In fact, the most attention she draws to herself is from trying too hard.

Black Mirror season 3 "Nosedive" television review

Lacie’s reasoning is both relatable and frustratingly naïve: She thinks that if she five-stars everyone, they’ll five-star her back—out of obligation, out of flattery, out of the same somewhat logical mindset. But her indiscriminate five-starring makes her too eager, too fake; as the gas station attendant tells her after he gives her 2 stars, “It wasn’t a meaningful encounter.” And this from the guy listening to porn in his earbuds while he talks to her! There’s something immensely chilling about someone making a snap judgment (with the aforementioned transparency) and their rankings making up your identity as a person. We trust in crowdsourcing for articles, for restaurants, for clothing—it makes sense that we would trust or mistrust a stranger based on their overall approval rating. Here Lacie thought she had found the perfect, easy, charming path to becoming a 5, when instead she’s weakened her case because she simply wants it too badly. More than someone who curses or who steals, this wanting makes a person truly unattractive.

Do you even want someone like that to succeed? Thankfully, in a twisted way, that doesn’t come to pass. After trying to hitch a ride with a bunch of cosplayers for a science fiction series called Sea of Tranquility, Lacie finds herself accepting a ride from Susan (Cherry Jones), a trucker with a rating perilously close to zero. But their interaction is the one genuine part of the episode, as Susan explains that she left behind the all-consuming culture of ratings after her husband’s chance at a potentially life-saving cancer treatment went to a 4.4 (he was a 4.3). People in this world are too busy trying to up their scores that they don’t pause to consider the social hierarchy that their current rankings trap them in.

Case in point, Naomi tells Lacie not to come to her wedding because she’s dipped to an embarrassing 2.6 “and I don’t even know who you are anymore!” The truth is, neither woman knew the other, and both were using each other. Lacie is shocked, but Naomi chastises her: She knew that Lacie had calculated all the upvotes she could get for her speech, just as Naomi and Paul were banking on the inclusion of an unfortunate friend would “play well” with the crowd. That has been “Nay-Nay” and Lacie’s friendship since childhood, when the former always lifted up the latter by inviting her to sit at her table or helping her through an eating disorder. It’s just quantifiable now.

Black Mirror season 3 "Nosedive" television review

But god bless her, Lacie has gotten this far, and she’s not leaving until she gets to give her speech. The reception was the kind of scene that had me cringing and watching through my fingers, so awful was it to watch Lacie wallow in her own humilation (not to mention mud) and cement her downward spiral. While there’s a brief moment that she seems to have captured the crowd—by saying some off-the-cuff real-talk that elicits genuine laughs—for the most part it’s disapproving clucks and a cacophany of downvotes. By the time Lacie is dragged away by security, she’s almost a zero.

And yet, now that Lacie has hit rock bottom, she’s finally free. “Nosedive” ends with Lacie—stripped of her ill-fitting bridesmaid dress and that garish lipstick—standing in a jail cell while her cellmate across the way laughs at her misfortune. But his humor is goodnatured, as he is in the same boat (though more put together). Without anyone watching, without any consequences, they hurl increasingly ridiculous insults at each other:

“Nosedive” seems to be one of the most polarizing episodes of the new season: The Ringer was underwhelmed, while Vulture likened it to one of my favorites, “The Entire History of You.” I’ll admit that this was one of the episodes I was most looking forward to, and it was a letdown. Maybe because focusing on getting Lacie to the wedding seemed to dip too much into romantic-comedy territory; perhaps because she was so revolting in her eagerness for so much of the episode; and we never find out what happens when she hits 0, or if she can get a negative ranking. It was an excellent slice-of-life episode, but I found myself wanting just a little more information about the worldbuilding, like the creepy dystopia of “Fifteen Million Merits.” Because we were looking at the experience of only a handful of people, the episode felt too tonally uneven to really get a handle on it.

But if you look at this nightmare ranking system as a metaphor for imbalanced friendships, for our tendency to perform every interaction—from asking your bestie to be a bridesmaid to sending public love letters to your beau—then “Nosedive” hit it on the, well, nose. That ending was pretty awesome, too.

Black Mirror season 3 "Nosedive" television review

Other Reflections

  • Was anyone else freaked out by Lacie’s childhood toy, Mr. Rags? I half-expected him to be the star of his own nightmare fuel episode.
  • Also, Naomi’s husband Paul seemed strangely cozy with his best man. I wouldn’t be surprised if their marriage was more out of convenience than true love.
  • Excellent catch by Redditor JoeDaEskimo:

Black Mirror Nosedive

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


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