Screens, Sadness and Sigmund Freud: A Glance into the Black Mirror

 

The Netflix binge is generally conceptualised as a solitary pursuit in our lives; a shared experience between you, your laptop, and your junk food of choice. To commit to watching an unhealthy amount of unbroken streaming television with a group of others is to share what is, if we’re being honest here, an intense experience under even the most favourable of conditions. This particular streaming spree, however, was something we all came to prepared for an emotional harrowing, as we were gearing up to watch the new season of ‘Black Mirror’, Charlie Brooker’s biting dystopian sci-fi anthology series that takes a form similar to a collection of short stories, each one with a common theme- the bleak and potentially destructive effects of a near-future in which our love affair with technology takes a turn for the worse. The critically acclaimed series is part satire, part cautionary tales, having tackled in previous seasons such heady subject matter as the dark side of attempting to recreate ourselves in our online personas, the dangers of mob justice in the social media echo chamber, and, in a move that had onlookers legitimately quizzing Brooker as to his insights into the secrets of British politics, an episode in which the Prime Minister is coerced by an artist-turned-terrorist into copulating with a pig on national television, years before David Cameron’s university days created his own swinish scandal. No matter what aspect of modern techno-culture Brooker skewers, ‘Black Mirror’ has a laser-precise ability to evoke an emotional response to its stories, be it a tear-jerker like Season Two’s ‘Be Right Back’, or a pit-of-your-stomach sense of simmering dread, such as the aforementioned porcine blackmail in series opener “The National Anthem”. The show’s writing, when it hits, has a knack for making you feel sympathy towards its subjects, before tearing their lives apart in front of you via some quirk of technology extrapolated from an aspect of our modern devices, and usually feeling just that bit too plausible for comfort. This isn’t just near-future, it’s unsettlingly-near-future.

Brooker’s speculative series’ Netflix-exclusive third season contains more instances of teeth-grinding, fist-clenching, “I’ve got something in my eye”-inducing moments of intensely uncomfortable emotional resonance. One of the advantages of watching it in a group is seeing certain moments hit multiple people at once and watching the spectrum of reactions, if you’re not too busy reacting yourself. Another is that there will be people there to sympathise/commiserate/debate the message of the episode with while you wait for the next one to load, and it is a credit to the series’ writing that so much discussion can be had on any one episode.

The show’s greatest strength, after all, is that each standalone episode offers a commentary on how we live in these modern times. Moreover, the show is imbued with a sense of intellectual depth that most of its contemporary series forgo. To refer back to “Be Right Back”, one of the show’s strongest instalments, in my opinion, I recently rewatched it in preparation for the new series, and found, to my surprise, that it was dealing with the same Freudian theory that I had been studying for my M.A. The episode, in a nutshell, posits “what if you could replace your deceased loved ones with a copy, assembling their personality from their online presence”. From this premise Brooker explores the Freudian concept of Das Unheimliche, or the Uncanny, something which is “strangely familiar”, both known and unknown, and the effects that such dissonance can have on the psyche of the perceiver. In “Be Right Back”, the uncanny effect of the doppelgänger replacement is used to highlight the fact that, despite putting so much of ourselves into our online media, that self-curated representation of ourselves will never be able to truly capture the essence of who we are. The episode simultaneously explores the nature of a healthy and unhealthy model of grieving, similar to Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in which Freud differentiates between the healthy psychological process of mourning- in which grief is experienced, but the object of the grief is let go by the subject, who can then move forward in life, versus melancholia, in which the subject internalises and holds onto their grief, essentially refusing to fully accept the loss of the object. Could there be a more clear cut example than an attempt to recreate a deceased loved one? Fittingly, the conclusion invokes one last Freudian mainstay: repression. Unable to continue to live with the artificial copy she has created, yet simultaneously unable to let go of her grief, the protagonist consigns her beloved’s doppelgänger to the attic, never to leave, amongst pictures of deceased family members, and other symbols of pain too great to be felt.

It seems to me to be some terrible irony that we spent hours glued to a screen watching something like ‘Black Mirror’, something which by its very name is asking us to reexamine the way we look at the screen. One of my viewing companions, in a moment of sleep-deprivation induced clarity, declared that the show’s theme could be summed up entirely in six words: “What if phones, but too much”? Initially, we laughed at the intentional absurdity of his proclamation, but there is a kernel of truth within it. ‘Black Mirror’ is not plucking it’s ideas from the ether of imagination. Charlie Brooker, when writing the series, need not cast his mind very far into the realms of the fantastic to devise his visions of the near-future. All he need do is look at where we have come to in our society, and think of what we could be waking up to tomorrow.

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