Black Mirror has become event television. To the degree that such a thing is possible in our fragmented, full-season-streaming media landscape, the dystopian sci-fi series is the closest we’ve come to required viewing for keen-eyed, thick-skinned observers of the zeitgeist. The release of each new season on Netflix is heralded with a flurry of pained enthusiasm on social media, a shared wry grimace at the fresh hells on offer this go-round. The show conjures a highly satisfying, ironic sort of bleakness, too absurd to take as earnest prophecy but too grim to serve as gallows humor. Black Mirror is the cringe-binge we deserve.
Because it’s an anthology series consisting of standalone installments, the show is free to torment its characters lavishly—they won’t come back for the next episode. In the Black Mirror universe, despair is doled out as casually as a swipe-left. Victims are killed by robots, alienated from their loved ones and—perhaps worst of all—left to rot and suffer for eternities in virtual worlds with no means of escape. To watch the show is an act of sadomasochism.
Part of the appeal is obvious. Black Mirror stays true to the central aim of satirical sci-fi, imparting an understanding of our current malaise by projecting it into a plausible, familiar future. The prognosis is bleak; nearly every aspect of our current technological milieu can be tweaked into something horrific, from social media to online dating to baby monitors. Black Mirror’s prognostication reveals what you’d expect but with a relish that borders on the unseemly. Rare are the episodes that offer any glimpse of hope—in the latest season, only “Hang the DJ” offers an unadulterated feel-good ending. So why do we enjoy it so much?
The answer is complicity. Nearly every protagonist in the series suffers personal consequences for collective choices. Each is a victim of technologies that would hold no power over him or her without mass mutual buy-in. Our assent is predicated on technology that promises to sooth our basest fears: insecurity, loneliness, boredom, death. These eternal fears drive the pervasive acceptance of social media platforms that, in certain near-term scenarios, could facilitate the destruction of all life on the planet.
In the age of Trump and Brexit, in which voters toyed with certain ruin and sided with the most shameless, vicious trolls for sport, no sentiment hits home as hard as the one which lies at the root of all our current woes: We deserve this. Or, to put it in the unspoken assumption of every thirsty try-hard on your social media feed, aren’t we just the fucking worst?
One of the show’s leading gambits is setting up viewers to empathize with the protagonist only to reveal them as a horrible cog in a machine, the product of small, seemingly mundane personal choices that lead to big tragedies. In “Arkangel,” we experience the fear of the single helicopter mom, then witness the consequences that ensue when her maternal compulsions turn pathological. In “USS Callister” we pity the socially inept tech geek until we discover the terrible, godlike role he’s built for himself in the virtual realm. The successful white-collar mom-turned-murderer in “Crocodile” demonstrates the wholesale violence that can arise from a single youthful lapse. In each instance we end up baying for retribution, despite the fact that we can easily relate to the actions that set these characters on their course to destruction. The most perverse trick Black Mirror plays is to compel us to root for the machine. In this era of human-made environmental and political catastrophe, there’s no longer any question we deserve what we’ve got coming. We built this.
Black Mirror plays on our collective need for self-mortification by punishing its characters, our avatars, with arch exuberance. We respond with the euphoric cringe of the masochist kissing the whip: Master, can I have another? In a society drunk on schadenfreude, full of people who hate-follow the president on Twitter and yearn for his utter debasement on the global stage—and thus, by extension, our own—Black Mirror scratches a very nasty itch.
Reality has surpassed satire and new dystopias sprout every minute. Black Mirror capitalizes on this bumper crop. As we further entangle ourselves in this techno-social web of our own making, logging off seems like less and less of an option. So we stumble forward doing the next-best thing: tuning in and hating ourselves for it.