Black Mirror: White Christmas

Black Mirror Christmas special


It’s an odd idea, a “Black Mirror” Christmas special – one starring Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall, no less – but Charlie Brooker’s Amicus-style, festive anthology revels in its incongruity. In the story’s first segment, Hamm is a dating guru, dispensing “The Game”-worthy advice to nervous would-be players. The role is pretty typical for him, but that seems deliberate. The character is your internal cool-guy fantasy, externalised and given the face of Don Draper. Because that’s how you always pictured him, right?

It’s the first example of a theme that runs through “White Christmas”: social media as a metaphor for relationships. The wingman on your mobile, couples ‘blocking’ each other out. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t replace social interaction: they make it almost constant. We live in public (and that will prove to have a tragic flipside later in the story).

In the second segment, we learn Hamm’s day job is duplicating the minds of rich customers and conditioning those copies to work as home hubs. Brooker acknowledged in the Q&A that followed last week’s preview screening that this could be read as a comment on Western consumers’ easy reliance on slave labour, but there’s also a fascinating question in there about ‘artificial’ intelligence.

If we make computers as smart as humans, can we still treat them like computers? To steal the words of science fiction author Lance Parkin, the mind isn’t what the brain does: it’s what electricity does while it’s in the brain. You don’t really even need the meat bit. Only last week, the OpenWorm project announced it had successfully simulated a worm’s brain and placed it into a Lego robot. Duplicate a music file and you’ve got two music files. Putting aside the comforting, obfuscatory hogwash of ‘a soul’, why should a duplicated human mind not be a human mind all the same?

In the concluding chapters of the story, we learn that, while Hamm and Spall might not actually be in the same situation, they do share a fate: social isolation. In our modern, constantly connected world, it is a cruel punishment. The pair exist in full view of others while divorced from them. Hamm’s character, a charismatic guy, constantly in control, meets that with confusion: a player isn’t much use if he can’t interact with the people he wants to play.

For Spall, it’s crueller still. He is, as Hamm’s character observes, a good man. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of doing bad things, but it does mean he understands with vicious pain how bad they are. The mental torture of the ill deeds done against him, jumbled up with the guilt of what he has done. His dreams, his pain, do not matter except to condemn him for what amounts to eternity. The cruellest sting of his isolation is the knowledge that he deserves it. Begin unpacking that final scene, and you’ll never sleep this Christmas night.

Black Mirror: White Christmas iss broadcast on 16 December at 9pm on Channel 4.

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