Utopianism rests upon a single, fundamental truth: that we can be better than we were before. But what if we can’t? What if we’re stuck in a loop, slave to new innovations that only amplify hate, human flaw, and social fragility? In the techno-dystopian wheelhouse that is Charlie Brooker’s darkly imaginative anthology series, Black Mirror, that is often the case at hand.
In Brooker’s inverted paradise, proximity comes at a price. What one is willing to give up for it—either to create the gulf or to clear it—is the source of all the sad chaos that outlines his futurescape. His stories are of a world in the throes of madness—be it dread brought on by devices that govern human emotion (“Nosedive”; “The Entire History of You”) or the mayhem that arises out of one’s inability to access, or sustain, a particular social standing (“The National Anthem”; “Shut Up and Dance”). What at first feels like a twisted fairytale slowly unravels into a vision of the quotidian, as if Brooker is saying: our emerging reality is much more unnerving than pure fiction.
For all its technological sprawl, Black Mirror is a show about the flesh and bone of human suffering: the different ways individuals hurt and grieve, the way human innovation expands the distance between people, communities, and ideologies. It’s not solely a matter of distance, but also of what one is willing to do to bridge that distance, that causes the series’ small, fertile tragedies. In some ways, this is Brooker’s central thesis. Humans get into trouble not when we make progress, but when we try to overcome humanity by treating emotion and spirit like science—the quest to articulate and optimize the ineffable.
Black Mirror’s true utopianism, though, has always been presenting a fairly multicultural future without comment, and with “Black Museum,” season 4’s final episode, all of Brooker’s work—and the question of proximity—coalesces into one of his finest visual, narrative, and thematic treats yet. With even more daring, its ending invites a reading that’s not so obvious to everyone.
(Spoiler alert: major spoilers for the Black Mirror episode “Black Museum” follow.)
We first meet Nish (Letitia Wright), a young black women traveling through the southwest, who finds her way to the Black Museum. Uncoincidentally, the ominously-titled roadside institution is a collection of techno-crimes assembled by its devious white proprietor, Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), a man with an appetite for the carnival and the criminal. The heroes and villains that furnish the anthology series have never wanted for audacity, but Haynes’s huckster bile manages to feel singularly evil, an opportunistic sociopath in the vein of P.T. Barnum.
The episode’s first flash of genius comes with the introduction of the museum itself. It houses “authentic criminological artifacts,” many of which are from previous Black Mirror episodes—including tech (the cloning device from “USS Calister”; an ADI from “Hated in the Nation”), sinister curios (the bathtub from “Crocodile”), and personal memorabilia (the tablet from “Arkangel”). Delicately, Brooker positions the Black Mirror universe within a linear narrative, bookending his galaxy with a beginning and perhaps an even more terrifying, unforeseen end. It’s a museum built on a mad dream, but also one imbued with a difficult truth: that all of us—the inventors, the thrill seekers, the intrigued, the “race-hating rich guy with a hard-on for power”—are in some way complicit in the society we create, and especially in its outcome.
Akin to the show’s haunting holiday special, “White Christmas,” “Black Museum” plays out in a nightmarish triptych, massaging three seemingly disparate stories into a single narrative. Haynes comes from a career recruiting people on behalf of a cutting-edge neuro-tech company, and his stories detail the use of devices that offer the ability to feel another person’s physical sensations, or even transfer one person’s consciousness into another’s mind. The final arc details the story of Clayton Leigh, a black man accused of murdering a journalist. He’s sentenced to death but agrees to sign over his digital imprint, in hopes that the revenue from its use will provide for his family once he’s gone. The three stories are threaded together not just by Haynes’ nefarious puppeteering, but by Brooker’s insistence on proximity: each character—a down-on-his-luck doctor, a mother in a vegetative state, a man who maintains his innocence—desperately wants to remain connected to the world, and the people, around them.
In the episode’s final twist, it’s revealed that Nish is no British tourist, but the daughter of Clayton Leigh, whose hologram has become the main attraction of Haynes’s museum—imprisoned and tortured, ad infinitum, by visitors. In a world short on karmic pittance, Nish gets retribution: she poisons Haynes, plants his consciousness inside her father’s virtual body, happily executes him, and sets fire to the museum. In doing so, she frees her father, a restitution that is infinitely compounded when you consider trials like the Tuskegee experiments, how the carceral state continues to irreparably fracture black families, and the gruesome modes by which the country profits off black pain.
It’s a victory, and an ending that defies the natural biology of the series—and in being so, it’s a form of reparation not everyone will understand. Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic accused the episode of trafficking in “eye-for-an-eye justice,” asking: “Is this really the world we want?” Adi Robertson at The Verge was equally miffed by Brooker’s scope. “If anything,” she wrote, “it obscures the industrial-scale cruelty of mass incarceration by focusing on one man’s roadside attraction.” For me, that’s the point of “Black Museum”—the cruelty of the prison system, while a massive and horrific enterprise, is a deeply personal one. It reaches families, mothers and sons, daughters and fathers, on a one-to-one level. It’s a national crisis built on private pains, of people trying to find their way back to loved ones. Brooker’s macabre futureworld is proving increasingly true for us, and for the time being we’re stuck in the loop, beholden to innovations that will continue to amplify hate and cause destruction, but there’s still a way to fight for what you believe is right, for what is right. What’s more real than that?