Monday, October 19, 2020

Black Mirror Revisit: Black Museum


Third from the bottom in my initial ranking of Black Mirror was the one episode you can't watch out of order, Black Museum. Like most anthology-style storytelling, the segments vary wildly, so much so that I barely remembered a third of the episode upon rewatch. 

But hey: it's hard to be too hard on anything that introduced us to the future Black Panther.

The Talent
Veteran British TV director Colm McCarthy takes on the reins, and if that name sounds familiar even if (like me), you don't live on a BBC diet, that might be because he also helmed the fiercely entertaining The Girl With All the Gifts. Showrunner Charlie Brooker wrote the script, basing the first segment on a story by none other than magician Penn Jillette. Throw in the born-to-be-a-star pre-Shiri Leticia Wright, and you have some pretty promising ingredients.

The Setup
British tourist Nish (Wright) stops to power up her vintage car in the middle of the southwest desert, deciding to kill a few hours at the mysterious Black Museum conveniently located in the middle of nowhere. The owner and proprietor, Rolo Haynes, eagerly gives her a tour through its treasures: artifacts of recent crimes involving technology, many of which come straight from the Black Mirror vault. 

Part of Black Museum's charms are indeed its easter eggs, in this case, props from previous episodes that open up far too many questions about Brooker's universe. Is 15 Million Merits just a graphic novel, rather than a terrifying future dystopia? Does a bee relic from Hated In the Nation imply those many hundreds of thousands of people actually died? It's probably better not to overthink the references...

Especially since they're really not central to the actual plot of the episode, which turns into an anthology framed by Rolo's past exploits representing a neuro technology company. The first story feels as though it would be better serviced by Tales From the Crypt, following a doctor who gets to experience his patients' physical pain without the consequences. Story 2, the most interesting and Black Mirror-y, follows Carrie, a young mother comatized by a car accident, whose mind is then transported into her loving husband before marital woes lead him to swap it out into a teddy bear. Naturally, everything works out great! Finally, the third story tells the sad tale of a wrongly imprisoned black man named Clayton Leigh, who signs over his digital identity to Rolo's company, not realizing that his reward will be an eternity of being executed by a bloodthirsty, often racist paying public.

The Ending
Hey, you can't complain that Black Museum doesn't deliver some satisfaction in its closing moments. Nish, you see, isn't a wandering stranger but the daughter of Clayton Leigh, and she's deliberately sought out Rolo in order to pay him back for all of the pain his cruel indifference has caused her family. This involves freeing her father's digital persona and trading it in for Rolo, who gets stuck as an electrocuted keychain before presumably being burned alive inside his own house of horrors. Nish also saves the Carrie Bear along the way.

The Theme
Hey, did you know technology is dangerous? BLACK MUSEUM DOES.

I guess there's a little more to it in that Rolo's villainy is more specifically tied not just to human cruelty, but the selfish tradeoffs we make, trading our souls for more convenience or career esteem. 

More interestingly and yet less thoughtful is the flirtation with examining race (something consistently frustrating in the Black Mirror universe). The fact that Clayton is a wrongly executed black man isn't something you can ignore, but there's no actual commentary beyond that.

The Verdict
Eh. Black Museum is certainly more entertaining than The Waldo Moment and less soul-crushing than Shut Up and Dance, but much like its unofficial partner White Christmas, the anthology aspect creates an uneven experience. The first story has nothing to say and feels like it belongs in a completely different television universe. The second hits, but also, well, feels quite a bit like a story in aforementioned White Christmas. Leticia Wright helps to make the last segment feel as rewarding as possible, but a simple vengeance tale doesn't really seem that creative 5 seasons in. 

Technology Tip
Any new development that seems too good to be true, asking nothing of you but to weave it inside your daily life, is, without question, something that will destroy everything you thought you loved

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: If you average together the three (4/10 for a story where no one really matters, 8/10 for Carrie's sad tale, and an even 5/10 averaging a 10 for Clayton's fate but a 0 for Nish's sweet revenge) you get 5.repeating6 so...that?
Quality Scale: 6/10; That first segment really brings the rest down
Enjoyment Scale: 6/10. There is some fun to be had in the visual references, and the fact that the episode ends on such grand comeuppance certainly leaves us with a better taste than some of the darker episodes. 

Up Next: Guess it's time to choose a few adventures with #20, Bandersnatch.

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