Monday, August 16, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: White Christmas

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. This time: my #11, season 2's White Christmas. 

The Talent: Showrunner Charlie Brooker does his usual script duties, while veteran British television director Carl Tibbetts gets behind the camera. Tibbetts isn't a stranger to intense criminal punishment Black Mirror episodes: one year earlier, he directed the even darker White Bear.

The Setup: Two men awaken on Christmas morning to their usual quiet rhythm, working a mysteriously unexplained job in a small cabin located in the middle of nowhere. The talkative Matt (Don Draper himself) decides to divulge his past to the more reserved Potter (Rafe Spall). It's a holiday anthology!

First up: Matt's ill-fated stint as a dating consultant. This being Black Mirror, a Hitch-like service involves contact lenses that let Matt see behind his client's eyes, helping the socially awkward young man land a mysterious stranger who ends up murdering him and herself. Next, Matt a bit too cheerfully describes his official former job working as a programmer for advanced digital assistant technology that creates a miniature clone of paying customers. The catch? Your clone (or "cookie") is, you know, trapped in a lonely existence of forced servitude.

Potter is fairly disgusted by Matt's lack of remorse, but of course, those who live in Black Mirror houses should never throw stones (no matter how technologically advanced of stones they may be). Turns out, Potter's life went off the rails when his girlfriend Beth became unenthusiastically pregnant. She considered an abortion, he became awful, and she turned on the "blocker," a literal form of social media blocks that meant he could never see her or her offspring again (though that didn't stop him from stalking from afar).

The Ending: Well, like current social media legalese, the laws are quite fuzzy, which means Beth's untimely death allows Potter to finally set his eyes on the child he's been following only to discover, like so many a Maury Povich guest, that he is indeed not the father. In the face of utter devastation, his fiery temper is released, killing his would-be father-in-law and leaving his not-daughter to freeze to death over the winter holidays.

It gets better! Worse? I don't know your definitions of fun, so here's the real kicker: Matt and Potter have been in a simulation intended to elicit Potter's murder confession. Once done, Matt is free with his own form of probation terms: complete blocking, meaning the man who made his living off of his charms can no longer interact with others. Potter gets a different form of hell: reliving the moment of his crimes on infinite loop.

The Theme: Much like White Bear (currently my #4 episode), White Christmas has a complicated relationship with crime and punishment. Potter is a murderer, and Matt something of an accomplice (though his legally acceptable legitimate paying job was probably far more morally corrupt than the crime that put him behind bars) but do their comeuppances feel right? It's a question Brooker has clearly always fascinated Brooker, and it comes up again in even darker ways with Shut Up and Dance. Is Brooker just issuing a moralistic warning about the extent of possible punishments? Is it a call FOR these kinds of penalties? Two watches down and I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to take from White Christmas.

The Verdict:
There are things to enjoy in White Christmas: Jon Hamm dialing into the smarmier side of Don Draper, the utter horror of cookies (further explored, to lesser effect, in White Christmas's sister episode, Black Museum), and the twist of revealing "nice guy" Potter to be such a childish, bitter slob. There's some deeply cruel black humor to be found (particularly in its final moments of insanity) but on the whole, it's not a tradition I need to repeat.

Technology Tip:
Look, there's not much Potter could have done with Black Mirror-world gadgets to change his fate, so I'll throw a more traditional, always true mantra out instead: if you don't want a pregnancy test found, do not dispose of it inside your own home

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
If the dating-gone-wrong is a 5/10, the cloning abuse a 9/10, and the leave-a-child-to-die-on-Christmas an 8/10, I guess that puts us a 7.333333 and so on

Quality Scale:
6/10; Hamm is always a dream to watch and Spall taps into a more interesting darkness than you initially think, but much like Black Museum, there's something just off about White Christmas's rhythm. The first story seems more Tales From the Crypt-lite than Black Mirror-daring, while the horrors of the personal assistant tale are given no room to really sit.

Enjoyment Scale:
Eh. White Christmas is another episode that lost a few points on its rewatch, in part because all three stories (four if you count the wraparound) feel more plot-heavy than thematically rich. 

Up Next (Month): War is hell with Men Against Fire!

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