Monday, May 9, 2022

Black Mirror Revisit: The Entire History of You

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. We're now at my initial podium, so let's dive into The Entire History of You.

The Talent:
It's a rarity, but here we go: an episode of Black Mirror NOT written by Charlie Brooker. This one comes from Jesse Armstong, the man being Four Lions and Succession, with television director Brian Welsh behind the camera. Just to up its British cred a few more points, future Dr. Who Jodie Whitaker co-stars. 

The Setup:
Liam is an insecure lawer bombing his latest professional review and not doing much better at home. He meets up with his wife Fi at a friend-of-friends dinner party and immediately senses something off. Maybe it was just a bad day, maybe Liam's just not the social type, or maybe, there's something going on between Fi and the cavalier bachelor Jonas. 

In our universe, we might spend a little too much time trying thinking about facial reactions and gestures, but in Black Mirror's, there's no time to waste: simply play back the 'grain' installed in the back of your neck to rewatch every interaction you've ever had with the same ease you have when fastforwarding Netflix. 

It's as terrible as it sounds. While some, like Jonas's one-night party fling, choose to forgo such technology, most with the means to do so happily have it implanted. Never overthink anything again, right? 

The Ending:
Alternatively, never let anything go. Liam's nagging suspicion about his wife's manner leads him down a whiskey greased path of pain. Jonas and Fi were indeed an item, but a glance at Jonas's grain memories is all Liam needs to confirm the sad truth: their relationship was ongoing, and the timing of a simple screenshot suggests Liam's baby daughter might have a different daddy. 

It's enough to drive a man to messily extract his own grain.

The Theme:
Brooker has pointed out that technology is rarely the actual villain in Black Mirror; it merely provides the means to open windows into our existing nature that may have otherwise stayed shut. That's certainly the case with The Entire History of You. At its core, it's a story about how our own doubts and insecurities will destroy us if we let them. 

There are hints of something else interesting at play, though it gets less room for exploration in the tighter family-based drama. At the cursed dinner party, one of Fi's grain-loving friends rants about the fallacy of our own memories, and how subjective they really are. In a world where every moment can be objectively played back, it's certainly true: a witness's testimony based on recall should indeed be dismissed if grain video captured a different, verified story. But the idea that how we remember something doesn't matter is horrifying because so much of our memories build us into the people we are. Fi may have truly been enthralled by Jonas in her drunken, depressed state, but she's clearly spent the last two years regretting that feeling, rewriting it in her head. Doesn't that count? 

The Verdict:
While The Entire History of You is a strong hour of TV, it doesn't quite pack the same punch once you've cycled through the full Black Mirror run. Its parallels to White Christmas (another story about an emotionally unstable young maybe-father whose discovery of a partner's adultery sends him down a destructive spiral) makes you draw some mildly unpleasant conclusions about men in the Black Mirror's world. Toby Kebbell is great in the lead role, lending extreme vulnerability to a sad mess of a man, but that doesn't mean it's actually fun to watch. 

Technology Tip:
While the terms are different, the general rule still rings true: if you don't want it in cyberspace (or grainland, as it were) delete, delete, delete

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
5/10: This is one of the more identifiable sad human stories (as opposed to the all-out torture tragedy of something like Black Museum) so while it's certainly uncomfortable, it's far from the worst thing that can happen to someone in the Charlie Brooker Universe. 

Quality Scale:
7/10: Even in its lower budgeted first season, The Entire History of You works as a tight, effective hour of television. 

Enjoyment Scale:
6/10: Another episode that suffered a bit on rewatch, offering little extra insight the second time around (and, in fairness to it, after 20+ other episodes that explore similar territory).

Up Next (Month): From domestic drama to space opera, we're boarding the USS Callister!

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