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Last Night's 'Black Mirror' Summed Up the Endless Torture of Mandatory Fun

It's like a Samuel Beckett play for the Facebook generation, or a Radiohead song with better jokes.

by JS Rafaeli
17 December 2014, 11:55am

Jon Hamm in Black Mirror's "White Christmas" (screenshot ​via)

When it comes to Christmas stories, it's usually all baby Jesus, braindead Schwarzenegger vehicles and abandoned children called Kevin trying to maim hardened criminals. The one genre that generally doesn't get a look in is science fiction. Somehow, reflecting on the existential paradoxes of the human condition by projecting the psycho-spiritual impacts of rapid technological advancement just doesn't seem right for that 6PM nexus of hangover and nan-induced food coma.

So, being the contrarian provocateur that he is, it was only natural that Charlie Brooker should make a sci-fi christmas special for his ongoing exploration of tech-horror, Black Mirror.

"White Christmas" presents three vaguely intersecting stories set in a near-future world in which the line between social media and IRL has become blurred. People all have implanted gadgets called Z-Eyes, allowing them to record and share their experiences in real time. Okay, you say – so far, so Google Glass 2.0. But, interestingly, the etiquettes and mores of social media have also been internalised, allowing characters in this world to block each other, rendering them as weird, pixellated non-people. Like all sci-fi, this premise initially sounds great – all the world's "cutesters" and that one guy from college who re-posts Britain First memes gone forever. But, inevitably, it leads to unintended and horrifying consequences.

But what's really interesting here isn't actually the technobabble or clever-clever commentary on social media. What Brooker has done with "White Christmas" is to present a Samuel Beckett play disguised as a science-fiction story. This is about the true stuff of Christmas: existential horror, the howling intimation of ultimate meaninglessness and a profound despair at the unending futility of it all. And some food.

The action opens with Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall waking up on Christmas morning in some kind of cabin in a snowed-in netherworld. Neither seems to know quite where they are, or why they are there. This framing device is straight-up Endgame stuff – but deftly executed, setting the uncanny, alienating tone of the story to come.

Hamm proceeds to talk us through a flashback of his life as a Julien Blanc-style pick-up artist, coaching hapless losers to manipulate their way to instantly regrettable fucks at office parties. This is an inspired piece of casting: not only is one of the characters in Endgame actually called Hamm, but Don Draper in Mad Men nicely foreshadows the whole PUA phenomenon with his creepy mix of overbearing machismo and advertising strategy. This plot line is also our next step into the Beckettian universe that Brooker is creating. What could be more sterile, void and Sisyphean than the world of the pick-up artist, forever seeking sex through a manipulative hokum that renders the sex itself completely joyless?

And where does the Hamm character ply his trade most effectively? Where else but at office Christmas parties – zones of such unfathomable ennui that they can only be dealt with by taking Jane from HR into the disabled loos, or rendering yourself senseless on gak and chartreuse and smashing Terry from accounts' face into the pavement until you stop wishing it was your own.

Neatly avoiding any spoilers, Brooker also manages to play a blinder here with the same sex-death dynamic that underpins all Western art, implying that perhaps what all PUAs are really seeking so desperately isn't sex at all, but their own annihilation. And if you were Julien Blanc, wouldn't you?

(L-R) Rafe Spall, Oona Chaplin and Jon Hamm (Photo ​via)

We're then introduced to the second narrative, featuring Oona Chaplin as a woman who clones herself to create the perfect domestic servant, one that knows her own wishes and desires in advance. The plot may slow here a little, but it also introduces Brooker's next major dystopian theme: the experience of "nothingness" used as a form of punishment. Here, Brooker may think he's being all dour and Heidegger-y, but what this actually recalls most is the excellent book (and way dodgier films), The Neverending Story. If you haven't read the book, you definitely should – "​The Nothing", a "a force of absolute oblivion that erases everything and everyone it touches from existence and leaves no trace whatsoever", is one of the most terrifying antagonists in all literature and traumatised the fuck out of me when I was 11.

It's in the third narrative, when the action shifts to Rafe Spall as an estranged father, that "White Christmas" comes into its own. Discussing whether or not Spall's character is "a good man", the two protagonists settle on "a good man who has done bad things". Suddenly the drama is given a more human face, and the three plot lines are neatly brought together in a gratifying, if foreshadowed, twist.

The banality and nullity of modern life are the underlying preoccupation of most of Brooker's pieces – they're like Radiohead albums with better jokes. Here, the ambition of the experiment totally pays off; the writing and performances are perfectly pitched, making for really excellent television. And, come to think of it, maybe sci-fi is actually the perfect genre for a holiday that revolves around a fat guy riding a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer and an omnipotent Godhead having babies with the still-virginal wife of a Jewish carpenter in what's now the West Bank.

Ultimately, what Brooker is dealing with here is the age-old theme – rehearsed from ancient Greece to Jean-Paul Sartre to every Christmas party throughout all eternity – that anything fun, made mandatory, becomes excruciating. And that any activity, repeated infinitely, becomes a torture.

The only music used in "White Christmas" bar Jon Opstad's original score is Rossini's "Thieving Magpie Overture", nicely referencing A Clockwork Orange, and Wizzard's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday". As one listens to that novelty-glam refrain, Brooker makes one consider its true, horrifying implications. What if it was actually Christmas every day – can you imagine anything more terrible? 

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