The fourth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on December 29th, 2017. In this series, six writers will look at each of the fourth season’s six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears.
The essay series begins here with thoughts on “USS Callister.”
Spoiler warning: This essay is very light on spoilers for “Black Museum,” but it does offer a few plot details not seen in the episode trailer.
Many Black Mirror episodes clearly extend some present-day phenomenon. What if you could put content filters on children’s eyes? What if hashtags killed people? What if reality had a “block” button? The devices in the episode “Black Museum” don’t lend themselves to this kind of high-concept description. And the most relevant commentary in this episode isn’t on any specific technological development, it’s about who’s responsible when those developments go wrong.
“Black Museum” is a three-part mini-anthology, similar to the 2014 episode “White Christmas.” It starts with a traveler (Letitia Wright, of the upcoming Black Panther movie) visiting a distant roadside attraction called the Black Museum — which, like Black Mirror itself, is devoted to high-tech cautionary tales. In this case, the events are real, and smarmy curator Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge, from The Night Manager) is more than happy to narrate some flashbacks.
Haynes was once a recruiter for neuroscience experiments, and his stories involve prototype devices that copy or share sensation. In the episode’s first arc, a harried doctor installs a sensation-sharing implant to better diagnose patients, then becomes addicted to ever-higher levels of other people’s pain and fear. In the second, a bereaved man has his comatose wife’s consciousness implanted into his head, but slowly locks her into a mental prison as their relationship breaks down. In the last, a convict facing execution signs over his mind and likeness to Haynes, who resurrects him as a hologram that self-righteous (and often grotesquely racist) museum visitors can torture.
The tales fit Black Mirror’s storytelling style, but not its usual moral framework. Black Mirror often suggests that social networks, smartphones, and other contemporary inventions simply accelerate an endemic rot at the heart of humanity. (Twitter shaming today, aerial death squads tomorrow.) Installments like “Nosedive” and “Fifteen Million Merits” deplore crowds and mass culture, and when villains appear, they’re usually less creepy than the technology they use. With “Black Museum,” the series offers a devil to blame.
The main revelation of “Black Museum” isn’t that people are terrible, or technology is dangerous, but that Haynes is personally loathsome. Unlike the fourth-season episode “Arkangel,” this installment doesn’t hinge on consumers clamoring for some comically sinister product. Haynes targets people who are desperate enough to take huge risks — a doctor on the verge of losing his practice, a grieving husband, a family man on death row for a crime he likely didn’t commit. His slimy voiceover betrays an utter lack of surprise when things go wrong.
To a point, “Black Museum” reflects a change in how we talk about technology. Platforms like Facebook no longer feel like mirrors of humanity, even dark ones; they feel like cattle chutes, funneling users toward a narrow range of choices and information. And criticism has started landing not on faceless systems or their users, but on reckless inventors who exploit human vulnerability. As one-time Facebook investor Sean Parker put it last year: “The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
This message is undercut by how marginal Haynes seems, though. The public seems genuinely bothered by his work, and after a couple of high-profile failures, he’s kicked out of the scientific establishment. By the time we meet him, he’s conducting one-person tours in a cramped old highway outpost, not giving conference keynotes on disrupting sadomasochism. It’s downright optimistic by Black Mirror standards, especially compared to real-world events, like the company Theranos — which skirted medical regulations to sell allegedly useless blood tests — getting $100 million from a private equity firm to develop a new product.
The museum’s sole success is Haynes’ cruelest project: an exhibit where visitors can electrocute a sentient hologram, then go home with a novelty keychain with a copy of that hologram being tortured. But the convict’s wife starts a protest movement, and although it fizzles out without freeing her husband, it tanks the Black Museum’s reputation. A few holdout sadists keep coming, but eventually, even they drift away.
And for once, Black Mirror undersells a scenario’s potential horror. The American prison system — where phone companies run virtual extortion rackets, and pharmaceutical companies spar with state governments over tortuous execution drugs — calls for sharp hyperbole. “Black Museum” goes for broad allegory about punitive justice, and while it touches on larger issues like racism, its jabs don’t feel timely. If anything, it obscures the industrial-scale cruelty of mass incarceration by focusing on one man’s roadside attraction. After years of warning that phones and reality shows will turn us into monsters, Black Mirror approaches clear and present sociopathy, and shrugs.
The episode suggests Haynes is a scapegoat for short-lived viral outrage, while other people successfully adapt his work. (He apparently laid groundwork for the “cookie” brain uploads from “White Christmas.”) This tracks more closely with the series’ usual assumption: that people are too stupid to understand the true dangers of technology, and they focus their anger on superficial issues. But the episode doesn’t flesh out this idea, beyond a few passing references. By the same token, it implicitly compares Black Mirror viewers to gawking Black Museum visitors — but since nobody seems to actually like the Black Museum, that’s not much of an indictment.
“Black Museum” keeps a potentially scattered story on track without digressing into generic complaints about modern culture. But it seems uncomfortable diagnosing the problems it presents. Is a product dangerous because someone will always use it for evil, or because it was designed to make evil easy? Do people put up with injustice because they’re lazy and ignorant, or because they’re powerless? And when a high-tech huckster starts offering deals that are too good to be true, who’s supposed to stop him?
“BLACK MUSEUM” RATINGS
Relevance: Low. “Black Museum” is most enjoyable as a string of timeless “what-if” scenarios, embedded in a frame story where Haynes gets his long-overdue comeuppance. It starts an interesting discussion around a relevant topic, but its commentary is too vague to say much.
Aesthetics: A high-production take on schlocky 20th-century anthologies like Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, with Douglas Hodge playing Cryptkeeper. (The first short in particular channels ‘80s splatterpunk icon Clive Barker, though it’s adapted from a story by Penn & Teller’s Penn Jillette.) Each segment establishes its own vibe: the first is dim and claustrophobic, the second is naturalistic with one stark science fiction setpiece, and the third ties in with “Black Museum’s” frame story, which is shot with a grindhouse seediness.
Squirm factor: Classically skin-crawling. “Black Museum” features a remarkably wide range of nightmarish elements, from physical mutilation to human minds locked in inanimate objects. But most of its creepiness belongs in the realm of traditional horror, not impending reality.