‘Always on, always suffering’:
replication, repetition and recursion in
Sophia Adamowicz discusses how technology is used to simulate the horrors of hell in Charlie Brooker’s television drama, Black Mirror...
*This article contains spoilers*
Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series, Black Mirror, which aired on Channel 4 from 2011 before moving to Netflix in 2016, compels us to reflect upon the sinister and often horrifying use of near-future technology. The show has its fair share of science-fiction monsters, from robotic dogs that run rampant through the English countryside, killing what’s left of the depleted human population (‘Metalhead’) to drone bees that can be manipulated into invading the body and crawling through the brain’s pain centre (‘Hated in the Nation’). Yet in all episodes, it is the human mind’s capacity to devise ingenious forms of torture that leads to profound suffering and creates hell on earth. As Miloš Cvetković has previously argued, Black Mirror’s ‘digital hell’ is not a place of brimstone and flame, but a state in which the human consciousness can be propelled into endless agony at the touch of a button (Cvetković, 2019). In this article, I will expand on Cvetković’s analysis by exploring in depth how the show’s characters exploit the opportunities for replication, repetition and recursion offered by technology, and in doing so, create a hellish state of existence from the dark materials of the digital realm.
As we may expect from an imagination as playfully perverse as Brooker’s, the Black Mirror festive special takes the idea of having a heart-to-heart around a fireside on Christmas Day and twists it into a story of manipulation, isolation and eternal punishment. The opening scenes of ‘White Christmas’ show Matt and Joe hunkered down together in a farmhouse, surrounded on all sides by a snow-stricken landscape. Ostensibly to pass the time, Matt tells Joe about his previous occupation as a ‘cookie’ trainer. Advanced technology has made it possible for a digital copy of a human consciousness (known as a ‘cookie’) to be extracted from the brain and rehoused in an egg-like container. Matt’s job was to make sure the cookies did what they were made for – act as personal assistants to their embodied counterparts. In a flashback, we see how the digital clone of a wealthy young professional (Greta) is forced into Alexa-style servitude. Having been extracted from Greta’s physical body, the cookie wakes up inside the egg. It is a white room, completely devoid of diversions except for a viewing window to the outside world and a control panel. Matt explains the situation to the replica, and, filled with panic and existential dread, she refuses to perform the duties. There follows a harsh bout of negative conditioning. Matt shows her what ‘nothing’ is like, cutting her off completely from the outside world. After three weeks of isolation with no contact and no distractions, she is distressed – but not quite broken. After half a year, she begs to be given something to do, even if that means performing dull and demeaning tasks. The six-month period of isolation – torturously slow for the cookie version of Greta – passes in less time than it takes Matt to eat a piece of toast in the outside world, and the disparity between his God-like control and her vulnerability is uncomfortable to watch. But even more disturbing is the concept of spending eternity in solitude with no variation from day to day and nothing to occupy us but our own thoughts. As Matt says, ‘silence can be oppressive; you think weird shit in a vacuum’. After three lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic, I think we can all agree with him.
The most hellish of all Black Mirror episodes concerns the development of the same cookie technology that is used in ‘White Christmas’. A portmanteau horror, ‘Black Museum’ revolves around three exhibits, each with some connection to the world of crime. The final piece is the ghostly digital form of an alleged murderer, Clayton Leigh. Complete with all his physical sensations, but deprived of a body, this digital copy of Leigh can be ‘executed’ in the electric chair on repeat for the amusement of visitors. These justice-hungry tourists revel in playing an active part in the punishment. ‘Pulling the lever yourself – now that’s an attraction,’ says Rolo Haynes, owner of the Black Museum. Visitors can also get a souvenir of the experience – another digital clone of Clayton in a keyring, ‘perpetually experiencing that beautiful pain.’ Rolo sounds almost euphoric as he describes how the clones are ‘stuck forever in that one perfect moment of agony. Always on. Always suffering.’
Each version of (the innocent) Clayton Leigh is encased in his own hell. And who better to preside over the attraction than Rolo Haynes, the devil himself. While Rolo looks like an ordinary man on the surface, Brooker peppers clues about his true satanic identity throughout the episode. The Black Museum he owns is ‘hot as hell,’ a circus of horrors where Clayton Leigh spends ‘the afterlife’. In his narration of the stories behind the exhibits, Rolo makes repeated reference to the underworld and the devil, describes other people’s pain in terms that make it sound blissful, and perceives happiness as grotesque. Moreover, he recruits desperate people to his schemes and extracts their digital consciousnesses – their souls. In the second embedded story, he performs the role of the cunning serpent in Eden by tempting a couple into undertaking a consciousness transplant procedure under the pretence of helping them, and even offers the man an apple after the operation. It is grimly appropriate that Rolo’s own fate is to be uploaded into one of the electric chair souvenirs while the Black Museum is consumed by flames. He ends up swinging from a rear-view mirror, trapped in a hell of his own creation.
The horror of Black Mirror’s infernal technology is not just its perpetual ‘on’ status, but also its capacity to simulate an eternity of suffering through repetition. In ‘White Bear,’ Brooker ties this to the theme of justice; in particular, he shows how punishment can be packaged up and played on repeat to satisfy the self-righteous. The story takes place in a ‘Justice Park,’ a cross between a prison, a theme park and a television set. Smartphone-wielding visitors are encouraged to participate in an immersive drama set in a dystopian society: ordinary people – played by the visitors themselves – have been turned into ‘onlookers’; they simply watch on the screens of their phones while ‘hunters’ track down and kill rebels. The only person unaware of this dramatic construct is the main character, played by Lenora Crichlow. She wakes up with only a fragmented memory of her past and, for most of the episode, is clueless about who the onlookers are and why they simply film her as she is pursued by hunters holding weapons. Crichlow puts on the most visceral and convincing performance of fear since Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974); the episode even alludes to Leatherface’s balletic dance with the chainsaw when one of the hunters, played with relish by Michael Smiley, holds a drill aloft, whoops and twirls while Crichlow’s character screams for help.
Only when the main character is about to kill one of these hunters in an act of self-defence does a curtain lift to reveal that she is in a studio, in front of a live audience. Michael Smiley reappears as the supremely creepy host, Baxter. He informs the woman that she is in fact a notorious criminal, Victoria Skillane. Her punishment at the Justice Park fits her crime. Having kidnapped a child with her fiancé, Victoria held a Smartphone and filmed her partner murdering the girl. Like the onlookers, she showed no empathy and did not attempt to intervene. When the show of public shaming is over, Baxter prepares to erase Victoria’s memory. At one point, she begs, ‘Kill me. Please just kill me,’ and he replies with, ‘That’s what you always say.’ Victoria’s memories are wiped in a painful procedure that resembles the electric chair. When the park opens its doors again the next morning, another wave of visitors floods in to film Victoria, who is once again ignorant of the truth, disorientated and frightened. The ending sequence shows her waking up in the same state again and again.
The genius of this episode is that the viewer cannot help but see Victoria as an innocent victim. Even though the jerky camerawork creates the sense that we are watching from a Smartphone – which puts us in a similar position to one of the onlookers – there is a world of difference between the visitors to the park, who view the torture as a performance that is somehow unreal, and the viewer, who watches this cruelty from a distance and can empathise with Victoria, even when we know what she did. The repetition at the end of the episode, as well as Baxter’s comment that Victoria ‘always’ acts in the same way, prompts us to consider how much control Victoria has, and had, over her own actions. At one point, we find out that Victoria claimed to have been pressured by her fiancé into abducting the girl and filming her death. The jury in the courtroom, and the public jury, didn’t accept that she was coerced into committing the crimes. Yet the episode highlights the deterministic path we tread. If Victoria acts in very similar ways to the same situation every time, how much freedom does she really have? Could she have intervened in the murder, or was she always destined to end up in the White Bear Justice Park?
‘Hated in the Nation’ echoes these themes of public shaming and vigilante justice. Part police procedural and part science-fiction thriller, the episode revolves around the murders of public figures who rank at the top of a social media unpopularity poll. Brooker anticipates the intensification of cancel culture whilst offering a commentary on environmental catastrophe: the murder weapons are drones in the form of bees (ADIs), which have replaced biological organisms following a mass extinction. When enough people tweet the name of a potential victim with the hashtag ‘#DeathTo,’ the ADIs track them down and nestle inside their brains. The parallel between mob and hive mentalities is a little too on the nose for some critics, with David Sims of The Atlantic writing, ‘the metaphor was so obvious I almost respected it’ (Sims, 2016). True, some of the similarities between the people and the bees are glaringly clear: like a swarm of insects, the public acts as a single unit, and just as one of the ADIs can replicate itself, so too can a call for murder. Some parallels are more subtle, though: the ‘Game of Consequences’ manifesto features a computer keyboard and a honeycomb on the front cover, drawing our attention to their visual similarity, while the ADIs construct hives that look like pieces of computer hardware. And the idea that ‘each hive is a replication point’ where ADIs ‘create duplicates of themselves and spread out exponentially’ is a powerful way of conveying the rapidity with which a stinging message of hatred can spin out of control through repeated shares.
As in ‘White Bear,’ public hate figures find themselves on the run from a pitiless foe. The final irony in ‘Hated in the Nation,’ however, is that the vigilante justice warriors themselves are the real targets of the ‘Game of Consequences’. The ADIs turn on them, and another extinction follows. At the moment of mass slaughter, Brooker and director James Hawes eschew visceral body horror for a melancholy montage of the victims watching as swarms gather at their windows. Nevertheless, Brooker suggests that this is not the end of the game. The final scene shows the criminal mastermind behind the operation being trailed by one of the policewomen who worked on the case. In her striped orange and black top, she resembles a relentless ADI, still pursuing its target.
Brooker and his directors use another form of repetition – recursive imagery – to convey the multiple selves that can be created through digital cloning technology, and their endless isolation and imprisonment. Recursion is used with particularly chilling effect in ‘White Christmas’ to blur the distinction between the real world and the digital world. The visual parallel between the white room inside the egg and the snowy landscape outside the farmhouse is no coincidence. Throughout the episode, Brooker foreshadows the twist through Matt’s dialogue, as when he calls Joe a ‘locked box’. Eventually, we realise that the framing narrative of the two men sat in the farmhouse and Matt’s embedded story about the cookies are interconnected. Joe is a cookie, and the farmhouse is his egg. Matt, still in his physical body, has been wired up to the system in order to extract a confession from Joe. The offence? Murder. The weapon? A snow globe. The scene of the crime? The farmhouse, which has been recreated in the digital realm.
Joe is sentenced to solitary confinement at the rate of 1000 years per minute, all whilst having to listen to ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ on a loop. As if the concept of listening to Wizard on repeat isn’t bad enough, Brooker and the director, Carl Tibbetts, convey the immensity of this timescale by zooming out from the kitchen to reveal that the room is contained within the house in the snow globe, and that snow globe is contained within another one…. and so on, ad infinitum. Having seen how much psychological damage six months of ‘nothing’ can do earlier in the episode, we are primed to find this Russian doll sequence extremely unsettling. No matter what his crimes were, we know that Joe doesn’t deserve, and cannot possibly cope with, torture on such a scale. The infinite recursion also highlights how isolated the Joe is – trapped within endless prisons, he has nothing to keep him company but his own guilt.
Brooker also uses images recursively in ‘Playtest’ to convey everlasting suffering. Amongst all Black Mirror episodes, ‘Playtest’ owes the most of the horror genre, featuring moments that deliver jump scares and trigger deep psychological tremors. It begins innocuously enough with Cooper travelling around the world; only his continuing refusal to answer his mother’s phone calls suggests that he is trying to escape a place of darkness. When his bank account is hacked, Cooper is detained in England and takes on some casual work, playtesting a new horror game at the UK office of the Japanese company, SaitoGemu. The innovative game design uses augmented reality to plunge the player into a haunted lodge filled with monsters of their own mind; a neural network learns what frightens the player and adapts the game for maximum effect. Cooper, having had a chip implanted into his head and a headset fixed around his skull, encounters an enormous spider, a childhood bully, and a heinous hybrid of the two in the haunted lodge. But more terrifying still, he realises that he is trapped in the game; he must confront his deepest fear of developing Alzheimer’s, like his late father, and face his guilt of cutting himself off from his grieving mother. Even when the game appears to have ended, there is no exit for Cooper. A gut-wrenching twist reveals that Cooper died 0.04 seconds into the playtest, when his mother rang him and the incoming signal caused the headset to fry his brain.
The images that Cooper’s dying brain generates all have their origins in the world outside the game, and there are many visual echoes between people and items in the first part of the episode (which takes place while Cooper is travelling), and the second part of it (which is in his mind). For instance, on his flight from Australia, Cooper half watches a film about an attack of a giant spider, and later sees an employee in the SaitoGemu office wearing a spider t-shirt; these images haunt him and are blown up into monstrous proportions in the lodge (see Bojalad’s excellent 2020 article for a discussion of the nightmarish creatures in the episode). But as horrific as it may be to see the face of a school bully attached to a giant arachnid abdomen, it is another recurring image that more subtly, but more powerfully, creates a sense that Cooper has entered a hell of his own.
As he walks through the SaitoGemu office, Cooper sees a poster advertising the horror game, ‘Harlech Shadow V,’ which depicts a screaming human head with a silhouette of the haunted lodge shadowing the eye area – a clever visual reference to the augmented reality headset that covers players’ foreheads, and a symbol of the darkness that lurks within the human psyche. Light shines from a single window on the left, but it is partially blocked by a ghostly form that lingers by the pane. Cooper’s playtest takes place inside the lodge depicted in this poster, and there he finds a painting of the same lodge on the wall. In the painting, as in the poster for ‘Harlech Shadow V,’ light glows from a single window. This window is empty at first; then a shadowy figure appears. Immediately, the viewer feels on edge, wondering whether a spectral presence is watching Cooper from the painting, or whether it has manifested in an upstairs room in the lodge, or both. A more disturbing interpretation, however, is that the figure is Cooper himself, trapped within his own mind. And inside that figure’s head, there is another Cooper in another lodge, viewing another painting that features himself – and on and on, forever. The nightmarish concept of infinite recursion is especially pertinent to the theme of this episode: you cannot run away from fears that were seeded in your childhood home, for they have taken root in your very being, and wherever you go, they will be there.
All of the victims discussed in this article share the same fate – they cannot escape their suffering. Often, they are isolated from the rest of humanity, and often, their sense of self has been shattered through the replication of their consciousness. If, as Milton wrote, ‘the mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,’ then the mind that has been tormented, fragmented and plunged into eternal solitude is surely in the very depths of hell.
Bojalad, A. (2020). ‘How Black Mirror embraced its horror potential with ‘Playtest’’, Denofgeek.com, 21 October. Available at: https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/black-mirror-embraced-horror-potential-with-playtest/ (Accessed: 7 February 2021).
Cvetković, M. (2019). ‘Waking up in the nightmare of digital hell: The motif of awakening in Black Mirror’, Libartes.net, March. Translated by F. Čolović. Available at: https://libartes.net/waking-up-in-the-nightmare-of-digital-hell-black-mirror/ (Accessed: 7 February 2021).
Milton, J. (first pub. 2000, repr. 2003), Paradise Lost. Edited by J. Leonard. London: Penguin Books.
Sims, D. (2016). ‘Black Mirror’s ‘Hated in the Nation’ considers online outrage’, The Atlantic, 22 October. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/10/black-mirror-review-season-three-netflix-hated-in-the-nation/505079/ (Accessed : 7 February 2021).
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