If you haven’t heard of Black Mirror, there’s a good chance you will soon. It isn’t a new show. It actually first came out a couple years back in the UK and has just recently made it across the pond thanks to Netflix. After a friend recommended it to me a few months back, I’ve heard more and more people talking about it.
I’m afraid it’s a hard show to quickly sum up, as each episode stands alone à la Twilight Zone style. There are no recurring characters or connected narratives. The general theme that underpins the show circles around the potential consequences of modern technology. It is dark to say the least, but incredibly compelling.
Anyway! You’re probably wondering what this has to do with grief. Enter Season 2, Episode 1: Black Mirror Be Right Back. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a grief-y episode because, once you’re looking for it, grief pops up everywhere. But I have to say, the intensity of this episode and the disturbing-yet-intriguing plot of the show was a bit overwhelming.
Here is where I disclose, this post is FULL OF SPOILERS. Not just little spoilers, but I-plan-to-share-the-entire-plot spoilers. If that concerns you, watch the show on Netflix and then come back. We’ll be right here waiting. Promise.
Okay, you’re back. Or you don’t care about spoilers and you never left. Let’s set the stage. The episode opens with a lovely couple, early-30s maybe, moving into the boyfriend/fiancé’s family home and being all sorts of cute. Banter, singing in the car, couple annoyances. You know the recipe. It is the future, but not far in the future. Feels like it could be 2015, but with nicer, slimmer cell phones and fancier computers. Our characters, the adorable couple, are Martha and Ash. Ash is constantly on his phone, yet remains remarkably endearing, and is played by one of the Weasley brothers from Harry Potter to boot!
They are just going along, settling into life, when Ash unexpectedly dies. We never know exactly how, but it seems safe to assume it was a car accident. The funeral happens, Martha returns to an empty home, and is… alone. Two thumbs up to Hayley Atwell, the actress who plays Martha. Her grief doesn’t feel overdone or forced. You feel her loneliness. In just minutes, she captures the moments after a death when everything seems surreal – when you feel outside yourself and like maybe you will just wake up and find this was a terrible nightmare. She conveys the experience of empty time and feeling directionless while keeping busy, all without a word.
Here is where Be Right Back takes a turn. A totally unrealistic yet terrifyingly possible turn. Martha has a widowed friend who, against Martha’s wishes, signs her up for something that ‘really helped’ in her grief. A therapist? A support group? A message board? A grief blog? Not so much. A new program that is ‘still in beta’ that takes every online communication from the person who died – the tweets, posts, photos, videos, emails, voicemails – and allows you a way to communicate with a program that simulates the person. When she receives the first email coming from “Ashm” she is horrified and irate. But her friend assures her it helps and that the more the system has, the more it will be ‘like him’.
Despite her disgust and initial resistance, you can probably see where this is going. Ash was an internet addict, the program would have a tremendous amount to work with. In her isolation and yearning, it immediately seems plausible that her horror may turn to curiosity or desperation. The next thing we learn is that Martha is pregnant and her pain and isolation intensifies. Before you know it, she is online starting a chat with “Ash” to tell “him” she is pregnant.
Okay, time out from the show. It just so happened that earlier the same day, before watching Black Mirror, I heard a RadioLab episode on NPR called “Talking to Machines”. You can listen to it here, or just read the synopsis:
We begin with a love story–from a man who unwittingly fell in love with a chatbot on an online dating site. Then, we encounter a robot therapist whose inventor became so unnerved by its success that he pulled the plug. And we talk to the man who coded Cleverbot, a software program that learns from every new line of conversation it receives…and that’s chatting with more than 3 million humans each month. Then, five intrepid kids help us test a hypothesis about a toy designed to push our buttons, and play on our human empathy. And we meet a robot built to be so sentient that its creators hope it will one day have a consciousness, and a life, all its own.
Now, I have talked to Cleverbot and it certainly doesn’t make me feel like we are close to computer programs that mimic humans. That doesn’t change the fact that Cleverbot is kind of addictive for a little while, albeit totally frustrating. Humans talking to computer programs… not even close to impossible.
Okay, back to the show. Before you know it, Martha is chatting with “Ash” on the phone. A lot. Computer program “Ash” doesn’t always get Ash right, but a lot of the time he does. And as you watch Martha and “Ash” talk, it is creepy… but the griever in you sees the appeal. It isn’t Ash, but it can do a pretty good job guessing what Ash would say, and saying it in Ash’s voice, and there is something comforting there. Creepy, but comforting.
Soon “Ash” tells Martha that there is a next level to the program available and, he won’t lie, “it’s not cheap”. Next thing you know, an “Ash” robot-clone arrives at her home. Robot doesn’t even seem like the right word because it looks just like Ash – soft skin, the same hair, the same moles. He looks like Ash, only a little better, maybe because “the photos we keep tend to be flattering” and those are what created “Ash” – his online persona. This “Ash” now seems even more real that the e-chats and phone calls, yet Martha (and we) seem to become even more acutely aware of his limitations. He looks the part, he sounds the part, but something is missing. He doesn’t know how to argue, his reactions are just a little off, he doesn’t always feel the things that Ash would have felt.
Timeout, again. It is hard not to think about our internet presence when watching the episode. If our social media profiles could be made into a version of us, how accurate would it be? We often memorialize social media pages of people who died and we interact by posting on their page, sharing messages and comments both public and private. If Martha’s situation were real, which tragically it is for some, we can easily imagine a therapist encouraging her to write a letter to Ash about the pregnancy, sharing the things she needed to share. These things all seem reasonable, which begs the question, where is the line?
And as crazy as the idea of a robot version of our loved ones may seem on the surface, it doesn’t seem a far leap from the “reborn dolls” phenomenon. If you don’t know about these little guys, they are perfectly lifelike dolls that sell for hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. There is an ever-increasing market for these dolls from grieving mothers, making it hard not to wonder: If technology continues to develop, why would this not progress to full-on robots? Don’t know about reborn dolls? Don’t worry, your can check out an article about them here. Intrigued? You can check out a 28 minute documentary about the phenomenon here.
Okay, back to Black Mirror. As the show moves on, Martha becomes more and more frustrated that “Ash” is not Ash. What filled a void on the surface doesn’t have the depth to truly fill the void of her loss. “Ash” is not Ash, he will never be Ash. The end is worth a watch, so I won’t spoil it here (but, if you’re desperate to know and don’t want to watch, luckily Wikipedia comes through again with a full episode synopsis). There is something creepy and painful and disturbing about the ending, but it fits. Because, let’s be honest, it is a creepy and painful and disturbing idea that doesn’t feel quite as far off as we want it to be. It only seems appropriate we should be left feeling a bit unsettled.
This episode of Black Mirror could be written off as totally crazy until we remember that grief can be totally crazy. It makes us do crazy things, things we could never imagine. Technology is both amazing and frightening and this episode takes all of those realities and smashes them into one story. People take advantage of grievers all too often, preying on their pain and hurt. If the technology was there, it doesn’t seem impossible that someone would try to tap that market. Especially now that Black Mirror has planted the idea!
So, no lesson learned today. No coping skills or journal prompts. Just a really weird, grief-y show that got me thinking more than I expected. Thanks Black Mirror.
Hoping I am not the only one who has watched Black Mirror. Leave a comment and let us know what you thought!