Black Mirror: Be Right Back

Black Mirror: Be Right Back

The first series of Black Mirror absolutely blew my mind. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you go and watch it here. I wrote an article about the second episode ’15 Million Merits’, which takes a scornful look at the fame machine and programmes like ‘The X Factor’ that play on people’s talents and dreams of success.

Each of the three episodes are dystopian satires on the modern world, the tone of which may strike a chord if you’re familiar with Charlie Brooker’s droll and dark humour. Every episode begins with a loading bar and the series title ‘Black Mirror’ is partly from the Arcade Fire song, but also refers to the cold dark reflective surfaces of screens. I find it a bit ironic that I’m writing this article on my laptop. Here’s a cracking interview with Brooker and his team, talking about the making of the episode. 

I’m not going to lie, this episode did break my heart a little bit. It’s entitled “Be Right Back“, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the text-speak we use whilst social networking. This future world contains technology even more slim-line and accessible, and the story revolves around Ash and Martha, a young couple just moved into a country cottage. We get few glimpses into their relationship before Ash is killed in an accident whilst returning the moving van. Martha is completely grief-stricken and begins to shut out everyone who cares about her, including her older sister. At Ash’s funeral, a friend advises Martha to sign up to a service that compiles an abstract Artificial Intelligence of an individual. Basically think a much more polished version of ‘Siri’. I did actually have a moment the other week where Facebook suggested one of the people I may know was Samuel Pepys. Yes, the one who wrote on the Great Fire of London.
This friend used this AI as comfort after her own bereavement and it is one of many things Martha is bombarded with, including Amazon-esque book recommendations that are chillingly detached and reduce the woman’s loss to a mere service that others can profit from.

At first Martha refuses, adamant it is “obscene” and that the use of Ash’s name “hurts” her. Her friend describes the service as creating a virtual Ash through the public information he has on the internet, such as his Facebook updates. “The more it has, the more it’s him“, she encourages Martha, saying that the AI can be developed if Martha gives the system access to his personal emails. 

Isolated and grieving, Martha is finally tipped over the edge when she discovers she is pregnant. Desperate, she tentatively tries responding to emails from the AI. She plays out a bizarre pseudo-relationship with the AI, granting it access to the videos and phone calls  of her and Ash so it’s simulation of her dead lover is uncanny. She updates the AI about the pregnancy and speaks to it almost non-stop, having a public panic attack when she drops the phone and starts referring to the piece of technology as a sentient being. 

The AI informs Martha of the next level of the service which is still in its beta stage and very risky. It involves Martha purchasing a blank flesh base on which she can project physical characteristics. In a surreal ‘grow your own baby’ type exercise Martha creates a physical AI which is a clone of Ash, minus minor details like fingertips and facial hair. The AI calls it “texture-mapping” based on images of Ash, and thus the clone is Ash “on a good day” because we tend to keep photos that are most flattering.
Whilst the clone is better in bed, it clearly lacks any genuine autonomy and human flaws. Martha gives information to the clone to simulate Ash’s personality, and must teach it many things about human interaction but also about who Ash was, however the clone cannot be sincere, and acts on every command Martha gives it without genuine emotional engagement.

After increasing frustration with the clone and several arguments where it is unsure how to respond, Martha takes it to a cliff edge and orders it to jump off. Not understanding her, it is about to do so when Martha tries to make it understand the real Ash would have felt fear for his life and would not have done what she asked. The clone responds by mimicking this, pushing Martha’s rage to the limit.

We move on to a scene several years later, and see Martha and her daughter in the same cottage. The girl is allowed to visit the clone on the weekends, but as it is her birthday, she is allowed by her mother to go up the attic and offer some cake to the clone, who they appear to keep as a species of pet. The episode ends with Martha standing at the bottom of the ladder to the attic, staring vacantly into space, close to tears, before she is called back to this new compromise of a reality by the daughter.

I found this episode so engaging because the acting was sublime, convincingly heart-wrenching and realistic. The writing, as always, was superbly eerie but also achieved the same tenderness of the first series that keeps Black Mirror from falling purely into cynical satire. I would say the tone of this was akin to ‘The Entire History of You, which also follows a relationship breakdown through the power of technology and has the same bittersweet realisation that simulation is not enough.

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