Stranger Things Season 2 Review

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Following up on my YouTube review, it’s time to share a more in depth review of Stranger Things‘s second season.

Season 2 picks up almost a year after the first. The lab and the upside down are still active. The gang (almost called them the Losers Club) are moving on in the absence of Eleven, although Mike is still struggling with the concept. Will is still haunted by visions of the Upside Down and it soon becomes clear that his visions aren’t all in his head. Meanwhile, Eleven has returned but is confined to one of Hopper’s cabins, for her own safety.

As with season one, the performances are one of the show’s most consistent and powerful redeeming qualities. Winona Ryder and our new Hellboy, David Harbour, return stronger than ever but the kids (or teenagers) continue to shine here. Millie Bobby Brown deservedly gets a lot of attention for her role as Eleven in season 1. Although her lines were limited she was still able to convey great emotion.

In season 2, Hopper has been teaching Eleven more english so the character gets to be more verbally expressive. We still have the facial expressions and other cues from season 1 combined with a character arc that sees Eleven acting on her desire to be free. She has gone from a system with no freedom (the lab), to more freedom with friends, and now she must try to adjust to Hopper as a parental figure who is trying to protect her from men who still want to find her. The relationship between Hopper and Eleven is actually one of my favourite parts of this season and their fight in episode four is one of my favourite moments. It is a conflict where you can empathize with both characters. Eleven understands why she must be kept hidden but after almost a year she is wondering when she will finally be free, and vague declarations of “soon” start to wear thin. Meanwhile, Hopper realizes the danger she places them in by leaving the cabin. His attempts to discipline her are met with pushback that makes you realize how dangerous Eleven could be without a conscience.

 

Despite my love for Eleven, Noah Schapp steals the show here as Will. Although the first season revolved around Will’s disappearance, Will had few lines and relatively little screen time. Here, Will is truly part of the group. For lack of a better term, Will is possessed and his conflict with the monster inside him is a lynchpin of the plot but also allows him to shine. I don’t think people are exaggerating when they say he deserves an Emmy nomination.

Let’s move on to some of the show’s weaker points.

Episode seven, which focuses on Eight and her gang, gets a lot of hate and I can understand why. The episode comes after a cliffhanger in the previous episode, serving as a full 40 minute cutaway that takes us away from Hawkins and the approaching demo-dogs. Due to its timing, the episode can almost come across as filler. Filler is exactly what made me stop watching The Walking Dead. 

I don’t consider episode seven filler, but I must say that it would likely have been better received if Eight was mentioned or referenced a few more times before episodes six and seven. We see Eight in episode one and then she is pretty much MIA until episode seven. I liked the episode itself since it offered a great view of what Eleven could have become. Eight never found the same type of friends and family Eleven did. Eight found other outcasts who stay on the fringes of society, sticking to a limited circle either out of choice or necessity. Eight is guided purely by vengeance, while Eleven’s search was about finding family and getting closure.

Aside from the lesson of the episode I found the episode itself entertaining. I will say that Eight’s gang wasn’t as interesting as Eleven’s. Of course I could be biased since we don’t get as much time with them, but even for an episode the characterization seemed paper thin e.g. the big one, the crazy one etc.

I remember watching season 1’s sensory deprivation scene and thinking that Barb’s death was somewhat glossed over, “gone”. It was great to see the impact her death continues to have on Nancy and Barb’s parents. Barb’s death also provides the plot lynchpin for the group to attack the lab publicly, without having to mention the upside down or anything else that might make them look insane.

For the people who hated that Nancy and Steve stayed together at the end of season one, your prayers were answered this season. I was actually happy that Nancy and Steve were still together at the start of this season. It would have been far too cliched for Nancy to switch that quickly from the jock to the quiet, nerdy guy the jock picked on. Steve was a tool at times in season 1 but he proved himself to be a good person by the end of it. Season 2 gives Steve more heartbreak but also lets his character develop more. Like Will, he is one of the biggest benefactors of this season.

An even weaker point of this season?

Now, the Duffer Bros. said they wanted to introduce a new human villain who wasn’t connected to the lab. Okay, but I think this kind of conflict works best if it also drives the plot forward. For example, perhaps Eleven could have come across someone who begins to threaten her anonymity. Max and Billy’s actors are competent enough, but their impact on the plot is miniscule. The love triangle that started early on in the season between Max, Dustin and Lucas fizzled out pretty early. Billy’s conflict with Steve culminates in the fight at the house, and the ultimate outcome of that fight is that Steve is forced to escort the kids into the tunnels. Steve could have been forced into this some other way. Originally I thought that Max and Billy may be Soviet spies, since Cold War conflict was hinted at throughout the season. If season 3 offers no further revelations about their characters then it seems like their characters were truly random editions.

Their screen time also detracts from more screen time for other characters. Lucas was defined by his relationship with Max this season and it would have been nice to see more of the group together helping Will.

The climax wasn’t boring but I would actually argue that it wasn’t the season’s most exciting point. No main characters died throughout the show’s run so it was clear that Sean Astin’s Bob would likely be a red shirt. Sorry superhero.

Thankfully, Barb’s death was enough to get the lab shut down.

Although Joyce Byers has her boys back, looks like she still needs some luck with men.

Watching Hopper mow down demo-dogs was pretty awesome and Eleven’s brief moment of “flying” made me wonder if she’ll go full Neo in season 3.

We’ll see I guess.

While Max and Billy are proof that more is not always better, season 2 delivers for the most part. It builds on threads from the previous season, develops characters more, answers more questions, raises more questions, and offers more thrills.

1922

It’s a good year for the King. The Dark Tower wasn’t an auspicious start but IT and Gerald’s Game have provided better follow ups. 1922, released on October 20th, also provides a strong follow up that also has a stronger ending than Gerald’s Game.

Based on Stephen King’s 2010 novella, published in “Full Dark, No Stars, 1922 follows Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) and his plot to kill his wife so that she will be unable to sell neighbouring farmland she has inherited. Arlette James (Molly Parker) wishes to sell her 100 inherited acres and move the family to Omaha. Since James wishes to stay in Hemingford Home he manipulates his son, Henry (Dylan Schmid) into helping him Arlette. The death happens pretty early on in the film, and the rest of the film focuses on James’s eventual retribution. We watch him lose the other people who are close to him, one way or another, and slowy descend into insanity.

Wilfred is played with a pretty thick accent, which took some getting used to. However, I was immersed in Jane’s performance quickly, watching him disappear into the role. Jane is also supported well by Parker and Schmid, which these characters have the vast majority of the screentime for the film’s first half hour. Most of the film takes place on the James’s farm, adding to the feeling of isolation and claustrophobia that Arlette feels living in Hemingford Home.

The conflict between James and Arlette is introduced quickly, and another element that comes somewhat quickly is James’s manipulation of Henry. Editing makes the manipulation appear faster, but we get to see James building to it slowly. By this point in the story it is already clear that Henry has a stronger bond with his father than his mother. Wilfred first tells Henry that his mom has to leave their home and return to hers in order for them to stay together. Arlette becomes the figure trying to tear the family apart and we slowly see Henry drifting further away from her, until James is able to convince him there is no other way.

The murder scene itself is simple, but also gruesome. The director holds back on music during the scene, letting us focus on the sound of Molly’s screams instead. One of my biggest gripes with horror movies is that they sometimes rely on music or lack thereof too much, with the music becoming a giveaway for a jump scare or some other scene that is meant to scare us. There are times when the music in the background comes across as outright distracting but the murder scene and most of them are handled well. 1922 is more of a thriller than a horror movie, but it does have some creepy imagery that lingers in my mind. Like Gerald’s Game or It Comes at Night, if you don’t expect a monster movie, you will likely enjoy it.

One Arlette is removed from the story, its focus shifts to Henry and Wilfred, who are now united by the sin they’ve taken part in. This section of the film is actually my favourite, since Schmid is deftly able to play a character whose inner conflict starts to drive him further away from his family. The film is a tale about retribution and Wilfred receives his in spades. Unlike Gerald’s Game, 1922 also has a strong ending that complements everything that came before it.

Gerald’s Game

I watched Gerald’s Game about two weeks and uploaded a small review to my Instagram account, @moviegrapevine. However, I feel like this film deserves a proper review.

Gerald’s Game is based on Stephen King’s 1992 novel of the same name, following Gerald and Jessie Burlingame, a couple who retreat to a cabin in the hopes of reinvigorating their sex life. Although Jessie is initially open to bondage, she becomes uncomfortable when Gerald begins enacting a rape fantasy. After an argument Gerald suffers a heart attack, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed.

I was intrigued when I heard about the film at work and Stephen King’s name made seeing this film a priority (Sorry Hemlock Grove). Stephen King adaptations can definitely go wrong but I was interested to see what King’s writing could bring to the concept.

Firstly, the director sets the stage well. Jessie’s thoughts are personified by a stronger, more assertive version of herself and the more cynical side represented by Gerald. The majority of the film takes place in the bedroom, with Jessie either alone or talking to the other versions of herself. From what I have read about the book, this film differs in the number of voices in Jessie’s head and the figures that she sees.

I have to give Gerald’s Game credit for being the first film in a while to force me to look away from the screen. One particularly gruesome is likely to stick with you, but Gerald’s Game has more to offer.

Gugino and Greenwood’s performances anchor the film, and truly help to breathe live into the script. As a side note, I hope I am as ripped as Bruce Greenwood when I’m 61.

Jessie’s voices also bring another element of intrigue and conflict, breaking down all the misogyny and unhappiness that Jessie tried to ignore in her marriage. These voices bring up repressed memories going all the way back to Jessie’s childhood, unearthing a traumatic event that led her to being handcuffed to a bed by a husband with rape fantasies. Although one character is the focus of the film, we learn a lot more about Gerald and Jessie as the film progresses.

I have heard some people complain that the film was boring but I honestly think this may be a case of different expectations, similar to It Comes At Night. If you expected a monster film instead of a survival one, It Comes at Night could definitely be considered boring. Gerald’s Game is not an action-packed horror film, it is a tense thriller about survival. If you expect anything different, then this film will be boring.

One of my biggest, and only criticisms comes from one element of the plot introduced later in the film. As Jessie becomes dehydrated her mind starts playing tricks on her, and we are introduced to a more supernatural element of the story. I didn’t have a problem with this element itself, since Gerald previously warned Jessie that she might see nightmarish visions before she died. It is the end of this arc that left me unsatisfied. The last ten minutes of the film as a whole are the weakest part, a small stain on an otherwise perfect canvas.

Regardless, Gerald’s Game is a Netflix gem and this review will likely be followed by a review of another King adaptation, 1922.

Binge Missions

As I start my weekend I was sitting in front of my tv, with Netflix up, wondering what show to watch. In a way, I felt like Don Jon: so many choices making it hard or near impossible to pick something.

Pictured above: Me, but with clothes, I guess.

I have been meaning to finish season seven of Suits for months now, along with season five of Bates Motel. Then I got sidetracked by season (or series) 3 of Luther, which I finished watching this week. Now the question is do I move onto four or try to find more time for all the other shows I have already started, such as season 2 of Attack on Titan.

Not to mention the ones I have been meaning to start for a while now, such as Rick and Morty, because all my friends talk about it. Or Hemlock Grove because of Bill Skarsgard, who nailed his role as Pennywise the Clown in It. 

Let’s not forget all the movies I want to watch as well. My appetite for horror has increased after It and I now want to see Sinister and The Strangers.

All of these shows and movies only scratch the surface. I accept that this is a first world problem at it’s finest. I also accept that I simply can’t, or shouldn’t, make enough time to see all of them.

The Punisher

Daredevil’s second season was met with a more mixed reception than the first. There was criticism levied at the plot, which brought in more of the mystical elements from the comics, in contrast to a first season that was more realistic (realistic is relative with comic book adaptations). I personally detested the love story between Karen and Matt, which there was absolutely no indication of in the first season. One thing that many people loved, and probably wanted more of, was The Punisher.

The anti-hero featured heavily in the marketing and Jon Bernthal nailed his performance, before becoming more scarce in the latter half of the season. With the success (ratings wise) of DD season 2 and the reception for The Punisher it was obvious that he would likely get his own spinoff.

Today we got our first trailer for the show, a short but sweet teaser of what is to come. In short, I can’t wait for this show to come out and I am somewhat annoyed that Netflix has yet to reveal the exact release date. Fortunately, there isn’t that much time left in 2017 so it is coming out sooner, rather than later.

Firstly, this trailer doesn’t give away too much of the plot. DD season 2 introduced us to the conspiracy that Frank is a part of, a plan by government agencies to kill him so that certain secrets remain buried. As much as I am looking forward to Frank taking on the government, like some of the arcs in Punisher Max, I have to say this conspiracy is the one part of the Netflix punisher mythos I didn’t like. In the series, District Attorney Reyes admits that they were conducting a sting on a gang meeting in Central Park. Reyes chose not to clear the area in order to avoid tipping off criminals and this ultimately impacted Castle when the gangs caught on to the ruse.

The comics I’ve read so far that detail Frank’s origin, from Year One to the Max series (2004 and 2010), depict his family’s death as a simple issue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His family stumbles across a mob hit and the mob decides to eliminate witnesses. This sense of randomness and chaos is what made his family’s death so tragic. I think Frank’s vendetta against criminals as a whole makes more sense if he lost his family to something much more senseless than a sting gone wrong. However, Frank’s battles against other government agencies (from the looks of this trailer) could lead to some interesting overlap from the Punisher Max (2004) comics, which are gems for Punisher comics and comics as a whole.

With that said, the costume is actually my only other negative on display in this trailer. It doesn’t look terrible, and still gets the skull right, but I feel like the suit would look better with a different design for the vest itself. However, this is a relatively minor complaint since the show will hopefully have more to offer than a great wardrobe.

While Kevin Feige says the MCU films will never be dark, the Netflix shows have been a different story. The Punisher looks to continue that trend with the brutal headshots crammed into the two minutes of footage. I found some of the hand-to-hand fight scenes lacking in Iron Fist and Defenders, even for the characters who are supposed to be skilled martial artists. The choreography was weak and I’m hoping Frank’s style of combat will lend itself to some entertaining shootouts and some hand-to-hand fights as well. He is not as skilled a fighter as Daredevil but his fists are still deadly.

This trailer shows us a glimpse of Karen Page, who I feel has way more chemistry with Frank than she has with Daredevil.

Some of the most interesting subplots in the Punisher Max (2004) series was how the police reacted to Frank’s Killings. It is implied local police implicitly supported his actions, by never making serious moves to bring him in. Although they detested what he did on principle, they knew he was an unmatched deterrent against crime. The last scenes in the trailer, focusing on a group of detectives, makes me wonder if this series will also explore Frank’s actions from the other side.

Overall, this series is my most anticipated for the rest of the year and I have high hopes that it will deliver and possibly surpass Daredevil Season 1 as my favourite Marvel Netflix show.

Ozark Review

Anyone who’s on Netflix regularly knows that the site has pretty aggressive advertising for its newest series. Maybe you’ll just get the banner on the top of the site when you log in, or maybe you get a trailer up there too. Point being, that is how I was introduced to Ozark. I didn’t see any of the trailers prior to logging in to finally finish House of Cards but Jason Bateman’s more serious turn and a plot involving money laundering was enough to make me interested.

Firstly, the show draws a lot of comparisons to Breaking Bad. In reality, there aren’t that any similarities but people don’t need perfect comparisons to throw their own out. In Breaking Bad, a high school chemistry teacher (Walter White) is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and starts manufacturing crystal meth in order to make enough money to leave behind for his family.

Ozark follows Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), a financial advisor and money launderer, who runs afoul of a Mexican cartel after his partner steals from them. Marty is able to convince the cartel boss, Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales) that he can launder the money to repay his debt. Without further ado, Marty moves his family to the cash-rich, tourist-rich area of Ozark, Missouri.

While Walter White started out as a moral man who initially engaged in crime out of economic desperation, Marty Byrde is a man whose greed and arrogance led him to believe he could engage in money laundering without any blowback.  As Bateman says, “Marty is not as smart as he thinks he is.” Marty doesn’t become more assertive as the season progresses, he is quickly established as an intelligent, if somewhat quiet person, who becomes a fast-talker when he needs to work himself out of a situation. His involvement in crime doesn’t change who he is.

Of course, there are some similarities but I believe that anyone who gives the show a chance will see there is plenty to differentiate it as well.

One great similarity is that the performances are outstanding. Bateman truly excels in the first non-comedic role I have seen him in. Of course, I was familiar with his relatively serious roles in comedies but here we see a stylistically unrecognizable Bateman who commands every scene. Bateman is also assisted well by Laura Linney (Wendy Byrde) and Skylar Gaertner (Jonah Byrde). Esai Morales is also a truly terrifying villain who owes a lot to the writing. His threat is established quickly and the actor is still able to exude charm and charisma that belies the acts of savagery he is capable of carrying out. Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery also have a memorable turn as the Snells, an Ozark crime family that Marty meet soon after the move. The list goes on and without spoiling too much of the plot, I will say that the story doesn’t have a slow start and genuinely didn’t have any moments that felt like they dragged. Even parts that I initially thought were unnecessary subplots all wound together well at the end. With maybe one exception.

Before I even finished watching the series, I had to vent about Charlotte Byrde, the worst character on the show. The character isn’t bad because she isn’t a good person. Very few of the main characters are truly good people. I was worried that as usual, the youngest character, would be the most annoying. Instead 13- year-old Jonah is played masterfully by Gaertner, best known as young Matt Murdock from Daredevil. His character development is also treated with a sensitivity that Charlotte does not get.

15-year-old Charlotte is small screen cancer. She is a stock character, the bratty teen who rebels and treats her family like garbage a lot of the time just because that is what older teenagers are supposed to do. Obviously a character may be upset that they have to leave their home, their friends etc. but Charlotte takes this to a whole other level. Minor spoiler, at one point she nearly boards a bus back to Chicago, without her parent’s knowledge. What stops her? Her mom finding out. It becomes hard to care for a character who repeatedly puts herself in dangerous situations and doesn’t seem to learn from her mistakes.  I can’t blame the actress too much since she does alright with what she’s given, but she is still the weakest out of the lot. Her character single-handedly brings the whole show down.

The only other complaint I truly have is that the death of a certain character came across as anti-climactic and an unfitting end. Aside from that, I can genuinely say that Ozark was engaging and well-written throughout.

Ozark and Charlotte Byrde

After finishing The Defenders I planned to set my sights on wrapping up Game of Thrones and finally finishing season 5 of Bates Motel. However, I was confronted by the same issues that led to me preferring to view shows readily available on Netflix. Friends I have spoken to have assured me that I am not alone in having trouble with Kodi. Either streams don’t load at all or they buffer like it’s going out of style. Sometimes I feel like I might as well be watching a slide show instead of a tv show.

Netflix however, loads just fine. A friend recommended Ozark and I am glad I took her suggestion. The series follows Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) as a financial planner who is forced to move his family to the Ozarks in Missouri after his partner attempts to launder money from a Mexican drug lord. Bryde must now launder or “clean” $8 million for the drug lord by the end of summer or face death.  I am only halfway through the series at the moment and it looks like I made a good decision. I saw the ads for the show pop up whenever I opened Netflix, and was intrigued to see Bateman in a serious role. I know he’s done serious roles before but until now, I’ve only seen him play the serious character or “straight man” in comedies.  Bateman’s performance is the best thing about the series so far. I could almost say that the writing and acting as a whole is great, but then we have Charlotte.

I will discuss my distaste for this character more in the review next week, but I have to vent about this brat. I can’t blame the actress since she is pretty good at portraying what the script asks of her. My issue is with the character itself. Charlotte is just the typical attitude-laden teen we see far too often in family comedies or dramas. She constantly insults her brother, her parents and even started calling them by their first names at one point because she was upset with them. In a show that offers inventive storytelling in so many other areas, it stands out more when we pretty much get a stock character taking up a decent chunk of screen time.

I’ll reserve more judgment until I finish the series, but I hope I’m not alone with how I feel here.

Black Mirror: Men Against Fire

Note: I was out of the country for the past week, with limited wi-fi. I am back in Canada now but my schedule will still be busier than normal, likely until the end of August. With that said, I will still do my best to post three times a week.

Also, this piece has spoilers for “Men Against Fire”.

When I started watching “Men Against Fire” I thought it would end up on the bottom half of Black Mirror. The acting was some of the weakest the show’s given us in a while and I initially didn’t find the characters or the world as enthralling as the ones in preceding episodes. Initially, the story was about marines with hi-tech equipment killing zombies. Don’t get me wrong, I love sci-fi and zombie stories but the plot was a sharp contrast to the previous episodes. However, I figured that if I can watch an episode about a man being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, I can give this episode a chance.

The end of some episodes were disappointing, such as “Playtest”, which was dulled by numerous fake-outs throughout the episode. Other preceding episodes also have great ending, especially “White Christmas” and “Shut Up and Dance”. However, those endings were paired with episodes that I found enthralling and entertaining from start to finish. The endings were brilliant, but they only helped to immortalize amazing episodes. “Men Against Fire” might rank as my favourite ending (last 20 minutes) simply due to its ability to elevate what came before it.

“Roaches”, the pale, humanoid monsters that the soldiers eliminate turn out to be humans. Their MASS implants limit their sense of smell and hearing, drowning out the smells and sounds of war. Michael Kelly is a stand out on House of Cards as Doug Stamper, and is also a stand out here as Arquette, the psychologist who shares the twisted truth with “Stripe”. As always with Black Mirror the technology itself isn’t the most interesting part of the story; the most interesting part is the human behaviour it highlights.

Arquette uses the statistic that only 15-20% of men fired their rifles at the enemy in World War II, even when under the threat of immediate danger. Although this statistic is hotly debated, a comment on this page did add that most deaths in the world wars came from artillery fire: long-range, impersonal attacks that avoided the Rambo-esque hacking and shooting of close quarters combat.  Scholarly books such as Denis Winter’s Death Men also assert that most military deaths came from artillery fire, especially during advances.

“Men Against Fire” gets more interesting after a roach shines a laser into Stripe’s eyes. It was obvious that the laser must have some impact on the plot, when Stripe’s senses were affected after being exposed to it. When Hunter and Stripe raid an apartment building there is also a blueprint of the laser in the roach nest. Some online discussion shows that plenty of people say they saw the twist coming, and then also argue that the episode is poor because of that. I have to say that a predictable twist doesn’t have to bring down an episode if it is executed well. I thought I saw a twist coming, but I actually misinterpreted what it was.

Although the roaches appearance is terrifying, you realize that they didn’t initiate an attack in the first raid. Their first instinct is to run, and the sniper who kills squad leader Medina is an exception, probably because the soldiers are closing in on their refuge. The roaches weren’t depicted as the mindless predators we’re familiar with from zombie films. They seemed like mutants trying to live peacefully. The characters frequently mention a global war that passed, and I thought the roaches were the offspring of radiation from that war. For that reason, I thought the laser was a device that was meant to make them only appear normal to others, before they were mutated.  I had an inverse understanding of the twist until it was revealed. The roaches weren’t trying to make Stripe see them as they used to be, they wanted Stripe to see him as they are.

“You see me.”: The words of a refugee on the run from a genocidal society, relieved someone finally sees her as human. The military might be the ones killing the roaches, but the general public are brainwashed to see the roaches as literal monsters. Civilians don’t have MASS implants, the roaches are just other humans to them. However, they are humans that threaten the strength and purity of humanity’s bloodline. Arquette lists a range of defects present in the roaches, from higher susceptibility to diseases, to sexual deviancy and criminal tendencies. Arquette’s speech has all the cornerstones of eugenics and racism, and Trump’s comments on hispanics sadly mirror some of the ideas that criminality is ingrained in certain people.

In the aftermath of the war, one side went through great trouble to dehumanize the other. Cockroaches or “roaches” is what the Hutus called the Tutsis leading up to the Rwandan genocide, and even more recently used by a British politician to refer to refugees. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same term is used here. Dehumanization is a key part of genocide, birthed from propaganda that makes it easier for law-abiding civilians to engage in or support violence against the other. Civilians won’t even touch the food the roaches touched simply because they don’t want to get contaminated by a lesser breed.

“Men Against Fire” transitions from a war movie, to a piece that delves into the dark corner of the human psyche where prejudice reins supreme. As Stripe stands alone outside a dilapidated, graffiti-stained house, he sees a beautiful woman waiting to welcome him to their home. I couldn’t help but wonder, how many other soldiers in this army had their memories wiped after they found out the truth.

Black Mirror: White Christmas

Picking a favourite episode of Black Mirror is a challenge. “The Waldo Moment” and “The National Anthem” aren’t contenders but there are plenty others, ranging from “Shut Up and Dance”, “Be Right Back”, to “The Entire History of You”. Among this list is “White Christmas”, which after careful consideration, I will have to say edges out the competition.

Like my post on “The Entire History of You“, I don’t want to focus on the plot itself. Black Mirror‘s central thesis is that technology can have corrosive effects on how humans interact with one another and I want to focus on how that is displayed here.

Matt Trent (Jon Hamm) is undoubtedly a highlight of the episode, a character who is both charming and repulsive at the same time. The more vile aspects of his character emerge as his story unfolds. His past-life as a wannabe dating guru seems somewhat harmless at first. As a lanky film geek, I’d probably be an easy target for his services. However, it only takes a few seconds to realize that his real-time coaching is a grave invasion of privacy. Aside from the simple act of watching, Trent’s technology (referred to as the Z-Eye) also provides him with face recognition software he can use to research anyone his clients come in contact with, allowing him to feed any pertinent information to a party crasher. It gets only worse when we realize all of the members of his class share in their peers’ experiences, including any luck they get with unsuspecting women. The date that lands Trent in legal trouble also reminds me of the few I’ve had: promising starts with catastrophic endings.

It was great to see Oona Chaplin in another role, after seeing her for the first time in Taboo. She was undoubtedly a weak link on Taboo but does a better job here, portraying Greta, a wealthy woman about to undergo surgery. Prior to her surgery, a digital copy or “cookie” of Greta is created.

This cookie is intended to control Greta’s smart house, serving the rest of its “life” performing functions such as regulating heat and displaying Greta’s schedule. As expected the cookie is reluctant to spend its life this way, but Matt’s job is to make it compliant. By manipulating the time settings in the cookie’s digital world, he is able to make the cookie “live” for months at a time, stuck in a white room with nothing but a control panel. The room itself is only a projection within the cookie, but it is Greta’s prison now.

One of the characters, “Joe” remarks that this is slavery, but Trent believes it isn’t since the cookie isn’t a real being. I have to agree with Joe on this. Any sci-fi story that deals with the issue of consciousness, with Ex-Machina being a recent example, raises the question of what makes a being conscious and the morality of keeping a conscious being captive.

Is Greta’s cookie a conscious being? Matt doesn’t think so, because she’s just a string of code. However, if we analyze consciousness the way it is analyzed in Ex-Machina, then we understand that the components of a being don’t define its eligibility for consciousness. In Ex-Machina, Caleb argues that one of the central tests for consciousness is the “chess” question. A chess computer knows the game of chess and can make good plays, but can it describe what chess is? Does it even know what chess is? Simulation vs consciousness.

This cookie, from what we understand, is mentally no different than the person it was spawned from. We see it panicking as it is extracted from Greta and Matt has to explain the nature of its creation and its assigned purpose. Essentially, a copy of Greta’s mind was grafted and planted into a different environment. Until Matt explained what she was, she thought she was a conscious human being. She may be just code, but consciousness isn’t about matter, it’s about thought.

Although the cookie is the most advanced technology we see in the episode, it is actually not what interests me most. We are probably all familiar with ghosting, the act of ending a relationship with someone by cutting off all communication without explanation. Ghosting is usually discussed in the context of romantic relationships, but can apply to anyone. Someone decides to end the relationship, but decides that they want to avoid the difficult decision, call or text required for that. Instead, they simply cut off the other person. Ghosting preceded technology such as phones and computers, and some may see it is just a new name for something old. However, I believe technology makes it easier to become disconnected from other people. We don’t have to move or  shred letters, we can unfollow, delete or block with a click. Ghosting is convenient for people who have become accustomed to hiding behind screens when they interact. It is spineless and immature, and technology only makes it easier.

When “Joe” confronts his wife about her pregnancy, she is quick to block him. She doesn’t do this on her phone or some app, she blocks his entire body using the technology her world has to offer. She sees nothing but a grey silhouette where he stands and can only hear muffled static when he speaks. When Matt’s wife is confronted with the truth of his actions, she elects to do the same thing. The people who would have previously gone for a walk or tried to avoid their spouse, instead of contronting an issue, can now feel free to block someone’s entire body. The current level of cowardice that we see doesn’t prove effective if you’re likely to see someone again at work, school etc. With the capability to block someone as we see in “White Christmas”, the ghosted may be able to see you but they can’t interact with you. When Joe confronts his wife, after she blocks him, she only walks away and then proceeds to file a restraining order. Blocking becomes legally binding and the argument that you simply wanted to be able to confront someone directly doesn’t protect you. The authorities take the side of someone who decided to block her husband because he insisted on discussing their baby with her.

I have no doubt that authorities would defend this behaviour. Ghosting is already on the rise. Find any article online that discusses it, and allows comments. You will find plenty of people criticizing the practice, but you will also find many supporting it for one reason or another. All of the positive reasons boil down to “It’s easier for me (or both of us)”. Article after article will tell you that people who get ghosted may be able to deal with a relationship ending, but hate the way that their partner decided to do it. Blocking takes ghosting to an almost sadistic level.

Speaking of sadism, “White Christmas” gives us another twisted ending. Once Joe confesses that he murdered his ex-wife’s father, the authorities decide to tamper with the time settings. Each minute becomes 1000 years to Joe’s cookie, leaving him trapped in a projection of the cabin where he committed murder. We’re already living in a society where policemen have killed civilians for a thrill, I can definitely believe law enforcement officials would take a little glee in messing with someone they view as a lowly criminal. Even better, I can believe they would punish a sex offender with not being able to interact with anyone for the rest of his life.

Black Mirror: The Entire History of You

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Black Mirror Season 1. This piece will not include full plot summaries of episodes. It is intended for those who have already seen them.

I completed watching Black Mirror two nights ago and can safely add it to the my list of favourite shows. The series is an anthology with twelve episodes, each focusing on the consequences of technology on society. With each story, the main character is challenged by a development borne from technology that is either common in their world, or is experimental. In most cases, the challenge does not truly come from the technology itself. The challenge comes from people’s misuse or exploitation of it.

Although I enjoyed most of the episodes, with “The Waldo Moment” being an outlier, I didn’t want to write about every one. The episodes that I found most interesting were the ones set in worlds the most similar to our own, e.g unlike “Fifteen Million Merits”.

With that said, I wished to discuss “The Entire History of You” first. The episode follows lawyer Liam Foxwell (Toby Kebbell), who suspects that his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) is having an affair. Liam investigates his wife using the commonplace “grain”, an implanted chip that records everything its users see and hear, and makes it available for replay and display.

Many devices we have now allow us to do this, but of course they are not embedded in our bodies. The grain is used to screen passengers at airports, and it also appears that 9/11 operators rely on it to authenticate calls, as evidenced when an operator hangs up on one of the characters because she doesn’t have a grain.

The aspect of the grain that I found most interesting was how people use it while they perform certain tasks. In particular, we see Liam and Ffion having sex, while using their grains to replay memories of steamier times.

While their bodies move in a half-hearted attempt at intercourse, they both use their grains to replay sex that was probably from the honeymoon phase of the marriage. There may be many people who feel sexually unsatisfied with a partner, and the grain allows them to disconnect and relive those memories, even while they are with their partner. Like our present time, technology removes the intimacy from our encounters. I personally know people who confess that they need visual stimulation, like pornography, to get aroused for sex with a partner. Ffion’s ex-boyfriend, Jonas, openly admits to using the grain to replay or “redo” past sexual experiences so that he can masturbate to them. In a sense, past sexual experiences become the new pornography.

Don’t we all know people who spend half the time at a concert recording it instead of actually experiencing it? Or someone who can’t put their phone down for a few minutes for a conversation?I am not a luddite, but I can’t help but notice that, for some people, the visual proof of an experience becomes more important than the experience itself. We increasingly lose the ability to simply enjoy a moment.With the grain, your Instagram obsessed friend can now interrupt a conversation and use any tv screen in the room to broadcast their latest workout.

The grain also leads to more obsession with the past. Liam’s initial obsession is an appraisal at work, where he redos the moment repeatedly, analyzing the appraisers’ facial expressions and the movements of their hands to judge what they are writing down. His obsession then moves to his wife’s behaviour around her ex-boyfriend, Jonas. Liam scrutinizes and redos the way she looks at Jonas in contrast to him, the way she laughs at Jonas’s terrible jokes etc. When Ffion admits she dated Jonas only for a few months, Liam is able to search his memory archives and find Ffion saying she only dated him for a week.

We find out Liam’s suspicions were warranted. It is implied he has been suspicious for some time, and his suspicions could have led him to analyze his wife’s behaviour more, instead of suspicions arising simply due to the abilities the grain provides. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone could be led to paranoia if they were to overanalyze and replay certain parts of a conversation or encounter. People are already quick to judge their partner as a cheater or potential cheater if they go a certain length of time without responding to texts, if they seem distant one day etc. What happens if an insecure person is able to study every encounter with their partner, the same way Liam can?

“The Entire History of You” is both a story we have seen before, and one we haven’t. Infidelity plots are dime a dozen in entertainment, but Jesse Armstrong’s writing weaves in a science-fiction element to create something that is captivating, heartbreaking and maybe even relatable.

When I was looking up the episode to verify the writer’s name, I came across this review that said this episode is one of the weaker ones because the technology “wasn’t so crucial to the trajectory of the story”. I can enjoy the more technologically focused episodes like “Be Right Back” or  “Men Against Fire”, but I can still appreciate this episode. Sometimes, the best science-fiction stories are ones that only use technology as a backdrop to analyze our tendencies and behaviour. I can enjoy a story about a killer robot being sent back in time but it is also a treat to watch a story that simply asks “How would this development change how people interact with one another?”