Black Mirror is one of those shows that I can only do in small doses. I think that’s a testament to the sheer level of moral complexity contained within the themes and performances, but nonetheless, that show makes me need some time to quietly reflect and disconnect from technology. One such episode that gave me pause was “White Christmas,” the story of smooth-talking Matt (John Hamm) and quiet Joe (Rafe Spall), two men in a quiet outpost on Christmas Day sharing their pasts. The series entry brings up incredible points concerning the nature of crime and punishment, as well as consciousness, consent and slavery. But really, for me, the most damning issue is that of the ability to block and isolate someone, with all the pros and cons associated with it.
To recap: Matt, as part of an online group that voyeuristically shares sexual encounters, witnesses the murder of a client and cuts a plea deal to keep him out of prison for his role in the murder. He does this by sharing space with a digital copy of Joe, manipulating a murder confession out of him until he’s trapped in a torturous loop for an infinite time. Joe – who had been blocked by an ex-girlfriend after disagreements on how to address an unplanned pregnancy – finally has the block from his ex-girlfriend removed when she dies, and sees for the first time that the child he believed to be his is not; Joe kills her grandfather in his bewildered emotional state on Christmas Day, leaving the little girl to wander in the snow until she died of exposure. While Matt’s actions in obtaining the confession keep him out of jail, he’s blocked in bright red, with no interaction from anyone as he’s labeled a sexual offender.
Where we need to start unpacking this comes from the notions of honesty and communication, as well as viewing each action outside of absolutes. In theory, everyone in this scenario could have benefited from honesty. Matt’s dishonest act is illegal: his sharing of sexual encounters in real time violates notions of consent, which rightfully earns him the scorn of his wife and legal repercussions. He’s far more cut-and-dry, in part because Hamm plays Matt as a slick, slimy individual that violates the law and a personality/work ethic that endorses consciousness slavery and exploitation. Joe, though, is where we enter the gray area. Joe is overjoyed at discovering the pregnancy of Beth (Janet Montgomery), though Beth explains that she doesn’t want the pregnancy. This is murky water for any couple experiencing an unplanned pregnancy (we’re saving that debate for another day), but the issue we later find out stems more so from Beth’s desire to hide an affair than it does with not wanting to have a child. The problem here in this scenario comes from the fact that she doesn’t share this information with Joe – rather than have the tough conversation that there’s a good chance her baby will pop out Asian, she tells him she wants an abortion and blocks him when he loses his shit and starts yelling at her. The audience can easily sympathize with Joe because in that moment, we see a man who desperately wants to become a father; our hearts ache for him, and we can understand his extreme reaction, despite that his tendency to throw things maybe a bit of red flag that repeats itself later on in the episode (see the murder by snow globe of Beth’s father and the constant smashing of the radio, not to mention the stalker tendencies). That’s right: Joe throws things multiple times over the course of the episode, making you wonder if there wasn’t something behind Beth wanting to leave him without having to explain an affair. See what I mean when I say that this is a gray area? Are Joe’s reactions a symptom of a larger personality/abusive relationship problem, or is this someone who gets a really raw deal that merits those reactions?
Again, the issue here is lack of honesty and the punishment it can carry. If Matt had told his wife that he really loved to watch people have sex and help others do the same, he could have found a legal balance and marital arrangement with his wife that could have worked without having to lose access to her, his children and society at large; he didn’t have to commit a crime to get off sexually. As for Joe, if someone had just written him a fucking letter saying the kid wasn’t his, he could have moved on. What happens with the blocking of both men is a form of revenge by isolation: Matt ultimately can’t interact with anyone because he’s branded as a pervert (the audience is on board with this one much more easily), and Joe isn’t allowed to know a thing about a child he assumes is his because his girlfriend was dishonest and didn’t like the argument that was unfolding (which is a sore point for any dad who’s had to fight tooth and nail for custody). And the thing is, we’ve all been guilty of using silence and isolation as punishment techniques at one point or another in our lives. We’ve all given someone the silent treatment. Some of us may block those who either anger us or threaten us, effectively telling them, “You don’t get access to me because you have behaved badly.” Some of us have withheld information as a way to cover for ourselves and/or hurt someone else. The threat of losing access to people functions to reinforce proper behavior: “Make me mad, and I will make you go away” is the message sent. As Hamm’s Matt sums up in his description of training a cookie, “See, the trick of it lays in breaking them without letting them snap completely.” The trick of human interaction then becomes functioning within the conditioning parameters in order to remain an active presence in someone’s life.
We’ve all had to block people in our digital lives – sometimes, we have very good reason for that, such as protecting our safety or limiting access to a toxic person. But this episode of Black Mirror gets us to think about the possibility of using it to hurt someone and bend them to our will – of using it as a punishment for any old infraction, with consequences that wreak havoc on the lives and psyches of individuals. The entire episode could have had a very different ending had people just been honest – but what would have been the fun in that?