Black Mirror: Black Museum (2017)
Written by Charlie Brooker
Directed by Colm McCarthy
A young woman named Nish makes a stop to charge her car while traversing the American Southwest. While waiting for her car to be ready, she enters a nearby tourist trap called The Black Museum. This establishment purports to contain artifacts related to criminal acts. The proprietor, one Rolo Haynes, begins to regale Nish with stories related to some of the crimes. All of these tales connect back to Rolo’s time a recruiter for experimental research at a hospital. There’s the doctor who was imbued with the ability to personally feel his patients’ pain, a comatose woman who was able to live inside the mind of her husband, and a man convicted of murder who sold his holographic consciousness to feed his family.
Black Museum is an incredibly meta episode of the series, an episode of an anthology series that is, in turn, an anthology. For keen-eyed observers, there are also nods to past episodes of Black Mirror in the artifacts. For those seeking a comparison, this sixth episode of the fourth season has the most in common with 2014’s holiday special “White Christmas” which found Jon Hamm at the center of intersecting stories of technology gone wrong. In both episodes, we have a central figure offering up technology as a solution before it becomes a nightmare. The “cookie,” which would house a person’s consciousness in digital form, that was shown to be an object of hellish terror returns in Black Museum, continuing to be the bane of humanity.
And this particular episode has some things to say about American society from Brooker’s perspective. The entire episode is making a comment on the state of medical care in our country, and final entry doesn’t shy away from looking at how desperate convicts are willing to sacrifice themselves for struggling families on the outside. What at first appears to be a slick revenge story, ends up being a much more significant commentary on what we are allowing in the name of efficiency and progress. The technology on display is miraculous. Penn Jillette is responsible for the short story that inspired the first part of Black Museum and finds a doctor able to personally experience the pain of his patients with the idea it will aid his diagnosis. Instead, the doctor’s ability to suffer another’s illness causes him to feel outside of his own body, unable to perceive sensation and, like the pursuit of drug addiction, he is after stronger highs. He goes from being a hyper-empathic person to becoming a sociopath. He is only after his own pleasure which becomes more and more twisted. This invention intended to alleviate pain causes even more.
We see a very similar occurrence in the second part as a comatose woman moves into her husband’s mind and has her body euthanized. Now that the two inhabit the same skin 24/7 the longing and love dissolve quickly. Another technological innovation meant to bring people together creates an artificial power dynamic and leaves one subservient to the other, eventually turned off entirely. This also rings of the toxic nostalgia from USS Callister, though this is much more personal and painful. I couldn’t help but remember the Terri Schiavo case where a husband sought euthanasia to relieve his wife but was hindered by politicians and activists who held dangerous views on consciousness and life. Sometimes we have to let people go so they can be at peace.
One person who is finding no peace is Clayton Leigh, trapped in hell much like Joe ended up in “White Christmas.” Once a person in our society is branded as a criminal, they seem to lose any sense of inherent dignity from the rest of the populace. This reveals a profoundly animalistic side of humanity as we all take pleasure in speaking about the convicted as if they are subhuman. Rolo Haynes feeds into the anti-human mindset and turns what remains of Leigh into a husk. While the ending of this episode is triumphant on the surface, it belies a darker future. The souvenir machine attached to Leigh’s display may have been forgotten by some viewers, but the futile implication of Nish’s gesture becomes clear when you ruminate on it.