At this point, four seasons in, we know what sort of person Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker is. A more illuminating question is what sort of person watches Black Mirror.
It sure ain’t as militantly joyless as The Walking Dead, but Brooker’s anthology series dabbles in a similar emotional sadism that punishes viewers for caring, sometimes seemingly for no other reason than the writer getting his jollies. I tut-tutted over the dead baby overkill in “Crocodile” and the whole of last season’s unsavory “Shut Up and Dance” for its sheer needlessness. Black Mirror is usually good about directing its depictions of suffering toward a worthy critical purpose, but the show plays like a sick joke when that underlying value isn’t there. All the same, a wide fan base tunes in year after year for a fresh round of despair. Viewers delight in all stripes of the sick and twisted on Black Mirror, and in this episode, Brooker does his darnedest to sort through his own counterintuitive appeal.
Before we can get there, though, we’ve got two flimsy mini-stories to work through. Brooker sets “Black Museum” up using the same blueprint from the notorious “White Christmas,” nesting three tales of the macabre in a single episode and even recycling the trick of expanding the frame story into the final segment. “Black Museum” offers up a storyteller every bit as unsettling as evil Yuletide Jon Hamm in Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), the proprietor of an unusual roadside attraction plopped in an obscure patch of desert. He doesn’t get a lot of visitors, and so when Nish (Letitia Wright) stops in to kill a couple hours while charging her car’s solar cells, she’s in for one special private tour.
Undoubtedly, Brooker’s most chilling move in this episode is positioning Black Mirror within the cockamamie “connected universe” trend. Rolo Haynes’s Black Museum collects artifacts and curios from technologically motivated crimes, including a handful of winking references that situate all Black Mirror episodes in a single narrative. (This is the only instance of the episode order really counting for anything; you ought to play this one last.) There’s no evident use in naming the fictitious hospital where Rolo got his start as Saint Juniper’s — a clear nod to “San Junipero” — other than rewarding viewers for remembering something they watched ten months ago. Brooker’s self-assessment goal could have been accomplished without pelting us with Easter eggs.
At any rate, a sweaty and visibly nervous Rolo launches into his usual spiel as he takes Nish through a few of his favorite exhibits, his odd manner an engine for suspense all on its own. The first section of this nightmarish triptych introduces a doctor named Dawson (Daniel Lapaine), who accepted a devil’s deal from Rolo years earlier: During his stint at an experimental medical-tech company, Rolo oversaw the unveiling of a gizmo that could transmit physical sensation from one body to another. (Perhaps readers will remember a similar phenomenon from Alexandre Dumas’s novella The Corsican Brothers, or from the Jimmy Neutron episode “Pain, Pain, Go Away.” Incidentally, you can tell the true content of a person’s character by which reference point they go to first.)
The gizmo makes Dawson peerlessly effective — for a while. By jacking into a patient’s discomfort, he can diagnose with far greater speed and specificity. But the effect works just as well on pleasure as it does on pain, and so eventually he does what we would all do if presented with the opportunity: He uses it to have sex with himself. When his girlfriend hooks up to the receptor, Dawson enjoys a mighty double orgasm, which seems like a pretty good deal until an emergency-room glitch swaps the good with the bad and vice versa. From there, the rest of story plays out as surely as a spiral into madness waits at the end of a Russian tragedy: addiction to the arousal he gets through the pain of others, professional and moral dissolution just to get another fix, rock bottom, etc., etc.
The second story violates the same Yeah, No Shit Rule that felled “Arkangel,” and likewise asks too much of its audience’s suspension of disbelief. The dumbest man in history agrees to a procedure which transfers his vegetative wife’s consciousness into his mind, where she’s left to wait out eternity bored and jealous. Having to spend the rest of your life sharing an internal monologue with another person sounds like a cruel and unusual torment, and that cranial roommate being a partner who never stops getting mad at you pushes this right into the Malebolge. Nobody in their right mind would ever consent to such a thing, which makes the next part even more difficult to swallow.
Turns out our girl Nish has elected to undergo the very same process, and despite the fact that her late mother has apparently spent the last few years whispering in her mind’s ear to kill, she’s taking it pretty well. Nish came to the Black Museum on a mission, specifically to take revenge on the bastard who turned her father into a hologram — after he was executed for a crime he didn’t commit, no less — then sold tickets to the amoral freaks who got off on torturing this simulated self. Of course Rolo ends up the victim of his own vicious game, the same fate that befalls Robert in “USS Callister” along with countless other Black Mirror villains. This final third doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in terms of storytelling — and it sets up a groaner of a punch line that retroactively makes me like the clever musical-cue pun at the close of “San Junipero” a little bit less — but it does tie a ribbon on Brooker’s chosen theme.
The notion of surrogacy forms the throughline connecting these three stories. “Black Museum” examines the very human impulse to share in someone else’s pain in a safe and sanctioned capacity, and the hazards implied in that thrill. The final third busts out of the frame story to get to the point, finally turning the finger of blame on us viewers. Ordinarily, a writer calling out the audience for eagerly lapping up the atrocities that they’ve laid out scans as callow hypocrisy (see: the hillbilly pornography of I, Tonya that then shames the viewer for gawking along), but Brooker is more interested in psychology than shame.
Brooker made a name for himself as a purveyor of the ghastly, and he’s long overdue for a bit of introspection as to how he got it so good. But to understand himself, he’s got to understand his viewership. It’s no fair blaming him for sensationalizing the gruesome when the glowing public reception to Black Mirror proves that he’s tending to a preexisting cultural desire. Viewers appreciate the catharsis that the show offers by externalizing anxieties to cautionary ends, putting our terrifying present in perspective. That’s why “Black Museum” doesn’t condemn the act of electrocution in the final scene, only the dynamic between its dispenser and receiver and the ugly racism of Rolo’s demented attraction. Brooker seems to believe that the sick and twisted has utility unto itself, even if it just riles people up and gets their attention. A museum’s first purpose is education, after all. You’ve just got to be sure you’re not walking into a tourist trap.