Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams
Whoa. I’ve seen countless works of sci-fi attempt to tackle the subject of online surveillance and abuse, but they usually devolve into helpless paranoia and fearmongering without exploring the emotional impact of our ability to do so. That’s not the case with the fifth entry of Electric Dreams, “The Hoodmaker,” which is not only a thrilling, beautifully written and directed episode, but also a remarkably sensitive portrayal of the state of love and trust in a world gone clairvoyant.
In this chaotic, impoverished future, the world is at odds over the rise of telepaths — humans born with the ability to read minds and put their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences into other minds. The State (a purposefully vague government entity) is clamping down on these telepaths with heavy regulation of their lives, but it’s also trying to protect them from the unruly mobs of “Normals” who fear these “Teeps” and blame them for society’s ills. Enter our two leads, Honor (Holliday Grainger), a young telepath who’s joined the state police to help them solve crimes, and her new partner, Agent Ross (Richard Madden). They’re tasked with tracking down underground agitators, but they soon unlock a new and dangerous game-changer: a mysterious figure known as the Hood Maker, who is making masks capable of repelling a telepath’s powers. These hoods give its wearers the power of privacy and anonymity.
What follows is a tight little boilerplate thriller with all the contemporary social commentary right in check; the villain even draws a direct parallel later, saying, “I remember in the old days we fretted over the web.” That is exactly what this episode is about, and it gets into every nook and cranny of our power to abuse the internet: The State wants to use a unique kind of surveillance to protect people but is afraid of letting it fall into the wrong hands and instead uses that power in an abusive capacity. Same goes for those who want to use it for their own design. The reflexivity of good and bad goes in every direction, but never with speechified platitudes. It simply emanates from characters and what they all want. And much like “Crazy Diamond” before it, the thing I love most about this episode is how much it explores the emotional and psychological repercussions of such a dynamic.
In the opening, we meet a young revolutionary and Honor immediately dives into the revolutionary’s history, family, desperate need to please his brother, and his deepest secrets, like his attraction to his mother. But here’s the thing: She feels it, too. She’s not just telepathic but empathic, and is also affected by her invasion. We see the horrific inverse of this same dynamic just a scene later, when a disgusting government man goes to see a telepathic prostitute. Of course, there’s no “crime” being committed here because there’s no actual touching. It’s all horrifyingly legal, even as the man subjects her to his deeply abusive rape fantasy. She feels every bit of what his mind describes, crying as she experiences his malicious thoughts.
This is where the parallel becomes clear — for the genius of the conceit is that it so plainly puts a face to the invisible nature of online abuse. The world around us continues to look at this kind of abuse as not “being real.” Malicious trolls can abuse and exert power to their heart’s content. But the internet remains only a pretend place where nothing is real, so the abuse is legal. Never mind the effects on people subjected to the whims of those who hurt them to feel powerful. And so, “The Hood Maker” starkly portrays the danger of pretending something in the mind isn’t real. Of course it’s real. Online abuse is abuse, through and through. That’s exactly why people do it — to feel real and powerful. The gross patron even exclaims as much: “Here’s the best bit, they can’t fake it!” Which highlights one of the grossest things about the online construction of our own society: Dissociative technology always makes it easier for the victimizer, never the victim.
This very idea of power and potential victimization hangs over Honor and Ross’s relationship. Honor is drawn to Ross not because of some outrageous kindness she sees in him, but simply because he is what he appears to be: gruff, plainspoken, and comically blunt. In a world full of pretenders, she’s attracted to this inherent honesty in him. As they grow closer and learn to trust one another, she looks at a picture of his father in his apartment and he explains that his dad never feared telepaths because he was “an open book, heart-on-sleeve guy.” Honor clearly sees the same qualities in Ross himself. But as we spin into our final act and we come face-to-face with the Hood Maker, a darker truth emerges.
Agent Ross doesn’t need a hood: As telepaths have evolved, so too have those who can keep them them out. His gruff plainspokenness? Part of his personality, but a front like any other. And so, with the enemies closing in, he tells Honor that he loves her. He asks her to read him in truth and forgive him for what he’s done. When she reads his mind, she learns that he got into their relationship under duplicitous cover — to find out if the Teeps were planning a rebellion. Honor reels from learning that the first person she’s ever trusted has deceived her. But it’s more than that. She also faces the crippling reality that she only trusted him because she couldn’t see his darkness the way she can see everyone else’s. Maybe they’re all the same.
He still pleads with her, telling her how much he loves her: “You can read minds, but you can’t read my heart!” Again, she recoils. He persists: “We have to trust each other, or what hope is there? We can go far away …” With that, she looks out at a world on fire.
Cut to black.
Whoa. Very rarely do I like ambiguous endings, but just because it doesn’t show Honor’s choice doesn’t mean the message is vague. No, it is abundantly clear, for it’s both a question and a desperate plea to humanity to unbridle itself from this deep toxicity. The ending goes beyond the push-pull morality of surveillance and gets right to the emotional nature of the abuse under it. If knowledge is the kind of power that can tear the world and people apart, and ignorance is the kind of bliss that only crushes you before you fall, then what is all this but a rigged game?
The only recourse from a rigged game is freedom, and what is freedom but the act of forgiveness itself?