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Why Black Mirror’s Digital Prisons Are So Haunting

Photo: Netflix

There is much to fear in Black Mirror, but one scene in particular keeps me up at night. It’s not the quadrupedal monstrosity of “Metalhead,” nor the image of making love to a swine from “The National Anthem.” It’s not the bees (not the bees!) of “Hated in the Nation,” and it’s not the man-spider of “Playtest.” It’s visually innocuous and devoid of jump-scares or hideous beasts. It’s just a human turning a dial.

At the conclusion of 2014’s “White Christmas,” Rafe Spall’s Potter sits alone in a snowbound cabin. After being egged on by Jon Hamm’s Matt, Potter admits to a murder and we discover that he isn’t Potter, exactly; he is a sentient virtual copy known as a “cookie.” The cabin was a simulation and Matt had been sent in to extract a confession. Here’s the scary trick: Time is subjective in the simulation, so whoever’s in control can make the cookie feel as though they’re spending any amount of time trapped there. The police aren’t particularly fond of Potter, and as one of them is about to leave for Christmas break, he turns a dial on a computer screen to make it so the imprisoned man will live through 1,000 years for every real-world minute. Given how long the officer will be out of the office, that means millions of years of utter solitude before he might — might — be granted the sweet mercy of death.

Then the cop delivers what is arguably the most chilling line in the whole of Black Mirror: “There’s a proper sentence.”

But Jesus, is it? Even for a law-breaking misanthrope, that’s immeasurably harsh. What can virtual Potter do? He’s just lines of code, after all. He has no mode of recourse. He’s trapped at the mercy of a criminal-justice system that regards him as subhuman; he’s a victim of a law-enforcement officer who tortures him out of spite. The episode closes with Potter screaming in lonely agony while the saccharine strains of Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” blare from a radio in the simulation. Imagine Guantánamo Bay as designed by Apple, multiply the worst isolation you’ve ever felt by the length of time between now and the era of the cavemen, and you’ll have a weak sense of what has been done.

The scene is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s not alone: Human beings are trapped in unending simulations on a regular basis in Black Mirror. Indeed, it’s one of the show’s most common recurring motifs, appearing in no fewer than four episodes and reinforcing the idea that the show is set in a grim shared universe. In depicting that concept over and over, series creator Charlie Brooker and co-showrunner Annabel Jones make one of the most subversive and visceral arguments for prison reform that television has ever seen.

Such an argument is vital for American viewers in 2018. As has been documented time and time again, the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, both by percentage of the national population and absolute number of prisoners. The school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well, funneling kids — disproportionately ones of color and/or from low-income backgrounds — into cells. Once imprisoned, forced isolation is all too common: According to a 2015 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 20 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 18 percent of local jail inmates had spent time in restrictive housing, including disciplinary or administrative segregation or solitary confinement. Experts compare harsh labor within prisons to slavery. That’s all on top of the indefinite detention in Gitmo of those accused of terrorism — a practice President Trump has repeatedly said he wants to expand.

And yet, when we hear these facts, they roll off of our backs and we think about what’s for lunch. Perhaps part of the problem is how difficult it is to make prison seem excruciating in fiction, especially television, without alienating an audience. Shows about incarceration certainly don’t depict it as pleasant, but they have to show a fair bit of camaraderie in order to keep viewers coming back for more. (Here, Black Mirror has an advantage in that its stories are stand-alones. Anything especially terrible will be over by episode’s end, freeing you up for something fresh in the next installment.) Even Orange Is the New Black, with its salient and bold critiques of the criminal-justice system, can go long stretches without reminding you of the sheer awfulness and trapped monotony of jailed life.

The incarceration metaphors in Black Mirror, however, are pure agony. In this season four’s “Black Museum,” we meet a sadistic, tech-savvy carny named Rolo who runs an attraction wherein visitors can execute a cookie of a convicted murderer named Clayton. He was innocent of the crime, but that doesn’t matter much to profit-hungry Rolo. Much like Potter, the Clayton we see isn’t regarded as human; he’s just a computer program, so Rolo can get away with putting him through the horror of death by electrocution repeatedly, only to have him rebooted to do it all over again. But perhaps even more frightening than the executions is the fact that every time Clayton gets the chair, another copy of his consciousness is made — this one of his moment of electrified death — stored in a commemorative key chain that the visitor can take home. Just consider for a moment what it’s like for those miniature Claytons to be stuck in horror-Tamagotchis for all eternity.

Like a prisoner with a life sentence, he’s not dying, but we have to ask: Is that categorically better than what he is experiencing? There is no rehabilitation for him, just raw punishment for ever and ever, amen. The fact that Clayton is a black man and some of his paying killers are rich white supremacists only cements the metaphor: As Ashley Nkadi of The Root points out, we’re not just seeing a vision of prison cruelty, but of the commodification of black pain that often comes out of injustice. “Black Museum” has been divisive among viewers (our own rankings called it the show’s fourth-worst episode), but if for that reason alone, it should be a rallying cry for prison reform.

So, too, should the depictions of trapped virtual copies that, unlike Potter and Clayton, have nothing explicitly to do with law enforcement. In “Black Museum,” we see another cookie, that of a dead woman whose consciousness is uploaded first into her husband’s mind and then into a child’s stuffed animal. In “White Christmas,” the first cookie we meet has no charges against her — she’s merely a copy of a rich lady who wants a version of herself to run her smart home. In “USS Callister,” we follow a spaceship-crew of facsimiles formed by a narcissistic game programmer, all of them fully aware of their past lives and unable to die or escape.

But perhaps the most potent critique of the way our society treats prisoners comes at the conclusion of season two’s “White Bear.” The episode envisions a day in the life of a woman who wakes up with no memory of her past and journeys through a world gone wrong, where people film her on phones while she tries to escape certain death. Only at the end do we find that it was all a setup: The woman was an accomplice to a young girl’s murder — a crime that the woman filmed — and her sentence was to experience this via dolorosa and be mind-wiped afterward, only to go through it all over again the next day. Her cruel fate is celebrated by a vengeful public, and people line up in droves to watch her go through it in person. It’s prison as spectator sport.

The key here is that we’re given no reason to believe she’s innocent. In all likelihood, she did participate in a heinous crime. The average person would understandably want to see her pay a debt to society. But all too often, we look at criminal justice as a binary: If someone is innocent, they should walk free; if they’re guilty, they should suffer, and almost no suffering is too bad for the worst crimes. Even if we’re in the minority of people who oppose the death penalty, how much do we know about nonlethal methods of punishment? We may say we’re against torture, but we don’t think too hard about whether solitary confinement is tantamount to it. We believe the punishment should fit the crime, but we don’t spend much time worrying about whether that actually happens — or if a better approach might be to focus less on punishment and more on rehabilitation.

When we see these characters suffer on Black Mirror, we feel a tightness in our stomachs because we can recognize the dread of being stuck in a never-ending loop. It’s a brilliant way to engage a viewer who has no immediate experience of incarceration, because it hits us with something familiar: Many of us can’t necessarily relate to jail, but we can relate to loneliness and boredom. When forced to imagine the worst loneliness and boredom we’ve ever experienced — an extended kind of torture that lasts until the stars burn out — we clench up. This is Black Mirror at the height of its powers: It relates to your own life just enough to draw you in, then disorients you just enough that you can see real injustice more clearly.

Why Black Mirror’s Digital Prisons Are So Haunting