This week Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It) stepped up to the helm to write the third and final installment of Black Mirror, ‘The Entire History of You’, a dark and disturbing exploration of what it would be like if technology was literally plugged into us rather than vice versa, and the pitfalls of being able to evaluate every aspect of your life over and over again.
At some point in the not too distant future most people have a ‘Grain’ implanted behind their ear at birth, a small device which records and saves everything people see and hear during the course of their day, and which is powered by a small key fob that also holds their personal details and acts as a virtual credit card. Aside from being ‘useful’ for officials such as airport security to check that individuals haven’t been up to anything dubious, initially it’s a means for parents to check that their children haven’t been subjected to anything harmful in their absence, and then allows adults to re-evaluate or ‘re-do’ events they’ve experienced by wirelessly hooking up their memory bank to contact lenses in their eyes and/or TV screens. But what happens if this implant is coupled with someone who is naturally obsessive? Do they control the ‘grain’ or does the ‘grain’ control them?
Where we come in Liam Foxwell (Tony Kebble) is having an evaluation at the law firm where he works, which we can tell is a highly stressful environment owing to the tally of successful cases which keeps on ticking over behind his head and the line of questioning from the professional, but smug panel that are interviewing him and coming out with intimadatory and ultimately bullshit, ‘office speak’ idioms like “Shit sinks, cream floats.” After the appraisal is rescheduled for next week Liam gets in the back of the taxi and makes use of the screen there to ‘Re-do’ the afternoon’s events and try to divine how the panel gauged his performance, zooming into their facial expressions for any indication of which way they’re leaning, all of which is an indication of his obsessive personality and a portent of what’s to come.
Going straight from work Liam heads to a friend’s house to meet his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) at the dinner party there. On his arrival he instantly notices and becomes suspicious of her closeness to another man, Jonas, (Tom Cullen) who she claims is just an old friend, and how her body language changes as soon as she notices him there. Over the course of the meal he becomes increasingly uneasy with Jonas’ attitude to women and relationships (this is a guy who’s “only faithful to his cornflakes” and openly admits to ‘re-doing’ times he’s had sex with former girlfriends, whilst his current girlfriend is in bed alone upstairs) and Ffi’s favourable reaction to his jokes. The conversation then moves onto their friend Hallam, who had her ‘grain’ gouged out of her neck to order, probably on behalf of a “millionaire Chinese perve” who would have used the unencrypted data from her implant to get his rocks off. For the rest of the guests she’s a curiosity, much like the only person at the party who doesn’t have a Smartphone and has never even heard of Angry Birds, and she admits that she quite likes not having one to the incredulity of those around her, explaining that not only is going ‘Grainless’ understandably “huge with hookers” who’d rather not store the memories of their time with clients, the devices aren’t actually that reliable anyway because “half the organic memories you have are junk” and that false memories can easily be implanted. This all serves to make us question if the protagonist has a right to be jealous, when for all we know he could be an unreliable narrator.
On the way home the couple start to go over Liam’s appraisal again, but the conversation soon turns to Jonas and eventually a full-blown argument later when they get home and Ffi reveals that she and he had a holiday romance that had gone on longer than she’d previously told her husband, which further sow the seeds of doubt about her faithfulness in his mind, something which they’ve evidently had problems with in the past in relation to someone called Dan. The argument itself does throw up some issues regarding the editing of their memories when used as a means to back up something they’ve said. Even the most inconspicuous sentence can be made to sound much worse when it’s removed from it’s context, and for a lawyer that’s just another tool of his trade when trying to incriminate someone. This illusion of a healthy relationship crumbles furthermore when we cut to them having sex, and both have resorted to replaying previous occasions to provide the stimulus to get them through the act. Additionally Ffi’s interactions with Jonas were evidently still bothering him so he gets up in the middle of the night and goes downstairs to replay what he saw when he first saw them together and then their interplay at the dining table, managing to hone in on what his wife said to her former lover when he first walked in; “I was nervous when I heard you were going to be here” which he obviously interprets as indication that something has been going on between them.
By morning Liam is involving the babysitter, playing back some of what was said the night before, and asking if she finds the ‘cornflake’ joke funny, whilst at the same time letting her be party to his and Ffi’s ‘joke’ about their “pedophile babysitter”, tellingly indicating that his judgement is skewed and all too ready to see the splinter in everybody else’s eye and not the great big whopping plank in his own. Finally sitting his wife down they row again and he asks her to explain why she seems to so comfortable in Jonas’ presence and so cagey in his. This argument also forces her to admit that she’d been with ‘Marrakesh Man’ for 6 months, rather than the week and then month she’d confessed to on previous occasions, but she urges him to “sober up, make yourself puke. I don’t care. Just sort yourself out.” Taking this as his cue, Liam drives to Jonas’ house, let’s himself in more or less uninvited, asks him if this is where he masturbates to images of his wife and assaults him with a vodka bottle before demanding Jonas delete every memory he has of his wife “Or I will crack your skull and I will gouge your fucking neck.”
The true horror of what he’s done isn’t apparent until he wakes up with his head against the steering wheel having somehow managed to drive his car into a field and ‘re-does’ what happened. Going back home he confronts Ffi who’s still in bed and asks her if he really is their son Jody’s father. She maintains he is, but Liam reveals he noticed a shot of her with the painting that’s hanging on their bedroom wall in one of the scrolling menus Jonas brought up before he deleted her folder. Because he’d only bought it for her 18 months previously, this means she had to have had an affair whilst they were together: “You know when you suspect something. It’s always better when it turns out to be true. It’s like I’ve had a bad tooth for years and I’m just finally getting my tongue in there and I’m digging out all the rotten shit.” Finally Ffi cracks and explains that she did sleep with Jonas when she was drunk one night, but it was during the 5 days Liam was out of the house when they’d been arguing about Dan. Pushing the issue even further he asks if she made him wear a condom, and when she quickly insists he did, he asks to see evidence. All too quickly his wife says she’s deleted the memory, but he sees through it and all but forces her to ‘re-do’ the night she cheated on him in an agonizing scene, which clearly spells the end of their marriage.
In the final scenes we see edited images of their once, at least superficially, idyllic marriage with their son from the protagonist’s perspective, as he tortures himself through ‘re-dos’, which are interspersed with cuts to his lonely reality in a now utterly dysfunctional household. Solitary and adrift he feels his only option is to literally ‘cut out the rot’ and in the last few shots we see him taking a razor blade to the area just behind the ear and gouging out his implant.
I have to be honest. For me ‘The Entire History of You’ was the weakest episode of Black Mirror. My main problem was that there wasn’t the same light and dark that there was with ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, i.e. tonally it lacked the vacillation between humour and drama that was present in Brooker’s scripts, and in my opinion that made it slightly less compelling as a piece of satire. Consequently the lead characters in their unrelenting misery just weren’t as sympathetic as those especially in last week’s episode. It is a minor grumble though really and there certainly was a lot of ‘meat’ to this installment.
The idea that one day we may stop relying on our own memories and come to rely implicitly on an a bionic memory bank that literally becomes part of us from birth is an interesting and potentially frightening one. The advert that Liam watches in the back of the cab selling ‘grains’ under the slogan ‘Memory is for living’ proposes a dystopic future where people are constantly living in the past, rather than looking to the here and now or even the future. It all seems like some sort of a distraction. People forced to endlessly navel gaze and evaluate their lives, whilst life is going on about them, which bears a striking resemblance to people’s preoccupation with social networking sites today. I really would have liked to have seen the wider public repercussions, rather than just the personal impact of these devices had their been more time. Too little was made of the airport style check-in and it’s wider implications, but I’m guessing this was down to hour time. Would people without ‘grains’ not be allowed in the country for fear that they might be terrorists? Would Liam removing his device affect his employability? After all a literally photographic memory would be advantageous to a firm, and in a sense he was rendering himself a sort of outcast.
There was also the sense that what the device does to people, directly or indirectly, is dehumanizes them and forces them to disconnect with other people, relying on ‘hard evidence’ rather than placing their trust in someone else. This lack of trust, even if it is misplaced, really does seem dangerous and apparently forces people to do rash things, and even ruin their lives. When Liam says to Ffi “This isn’t me. Look at what you’re doing to me” he might as well be talking to his ‘grain’ as speaking to her, because as much as he seems to almost revel in finally knowing that his wife did cheat on him and that his son might not be his, the very last scene where he cuts the device from himself seems to imply that ignorance is indeed bliss, and that our natural ability to repress certain things we see is actually a help rather than a hindrance.
All in all Black Mirror has been a great, if all too short, addition to our schedules and I’d really like to see a second series commissioned. So Channel Four you know what you have to do!