Season 3, Episode 1 – Nosedive
When describing what Black Mirror is to people who haven’t seen it, it’s easier to explain what the show isn’t. Yes, it’s primarily sci-fi, taking place in alternate universes where a technologically-driven society has changed the way people interact with one another, mostly for the worst. This is an accurate description, but I don’t think it properly conveys what watching an episode of Black Mirror is actually like.
The first thing that comes to mind is that Black Mirror isn’t subtle. Each episode that I’ve seen so far tends to spell out everything that it wants to say to the audience. Not much is left to the imagination because apart from establishing what the world of each episode is like, it has to present the main conflict and how technology is directly related to what the characters will be forced to go through. This tends to be done quickly because most of the episodes don’t even reach the 1-hour mark. The ones that do only go beyond a few minutes, making each episode feel more like short stories instead of a feature-length narrative.
“Nosedive,” which is the first episode in the third season (and after moving to Netflix), strictly follows this formula. In a world where people can rate out of five stars every single interaction that they have, society is controlled by being as inoffensive as possible to one another. Accidentally bumping into someone or forgetting to put on a big fake smile and pretend to be interested in another person can result in 1-star ratings. Get an average of lower than 3.5 and you’re treated as a second class citizen.
Just reading the brief synopsis I gave above and knowing that the episode is called “Nosedive,” it’s easy to predict what the episode is all about. Watch the first five minutes and you can easily guess how it will all end. Apart from being unsubtle, Black Mirror is also predictable. But for once, these aren’t bad things. In fact, being predictable and unsubtle is part of the show’s charm. Black Mirror isn’t interested in giving you shocking plot twists or a profound, thoughtful storyline that will have you thinking for days. I think Black Mirror is primarily concerned about being memorable, and it does this very effectively. It actively eschews all the qualities of what makes sci-fi great and instead opts for memorable scenes that really push its concept to the limit.
Once we fully understand how the world works in “Nosedive” (which is clearly established after the first five minutes), we can already figure out the exact journey that the lead character Lacie will go through. After finding out that she has to raise her social rating from a 4.2 to a 4.5 in order to be allowed to rent a new, lavish apartment, this kick-starts the plot as we see her increasingly desperate attempts to raise her rating. It goes about as well as you can imagine and ends in a spectacular display of Lacie losing everything that seems to matter to her.
It’s not a particularly complex story, nor is it a wildly original character arc. But it’s beyond entertaining. Most of it is due to Bryce Dallas Howard, who’s incredible as Lacie. She excellently portrays Lacie’s struggles as she slowly but surely loses everything that ever mattered to her, but Howard does it in a way that is self-aware. Lacie knows deep down that all of her desires are incredibly shallow and not worth the effort of maintaining, but she’s constantly repressing this rational thought and refuses to give up. Howard also has the difficult job of making the audience sympathize with a character who’s buried in layers of artificiality. Yes, her arc ultimately leads to her shedding all of those layers, but the episode focuses almost entirely on her so it’s important that we care about her struggles from the get-go. Howard is the guide that brings the audience into this not-so-strange world and she carries the episode effortlessly.
One thing I’ve always admired about this show is that no matter how ludicrous and unsubtle an episode’s concept might be, it never fails to go all the way with it. Each episode relentlessly pushes the boundaries of its concept and shows you every excruciating consequence, no matter how painful it may be. This, ultimately, is what Black Mirror does best. The worst thing that you think can happen will happen, and it won’t pull any of its punches. As we see a haggard, mud-covered Lacie finally make it to her childhood friend’s wedding, she delivers a confusing, nonsensical speech that ends with her wielding a knife out of crazed frustration and literally being dragged away from all of her hopes and dreams. We expected this to happen, of course. The entire episode has been building up to this breathtaking display of an emotional breakdown, but seeing them go through with it, from Howard’s incredible performance to Joe Wright’s expert direction, is such a satisfying experience.
“Nosedive” is a bit refreshing because it ends on a more hopeful note than most episodes do. Lacie loses everything but is freed from the pressures of society at the same time. The episode ends with Lacie embracing her new-found freedom while trapped in a jail cell. Again, not really subtle, but it’s effective and we feel her catharsis. You can poke holes in the concept and moan about its heavyhandedness, but ultimately Black Mirror gives an intensely entertaining and memorable piece of storytelling that stays with you long after you watch it.