Black Mirror: Black Museum Episode Review

*SPOILER ALERT. BEWARE.*

 

The buzzing British series Black Mirror released its highly anticipated 4th season on December 29, 2017. This Netflix show prophesizes and examines the misfortunes of a dystopian society that is overly dependent on technology. Due to the nature of the series, the episodes can be watched in any order as each episode introduces a new set of characters with a completely new plot. In a fictional world where mankind must face the consequences of their own wrongdoing, meddling with high-tech innovation and creation of artificial intelligence, the creators of the show attempt to portray the worrisome consequences of an unavoidable future.

This season’s finale, “Black Museum”, subtly explores multiple controversial themes through the course of its dialogue. Though it tiptoes around some of its subject matter, every piece of the puzzle is given to the audience at just the right time, ending the season with a chilling plot twist.

The episode centers around a museum owner (the antagonist) who shares his previous escapades with any unfortunate soul that manages to stumble into his museum. In the past, he has tested his illegal technological advances on human guinea pigs and then put on display the apparatuses involved as a sort of freak-show exhibit. His first encounter with Nish, the protagonist, and a young black woman, is in the opening scene after she leaves her solar-powered smart car at a nearby gas station just before she wanders toward the Black Museum. He recalls three instances in which some of his most greatest creations and biggest failures were born. Fast forward through an awkward introduction and a forced interaction between strangers, the viewers can easily identify Rolo Haynes, the exhibit curator, as a con-man looking for his next victim. As Haynes explains to Nish how the pieces of his house of horrors came to complete the collection, the camera pans the room showing items from previous episodes of Season 4: a lollipop (“USS Callister"), a tablet ("Arkangel"), and a bathtub ("Crocodile"). His anecdotes, which describe technological advancements gone wrong, only confirm that Haynes preys on the vulnerable and exploits their emotions for monetary gain, in spite of his knowledge of eventual complications. These sentiments are easily applicable in the real world, whether it be politicians at the polls or advertisers selling false realities on TV.

 

His first criminal act involved Dr. Peter Lawson, a doctor who volunteers to receive an experimental neurological implant that allows him to feel the pain of his patients. The purpose of this invention is to be able to better diagnose them. An insatiable, masochist hunger develops and leads to self-harm when Dr. Lawson experiences the death of one of his patients. This hunger ultimately results in the inflicting of pain on others. In multiple instances the doctor is unable to save the lives of patients because he is experiencing a particular type of ecstacy, that leaves him in a trance-like state, induced by the pleasure he obtains from the suffering of those he is meant to heal.

Before the doctor's episodes come to an end, we discover that he is not only consumed by lust for pain and agony of others, but for fear. Although Peter received a certain level of satisfaction from self-harm, it was comparable to rendering another human being helpless and holding the life of another in the palm of your hand. Using his position of power as a doctor to prey on the unsuspecting is a symbolic demonstration of social hierarchy that benefits from the disenfranchisement of those at the bottom of the barrel. This symbolizes how authority can only thrive where there is a group dubbed as inferior in a socio-cultural positioning where authority sits comfortably. The determining factor in this social stratosphere is the existence of an unequally distributed amount of power or resources; this disparity allows those positioned at the top to benefit from the system, while those ranking lower in social order must endure the hardships produced by the system’s infrastructure—one which purposely was not made from theme to succeed—which excludes them.

 

Rolo's second illegal project focuses the transfer of a comatose woman's consciousness into the head of her husband. An act committed under the premise of "good intentions" was severe enough to get Haynes kicked out of his professional organization, but with no jail time served for his offenses. This is another example of a reality in which, on the daily, we see crimes committed by all ethnic groups but the ability of some to continuously evade persecution and jail time through inherent privilege.

 

Of all the other criminal artifacts, the main attraction hits just a little too close to home once we learn that yet another wrongly-accused black man has fallen between the cracks in the judicial system with zero chance of salvation. His pain and suffering is unaccounted for, and society treats him as a disposable object: he is in jail and perceived as guilty of a crime, therefore his life does not matter. The fate of this man now lies in the palms of Haynes because he has now found his next get-rich-quick scheme. The museum curator’s final victim is turned into a hologram projection. Clayton Leigh, the man previously condemned to a life in prison is now condemned to relive his execution over and over again each time museum visitors pull the lever of his digitally simulated electric chair. Haynes offers Leigh money in exchange for his conscious and permission to use it in a subconscious-transferring experiment. Wrongfully convicted to life in prison for murder and without any other options, he agrees and gives the money to his family. To his dismay, now he is no longer a prisoner in the physical form—like the slaves of the past—but even in the afterlife his spirit has been computerized and held captive: imprisonment of black bodies, a failure of the system to serve justice in both this life and the next.

Through Haynes' final revelation, the writers of the series attempt to tackle one of America's major issues, the mass incarceration of black males, but fail to tackle the subject transparently.

Instead, the assertion of racial profiling is pushed under the rug, and Leigh is automatically deemed as guilty of murdering a white woman (a recurring theme during the Jim Crow era: young black Emitt Till, amongst countless other men lynched on the basis of accusations of coming on to a white women). Both Nish and the viewers at home are not encouraged to question Leigh's guiltor any of the evidence leading to his conviction: another reference to society's desire to maintain a passive, obedient population. These last few scenes also reinforce the idea that there is no reason to believe that Leigh could be innocent, regardless of his alibi and any flaws found in the evidence collected against him. He fits the description of the murder (a fabricated truth), so he must be the murderer.

Lastly, I would like to point out that in this case specifically, we see parallelisms in this episode between the exploitation of human bodies by the authority for labor and experimentation and/or financial gain. In fact, two out of three of curator’s guinea pigs have been black men. However, writers single out the implicit racial bias connected to these acts in reality.

For a very specific audience, the final scenes symbolize the museum curator’s inherent privilege of metaphorically being on the outside looking in, a topic that registers well with viewers who are all too familiar with disenfranchisement, racial profiling, gaslighting and other discriminatory behaviors. As the curator of the museum and director of the technological experiments, he has been safe from all the damage they have caused when they backfired. By his occasional role as a spectator does not excuse his exploitation as an oppressor in the profits he gains from the pain and suffering of others in a capitalistic society.  He has been able to walk away from each of these incidents practically unscathed. In the case of the bystander —in parasitic, oppressive acts and situations—he or she becomes complicit in the mistreatment of marginalized groups because the political and social infrastructure works in his or her favor. Nonetheless, in the final moments, we see these roles reversed as being a spectator does not necessarily mean that you're safe; it just means that you're safe for now, as we saw in the closing scene as Nish inserts Rolo's conscious into Leigh’s holographic body upon the revealing that he is her father. We see the role of an idle bystander challenged in the final moments of Nish's final monologue, "Always on, always suffering," she says slowly. To remain neutral or inactive in the midst of oppression is to take the side of the oppressor, and although Haynes has not been the direct source, he is still an accomplice in the figurative paradigm of institutional marginalization because he reaps the benefits of its existence. This is not to say that Haynes is innocent by any means, but that he is a minuscule piece of much more intricate and complex system.