It's hard to say which was the most exciting thing about this feature-length edition of Charlie Brooker's BLACK MIRROR; the fact the show's been given a Christmas special, or that its growing acclaim overseas resulted in Mad Men's Jon Hamm having an extensive role. Both were equally stimulating before a single frame of the show had been seen, but I'm pleased "White Christmas" managed the difficult trick of making an extended episode with an intertwined narrative work. It's just a shame that, if I'm completely honest, only a few elements of this special achieved the highs I expect from the show.
It's impossible to properly dig into a review of "White Christmas" without spoiling things, so this is a warning to anyone who hasn't seen this 90-minute special yet: watch the episode first, please, then come back to read more.
There were three dark tales on offer from creator-writer Brooker, which again utilised near-future technology to poke modern-day fears and anxieties. Unusually for Black Mirror, the stories weren't standalone, but revolved around two men who found themselves living together in a remote, snowed-in cabin: handsome American Matt Trent (Hamm) and disheveled, down-on-his-luck Joe Potter (Rafe Spall). Why they've spent five years together in isolation, barely speaking, would eventually be answered, but not before three flashbacks...
The first was an intriguing look at Matt's background as a smooth 'wingman' for socially-awkward geeks like Harry (Rasmus Hardiker), who plies his trade using futuristic technology that enables him to see and hear everything his clients are experiencing. Having a ladykiller like Matt spoon-feeding him advice and assistance, with the aide of high-speed social media searches that can convince strangers he knows them, comes in handy when Harry gatecrashes an office Christmas party and tries to seduce a beautiful kindred spirit called Jennifer (Natalie Tena).
For a large portion of this opening story, I was charmed by the lighthearted comedy of seeing Harry successfully seduce Jennifer at the party, with amusing support from Matt on his computer screen. The only issue was, unfortunately, something that sucked the wind out of its sails: the ending. Most Black Mirror's stories involve a twist-ending, but having shy Jennifer reveal herself to be—what, mentally unstable?—believing she can hear voices, then forcing Harry into a mutual suicide using a poisoned beverage, was... a little random and underwhelming. Almost as if Brooker was searching for a dark, unsettling end to this story, but couldn't quite find one that felt more natural and better foreshadowed.
The second story was the weakest of the trio. Here we learned more about Matt's day job (getting paid to coach introverted guys into sleeping with girls was apparently an illegal but lucrative pastime). Matt's actually a technology guru specialising in a gizmo that transforms homes into state-of-the-art living spaces; where everything's automated and tailored to the inhabitant's desires with an unprecedented amount of perfection. The catch? This is achieved by copying the home-owner's mind into a small metal 'egg', which essentially enslaves a digital copy of the client and forces them to become a CPU. The unfortunate person in this story was Greta (Oona Chaplin), who finds "herself" trapped into an empty white void, where the only thing to pass the time is to fulfil her "original" self's domestic whims.
While the concept behind this story was clever, it was perhaps a little too implausible to take seriously. I have no idea why you'd need a 100% faithful recreation of a human to perform menial chores like opening curtains and setting the toaster to the perfect setting. Its salvation was the astonishingly nightmarish idea that time itself is pliable to a digital-copy, in a sequence where Matt 'fast-forwarded' the virtual Greta's day so she experienced three-weeks in a few seconds of real-time. It was an idea so frightening that the final story would recycle it, then take it to the nth degree.
The last story turned attention away from Matt and onto the considerably more mysterious Joe, who until then had been merely the audience surrogate and listening to Matt's extraordinary life story. Naturally, his own anecdote was considerably more unsettling. It transpired that Joe was a loving boyfriend to a beautiful woman called Bethany (Janet Montgomery), who fell pregnant and resolved not to have Joe's baby. Joe was understandably upset his girlfriend made such a snap decision, without being allowed to talk it through to any meaningful extent, but his frustration was only exacerbated when Bethany "blocked" him. See, in this story's world, the same technology that allowed Matt to see and hear through Harry's eyes and ears, also means people can "block" people they don't want to communicate with. This results in the blocked target become an unintelligible grey silhouette; even in pre-existing photographs and videos. Crueller still, when Matt eventually realises his girlfriend had run away to have their child, his new daughter was similarly "blocked" because she's a blood relative.
Unlike the first vignette, the final one had a twist that actually worked—with Bethany dying in a rail accident, which removed the "block" on her daughter, only for Joe to realise the little girl he's been fixated with meeting for several years isn't his own flesh-and-blood. Bethany had an affair with a Chinese colleague, which was the real reason she was initially keen to abort the pregnancy and eventually left him to live elsewhere. What didn't quite work was the denouement to the story, where the little girl discovered her dead grandad (whom Joe had killed in the heat of the moment after discovering the truth), and left her grandparent's home to die in the snow outside. I'm not sure why she succumbed to the elements so easily, as her grandad didn't appear to live anywhere particularly remote, so for me it felt like a overly-downbeat ending because one necessary. Joe had to be unmasked as a criminal responsible for the deaths of two people.
The coda to the feature-length special, fortunately, managed to pull everything together very satisfyingly. Having witnessed Joe's confession to the murders, Matt vanished from their cabin—revealed to have been a digital avatar of the real Matt Trent, who was helping the police with their investigation into Joe Potter (who's actually in a prison cell, unaware his digital-copy's being interrogated in this manner). It was a very unexpected and intelligent twist to end on, and the icing on the cake was the extraordinarily twisted final moment... when a detective, for a joke, manipulated the digital-Joe's perception of time, so that every real-time minute would become a thousand years for the duration of Christmas! Even if we're only talking a few days, that's a gargantuan 28,8000 years! If nothing else, that bit of arithmetic left me genuinely rattled by the idea of someone being forced to endure an almost-neverending Christmas, on their own, unable to sleep, in a snowbound outpost.
Overall, Black Mirror: White Christmas can be counted as a success, but it was a special where a few of the core ideas were stronger than the actual narrative they were being used in. I don't think any of the stories are ones I'd like to revisit anytime soon, but aspects of them certainly managed to intrigue and horrify me. A few things lingered in my head.
I was also struck by the episode's portrayal of women, which was largely negative throughout. Jennifer was a exposed as a psychotic poisoner, the real Greta was presumably happy to endorse virtual slavery in the pursuit of domestic bliss, and Joe's girlfriend Bethany was an exasperatingly unreasonable woman for sketchy reasons. I'm not sure what female viewers thought, but White Christmas did seem to have a throughline of women being catalysts for the death or punishment of sympathetic men.
The performances were all very good, although I was surprised Jon Hamm almost reprised his Don Draper role from Mad Men. It felt like Charlie Brooker either needed a Draper-type for this suave role, and luckily managed to get the real deal, or Hamm was drawn to a part that wouldn't be much of a stretch but allow him to appear in a show he loves.
written by Charlie Brooker • directed by Carl Tibbetts • 16 December 2014 • Channel 4