Jon Hamm makes a great coward. Better: He makes a convincing coward, someone whose fundamental character flaw isn’t so obvious it becomes impossible to believe anyone would ever trust him. Jon Hamm is a tremendously good-looking man and a terrifically charismatic actor, and both those facts make you want to trust him. And he just seems nice—friendly and helpful and good-natured. But in some of his best moments on screen, that niceness peels back, and you see the scared, uncomprehending little boy underneath it all; a shallow, nervous soul whose apparent decency stems not from moral fiber or understanding, but from a desperate need to please. It’s that quality that has made his work on Mad Men so fascinating, that ability to be convincing as the Perfect Man and the pathetic striver, and to find the link between the two that defines them both.
Hamm’s knack for creating likable weasels is a good fit for Black Mirror, a show that regularly applies imagined technology from the not-so-distant future against the cracks of human weakness. In “White Christmas,” the show’s extra-long Christmas special, Hamm plays Matthew, a seemingly friendly communication facilitator with ulterior motives. (I say “communication facilitator” because that’s about as close as I can come to describing the jobs we see him doing over the course of the episode. Basically, he’s a guy who’s good at manipulating people to do things other people want them to do.) Matthew is, at the start of the episode, inside a cabin in some undesignated frozen wasteland, sharing room and board with Joe Potter (Rafe Spall), a taciturn young man with his own dark past. Things are, of course, not what they seem.
Black Mirror episodes usually run around forty-five minutes; just enough time to introduce characters, and delve deeply and thoroughly into one central concept. At nearly twice that length, “White Christmas” has more space to kill, and Charlie Brooker manages this by splitting up the running time into a number of shorter segments, all of which ultimately connect together to tell one big story. We see Matthew working as a high-tech pick-up artist guru, feeding a nebbishy guy lines, technique, and info to pick up a woman at a Christmas party; then there’s Matthew at his day job, giving instruction to a newly created artificial intelligence slave (it’s more complicated than that, but hold on); and, at the climax of the episode, there’s Joe’s tale of betrayal, loss, and murder. Then we get consequences, various twists, and everyone goes home with the chilling sensation that technology will one day destroy any possibility of mercy and peace in a perilous, unfeeling universe.
As a whole, these segments don’t quite add up to more than the sum of their parts. The script does a decent job justifying each section from a narrative standpoint: We need to know about Matthew’s disastrous stint as a pick-up artist guru to understand in the end why he’s questioning Joe, and finding out about Matthew’s day job gives us the method by which Joe is being questioned. But thematic connections—how tech can make uncomfortable processes easier while creating other, unforeseeable problems—is too much of a catch-all to make the disparate pieces connect as strongly as the show’s strongest episodes. Everything pretty much makes sense by the end, which is impressive, but Matthew and Joe’s ultimate fates don’t rhyme together well enough to form a truly satisfying whole.
Still, that’s not a ruinous failure, and the actual experience of watching “White Christmas” is solid. Brooker knows how to keep raising questions that keep us invested even before we know enough about the main characters to care, and he also knows when to shift the focus to keep things from becoming stale. Right around the time it becomes obvious that Joe and Matthew aren’t in anything like a “normal” building, and the pieces of Matthew’s story start to suggest certain possibilities, Joe starts to tell his story, and the big mystery of what the hell is going on in that cabin becomes less important than figuring out why Joe opens with “He never liked me.” While it’s not hard to spot the stitches that hold everything together, the episode only reveals itself as slightly disjointed in retrospect; at the time, everything moves forward with efficient, unceasing suspense.
The real draw, as is so often the case with this series, is Brooker’s vision of new innovations, developments in computer design and bioengineering which, while impossible today, are never all that hard to believe. The episode offers several such ideas, all of them fascinating enough to warrant entire entries in their own right. The most immediately plausible, and least interesting of the lot, is Matthew’s work as a behind-the-eyes pick-up artist; it’s a clever concept but one that seems not all that far removed from dozens of similar Cyrano De Bergerac scenarios in other shows and films. The concept also suffers from being used in the episode’s weakest segment, a funny, but overly schematic tale of a nebbish who gets in over his head with the wrong girl. Harry, the nebbish, is drawn to Jennifer (Natalia Tena, a.k.a. Tonks from the Harry Potter movies and Osha on Game Of Thrones) because of her apparent aloofness and reserve, and Matthew gives him all the right tips to make a connection. But that, as even Harry (sadly to late) realizes, isn’t really connecting with another person at all, and the tech that allows Harry to get moment-by-moment advice also shortcuts him past the usual stages of human interaction, and the price is a heavy one: Jennifer turns out to be seriously disturbed, and kills herself and Harry after observing him talking to Matthew—which, to her, looks like he’s talking to himself. She’s decided he understands what it’s like to hear voices.
“Mean-spirited” isn’t something the show shies away from, but the shallow presentation of Jennifer, who is more of a punchline than a character, is just too conveniently inconvenient. (On the plus side, it’s interesting how so much of what Matthew says is just basic self-confidence, life-coaching stuff; there’s very little about “negging.” If you’ve ever been a lonely, awkward person, it’s easy to indulge some in the fantasy of how nice it would be to have Jon Hamm as your invisible wingman—dark fantasies about the dangers of future technologies work best when those technologies are as seductive as they are destructive, and that’s something Black Mirror is very, very good at managing.) Thankfully, the next two segments fair much better.
Matthew’s second story, describing his day job and also laying the groundwork for the big reveal near the end of the story, is one of the coolest ideas the show has ever done; so cool, in fact, that I almost wish we could’ve gotten a single episode on this alone. A process that allows you to create a virtual duplicate of yourself, and then turn that duplicate into a slave, has all sorts of fascinating implications, ones which, for the most part, this story isn’t hugely interested in; there’s a clear impression of how creepy this is, as Matthew chummily torments a virtual woman by forcing her to spend endless hours in a nearly empty white space (while only minutes pass by the in the real world), but for the most part, this is just a gimmick, a tool to give us a twist ending and make sure we leave the episode with one last horrific image in our minds; a virtual Joe, trapped screaming in the worst moment of his life, basically for eternity. (“It’s Christmas,” as one of the police officers says.) But it’s such a fascinating gimmick that it’s easy to ignore how little time we get to actually explore its ramifications.
Not so with “blocking,” the episode’s final concept, and the one that comes the closest to meeting the show’s high standard for emotionally devastating science fiction. It’s simple, really; in the future, if you don’t want to talk to someone anymore, you can “block” them in real life, in the same way you’d block an unruly Twitter account. Instead of seeing them, you just see a white space in the shape of a person, and hear muffled sounds that might be talking. Instead of you, the blocked person sees the same.
It’s an idea that’s at once immediately appealing (how great would it be to remove someone from your life with the push of a button), but has potentially horrifying long-term consequences. There are painful processes that everyone goes through, and in our lowest moments, it’s easy (and inevitable) to wish for a quick fix, a way to hide from the pain and anguish that comes from loss and regret and betrayal. But pain is often a necessary part of moving on with one’s life; if you don’t process it, the wound is never healed, and all that’s left is the unfinished business of a moment unresolved. Which is pretty much what happens to Joe. He finds out Beth is pregnant, but she doesn’t want to keep the baby, and when he tries to argue with her, she blocks him and leaves him. And he stays blocked. So for years, he stalks her from afar, especially once he sees (in blurry whiteness) that Beth ended up having the baby. He can’t see or talk to either Beth or what he thinks is his child, and it’s only after Beth dies and the block lifts that he learns the truth—the child isn’t his. And then everything goes to hell.
The final images “White Christmas” leaves us with—Matthew wandering through a world of white shadows, permanently blocked from everyone he meets, and virtual Joe, having given up his physical self, trapped for a millennium—are striking and memorable enough to make the episode seem stronger than it is. This isn’t from Black Mirror’s weakest outing (it’s miles above “The Waldo Moment,” at the very least). Hamm is great, and each individual story segment is intriguing enough that the whole never lags. And it’s fascinating to see Brooker returning once again to that idea of mercy, or the lack thereof; the way each new invention serves to make it that much harder for us to recover from our mistakes. Ultimately, though, this is an entertaining, but minor, outing. Fingers crossed the real thing will be back soon.
- I feel like “blocking” someone could potentially lead to an increase of acts of violence. Not just like what happens here (Joe killing Beth’s father in a fit of baffled rage, and then inadvertently killing Beth’s daughter), but actual direct violence against someone who’s blocked you. People’s desperation to be heard can drive them to do awful, awful things.
- It’s a small moment, but I loved hearing Matthew use the same story about a horse on one his clients that he’d given Harry to use as an icebreaker earlier. He isn’t about trying to communicate with people; he’s more like a program, searching for the correct conversational gambit to move the situation in the direction he wants it to go.
- “Look, it’ll be much easier if you just comply.”
- Merry Christmas! (The actual holiday isn’t a huge factor in this, although it’s referenced throughout. And I guess the “white Christmas” of the title are all the blocked people Matthew sees when he leaves the police station.)