The second installment of Black Mirror’s sixth season depicts a ghoulish digital media that’s out of control. Watching it made me ponder the unthinkable: perhaps authoritarianism isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Writing this will surely lead to some interesting future toilet experiences because I’ve no doubt many folks reading will want to tear me a new asshole. But seriously, where does it all end?
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Film and television students Pia and Davis set out with fair intentions: to make an obscure, humble documentary that’ll kick-start their careers. But a trip to Davis’s strangely untouristed Scottish highland paradise hometown leads them into far darker territory as they investigate a series of kidnappings, tortures, and murders that leads back to his parents.
Instead of shooting the documentary he (or rather his overly ambitious and ruthless girlfriend Pia) dreams of making, Davis finds himself the subject of his own real-life horror story after Pia becomes his mother’s final victim. Janet then takes her own life, leaving behind a ghastly trove of VHS recordings that graphically depict her and her husband torturing and murdering eight victims.
This in itself is horrific enough. What makes it worse is that a host of parasites jump on the digital media bandwagon, using footage captured by mass murderers Janet and her policeman husband Kenneth to spice up what becomes the documentary Truth Will Out, the final big reveal that explains the infamous Loch Henry disappearances.
I could kind of sympathize with Davis’s best friend, Stuart. He’s been down on his luck for years, struggling to keep the local pub owned by his now alcoholic father Richard (played by the excellent John Hannah) going, after the tourist trade was gutted by the first but incomplete revelation of the murders back in 1997.
The documentary that Pia and Davis unwittingly enable turns this phenomenon neatly on its head, as the final revelation about the killings brings the punters flooding back. Stuart is at least honest about his motives from the get-go, and to be fair, the man is desperate.
I liked but struggled with Pia as a character. Wrapped up in her ambition, she showed little regard for her partner’s feelings: Davis is initially reluctant to make a film that he already knows touches on his father’s death, though at that point he doesn’t realize that Kenneth was himself a perpetrator. “If you don’t make it, I will,” she says, stopping him in his tracks as he tries to walk away from a project that will eventually rob him of his soul and Pia of her life.
And as for documentary maker Kate Cezar, she was everything we’ve learned to despise in the media: fake, ambitious, callous, and above all, self-seeking. This one wouldn’t look out of place in the middle of a phone-hacking scandal, although, to be fair, within the context of the show she’s just one more parasite and enabler, albeit a big ugly one.
What made the Truth Will Out documentary so hard to accept was the fact that it used real-life footage taken by killers Kenneth, Janet, and Iain, with no regard for the feelings of the relatives of the deceased or the dignity of the victims. Is this any better than Islamofascists publicly broadcasting executions, I couldn’t help but wonder. Likewise I had to ask myself if we should be so quick to judge Russia and China, where such documentaries could never be made.
Don’t get me wrong: those regimes undoubtedly have blood on their hands too, but is covering up odious and violent crimes with rose-tinted propaganda really any worse than releasing the grisly details of such, amplified by high-tech editing techniques so others can batten on them vicariously?
Because, make no mistake, we need to think about this seriously. Is there truly a moral difference between a state that perpetrates killings directly and one that connives at them through lax broadcasting controls while allowing them to happen thanks to inadequate, media-driven policing? What is the ethical difference between a state that glorifies killings on a foreign battlefield for the sake of a twisted sense of nationalism and one that glorifies them on home soil for the sake of clicks and ratings?
And while it may be evident to anyone who isn’t a sociopath that wanton killers are morally repugnant, whether they kill for ideology, money, or simple kicks, what about the rest of us so-called normal folks? We may not get our hands bloody, but are we really any better than the perpetrators if we enable rape, torture, and murder by feeding on such actions from a safe space behind a camera lens?
Not convinced, I sense. OK, so let me reframe: would you accept somebody paying for, downloading, and watching child pornography if their counter-argument was “I’ve never actually abused a child myself”? No, likely, you would not: and the law in most countries would be on your side. So why is it fine to watch killings and posit the defense that says “But I’ve never actually killed anyone myself”?
If you are reading this and thinking, but, Damien, come on, those are children, then please note my rejoinder: those adult victims you watch on true-crime documentaries are human beings just like children with feelings and families who loved them. Stop. Being. An. Enabler.
No Damien, you stop being an idiot, I hear you cry: don’t you know that this never happens in real life? Brooker’s just giving us an exaggerated take on television to make a metaphorical point: true-crime documentaries use reconstructions. Again, my rejoinder: I’m sure that’s ample consolation for the real-life families of the real-life victims and, by the way, you do know that real-life snuff movies predate the digital era by decades, don’t you?
I have no idea if this was showmaker Charlie Brooker’s central point, but it’s the reaction his take on digital media provoked in me this time around. Because if this is what the human race does with its so-called freedom, perhaps the human race doesn’t deserve to be free after all. I’m not sure we’re so very free as things stand, in any case: if this is how people choose to spend their time, what they select for entertainment, then I seriously doubt they understand what freedom really means.
Perhaps you listened to our podcast and expected to read an article that intellectualized Brooker’s latest concept, gently unpicking the layered issues he so cunningly teases into his work. I thought about doing that, but on reflection I just couldn’t: because this one hits too close to the mark. The way humanity behaves, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it will ultimately get what it deserves.
And, mark my words, that will be no highland paradise.
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