We’re experiencing this episode just a week after “The Entire History Of You,” but “Be Right Back” is actually the beginning of Black Mirror’s second season, airing more than a year after the first batch of episodes shivered everyone’s spines to smithereens. I only mention this because that fact makes “Be Right Back” all the more audacious—it’s such a spare, haunting piece, focusing on one woman’s grief in the face of the sudden loss of her significant other, and the “careful what you wish for” clone she buys to replace him, initially filling the gap in her life but quickly proving deficient in so many ways.
“Be Right Back” stars Hayley Atwell, who I know best from Captain America, but she’s been rattling around in various miniseries and such for a few years now. The burden of the 48-minute episode is largely on her shoulders, and she does tremendous work, almost never letting her grief feel cartoonish or clichéd. Martha (Atwell) moves into a remote country home with her boyfriend Ash (Domhnall Gleeson, who, if you don’t know, is just the best). Ash spends a little too much time on various forms of social media, and as he’s returning their rental van, he’s killed—the circumstances are neither clear nor important, but his constant checking of his cellphone may have played a role.
Martha is left alone in the middle of nowhere, with some sort of artistic job that doesn’t necessitate leaving the house, and she quickly realizes she’s pregnant with her dead boyfriend’s baby. As I mentioned, none of this drama is needlessly overplayed. We understand the misery of Martha’s situation, and instead get a sense of the incredible boredom and monotony that can come with being depressed. There’s a lot for this episode to get to, but it does well to set up the situation Martha finds herself in.
Much like “The Entire History Of You,” this is a future very similar to our own, but we’re far enough ahead that an unseen company can create a replica of Ash for Martha, first on the phone, and then in the synthetic flesh, created out of his social media output, his emails, everything he ever tweeted or tumbled or filmed himself doing on the Internet. The replica, which initially instant messages, then talks to Martha on the phone, is self-aware. It knows it cannot replace Ash fully, and it knows its parameters as a computer program. But at the same time, it exists to fill that emotional void, to serve as a soundboard to an increasingly lonely Martha. There’s an impressive creepiness to the fact that Ash and Martha are both in on the deception, yet as time goes on, choose to ignore it, or at least accept it as another fact of life.
Gleeson is one of Britain’s most impressive young actors. You might know him as one of the Weasley brothers in the Harry Potter films, but he’s done incredible supporting work in movies as varied as Anna Karenina and Dredd and was the lead of About Time this year. He has an even bigger challenge as Ash—set him up as someone you might miss with only a few minutes of screentime in the beginning of the episode (total success, although like I said, I’m very much in the bag for Gleeson already), and then portray his synthetic clone, the computer-brain replica pumped into a freakishly identical body Martha gets in the mail and activates in the bath.
Ash’s double is a magical thing—it exists to obey and pay attention to Martha, do its best to replicate what it knows of Ash’s personality, and service her needs in any way possible, which extends to sex (programmed with pornographic information, he’s a far better lover than the real Ash). But while the voice on the phone was warm and helpful and infinitely understanding, robot-Ash is like a lost puppy, following Martha around wherever she goes, following her every request to the letter (he won’t sleep with his eyes closed unless you tell him to).
Just like every episode of Black Mirror, you can predict the inevitable breakdown, but that doesn’t make it any less engrossing. But as I said before, “Be Right Back” is a much quieter episode than its forebears. The social satire is barely present. The technology is terrifyingly close to real, but it never runs amok—Martha made her decision to buy the Ash-bot, but it doesn’t go insane or try to kill her or anything. It just does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and that makes it all the more shattering. Finally, Martha walks with Ash to a cliff and bids him jump off it, which confuses him, since the real Ash wasn’t suicidal. She bemoans that her real Ash would have screamed and cried, and as if she’s turned on a light, the Ash-bot does exactly that, begging for his life as she might expect. It’s amazing to watch Gleeson turn the emotions on after keeping them bottled in for an entire episode, and it makes Martha’s decision all the more wrenching—she lets out an almighty scream that I thought might be the end of the episode, capping the impossible situation she’s found herself in.
But no, there’s a melancholy coda, years later, that shows the sad compromise Martha reached: Ash stays in the attic, echoing a line of his about how his mother would banish the grief of her dead son and husband from the house, and she and her daughter visit him once a year or so. Again, it’s not played for outright horror, but the idea of them living in the house, with Ash standing silently in the attic above them, waiting to be visited, patient as the day he was activated, is too much to bear.
- At one point, Martha notices that the Ash-bot is missing a mole, and he grows it immediately to placate her. Creepy.
- “You look like him, on a good day.” “The photos we keep tend to be flattering.”
- I was unnerved by Ash’s one line at the end of the episode, when he says he’s “Feeling a bit ornamental out here.” I know he’s just replicating what the real Ash would have thought, but the self-awareness freaked me out.