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Black Mirror returns, please swipe right

“Fuck the planet.”

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Black Mirror

"Nosedive"

Season 3 , Episode 1

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For the first thirty minutes, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. There’s nothing overtly horrific in “Nosedive,” unless you have a fear of pastels; but the episode’s premise, which shows a society locked into a perpetual cycle of likes, star ratings, and faux Facebook charm, is about as pure as nightmare fuel gets. For me, anyway, and I doubt I’m alone. For its first half, the premiere episode of the newest season of Black Mirror has the series at its most unsettling and its most predictable—oh look, it’s another world where developing technology has allowed humanity to indulge in its shallowest impulses. And god, isn’t it terrible how everyone is always looking at their phones instead of, y’know, talking to each other?

The second half of “Nosedive” doesn’t exactly contradict this, but it does allow for some breathing room, adding depth and sincerity to filter into a narrative that, while clever and hatefully plausible, bordered perilously close to smug. Black Mirror is at its best when it doesn’t completely lose sight of the people inside the systems it creates, and Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard, perfectly cast) Pound’s journey from hyper-obsessed social climber to drunken, profanity spewing glory is one of the show’s greatest transitional arcs. It’s easy for an anthology series like this one to embrace the downer ending in a way more serialized shows (which always have the protection of recurring characters to fall back on) cannot. And plenty of times, the downer ending is the most powerful one. But here, we find something like hope, and if the subtext is more than a little didactic, the specifics give it life.

But that still doesn’t explain why that opening is so damned upsetting. Part of it’s the familiarity. As someone with a Facebook account, and a Twitter account, and an Instagram account, I know what the hunt for likes feels like—wanting that instant chemical burst of pleasure in your brain when someone (usually someone you barely know) approves of some random bullshit you just threw down Stephen King novels or pumpkin spice. And I know very well how at times of great emptiness in my life, the pursuit of online contact, however slight, can take on an exaggerated level of importance. Having a conversation and building a relationship takes time and effort; getting some rando to RT your post about the jerk store calling is immediate.

Of course, “Nosedive” paints a darker picture, of a world in which the instant gratification of online approval has spread outward, until nearly every public interaction or exchange is defined by your rating. Everyone has a number between 1 and 5, and that number is built on the rankings you get from the people who view your profile and rate you and your posts. It’s an average, but not a pure average, with stars from higher-rated people carrying more weight. What makes it especially insidious is that most everyone is equipped with a pair of contact lenses that let you immediately identify anyone you see by their name and their number—a perfectly natural development, given the importance those numbers have (and you can almost hear the ad campaign: “Get used to seeing friends everywhere!”), but one that transforms every interaction into an exercise in forced camaraderie, lest a stray remark loses you a precious tenth of a point.

Of course, most social interactions already work on this basis on some level—we complain about “small talk,” but the simple fact is that ritualized, automatic responses are a necessary element of living in a place that’s larger than your bedroom. Being able to maintain a layer of protection between yourself and the outside world is useful, even necessary, and “Nosedive”’s biggest flaw is it’s somewhat childish faith in the power of complete honesty. It’s a faith the episode goes to some lengths to earn, and, as a dramatic arc, those lengths pay off quite satisfactorily; but that still can’t entirely hide the naivety of thinking that a world where everyone said exactly what they meant all the time would somehow automatically be a better place.

But then, this only an hour long episode, and perhaps some nuance had to be lost. The core idea of a young woman learning there’s more to life that convincing everyone to like her is one that’s been around for ages (it sounds like the plot of every high school ever made), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a relevant one, and “Nosedive” does a great job of selling just how easy it would be to fall into Lacie’s obsessions. There’s a tremendous sympathy for her even when she’s at her most mockable, and it’s what saves this from being a dirge—she isn’t an idiot or selfish or a monster. She’s simply going along with what everyone else seems to want, and there’s no real harm in that, is there?

The title makes it obvious where things are heading; there’s no real hope that Lacie will arrive at her best friend’s wedding and pull off the social coup of the century, and the thought of watching her slow, soiling humiliation play out was, for me at least, absolutely terrifying. Unless you are very, very lucky (or self-confident, or stupid; pick one), you’ve had some experience with being shut out, or mocked, or losing the respect of your peers. Even if the technology is different, the concept is the same, and seeing Lacie build up her hopes on such a clearly rotten foundation was like that old cliche about Chekov’s gun—only here, instead of hanging a gun on a wall, it’s Crushing Disappointment, and once it starts firing, it doesn’t really stop.

Even in my trepidation, I could admire how neatly “Nosedive” traps its heroine, first showing us how carefully constricted her life is (practicing her laugh at home; making an effort to please everyone; shunning the people she’s supposed to shun), and then giving her a reason to increase her efforts. The Pelican Cove house is a terrific example of the show’s uncanny ability to imagine technology that’s almost, but not quite, our own, and Lacie’s hopelessly wistful look as she sees a holographic image of herself noodling with a handsome holographic man manages to establish her loneliness without ever needing to draw specific attention to it. It’s something the script (and Howard’s performance) does well throughout; giving a person resolutely determined to shut down any inner life a soul almost in spite of herself.

Without that soul this really would’ve been a slog, but once Lacie takes a ride in Cherry Jones’s truck, the episode starts to show its hand. Jones plays Susan, a former 4.6 now perfectly comfortable as a 1.4, much to Lacie’s barely concealed horror. Susan, it seems, doesn’t give a damn about the numbers game anymore. She lost her husband to cancer, and when all her efforts to save him by raising his ranking were for naught, she realized that maybe the whole system was basically just bullshit anyway. Now she drives a truck and says what she wants, and is all the happier for it.

The usual defining quality of Black Mirror’s not-too-distant-future dystopias is their inescapability; “Fifteen Million Merits” was unsettling in part because the system its characters lived in was a perfect loop, offering no opportunity for subversion or transcendence. At first, “Nosedive” seems to be heading in a similar direction—as phony and off-putting as Lacie’s world was, there didn’t seem to be much alternative. Even her brother, who accused her of being a sociopath, could find no better way to punish her than dropping her rankings a few points. Their reality was one where seemingly every business, every social interaction, leaned subtly (and not so subtly) on how well you were playing the game.

Then Susan shows up, and everything changes just enough to offer a way out. And the result is thrilling. As mentioned, anthology shows often lean on dark endings, and by now, anyone who’s watched enough of them has been trained to expect the possibility of despair; to introduce hope into that possibility, after spending so much time establishing just how unlikely that hope is, is honestly joyous in a way I wasn’t sure this show was capable of. Yes, you could chart the basics of Lacie’s salvation without really needing to see them play out in real time, but that would rob you the delight of watching Howard snap at a bunch of cosplaying twerps; or the cathartic thrill of her meltdown at Naomi’s wedding reception. The final scene in the jail is a little too perfect, but regardless, showing human connection is still possible in a world of five star ratings and constant self-consciousness is as satisfying as it is unexpected.

Stray observations

  • The second act, which forces Lacie through a series of increasingly absurd humiliations (the worst probably being the clerk who’s listening to porn through their entire conversation), is well done, with Howard’s increasingly unsuccessful efforts to hold her temper feeling more than a little like Steve Martin losing it in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
  • There are consultants who try and help people raise their ratings. That’s brilliant.
  • Alice Eve plays Naomi, a high-rater who makes sure to look her best (wearing a bikini, doing yoga poses) in every video chat. “Don’t come. I don’t want you here. I don’t know what’s up with you but I cannot have a 2.6 at my wedding.”
  • “Wanna hear my speech?” “No.”