Every episode of Black Mirror so far has nudged uncomfortably close to our reality, giving us a glimpse of a world populated with technology we understand that’s driving extreme behavior we nonetheless fully recognize within ourselves. But “The Entire History Of You” is the most uncomfortable I’ve felt watching this show so far. Written by Jesse Armstrong (the co-creator of Peep Show who also wrote for The Thick Of It and scripted Chris Morris’ brilliant satirical film Four Lions), the episode centers around a piece of equipment that is horrifyingly easy to imagine catching on—a computerized “grain” implanted in your skull that records everything you see for instant playback and storage whenever you’d like. Playing back is called “re-doing,” and almost everyone in the country’s doing it.
Although the episode is a spare, intimate affair centered around three characters and an accusation of infidelity, Armstrong does well to include many of the imagined uses for such a device. Play back a job interview to pick apart how well you did! Plug into your baby’s grain to make sure the babysitter did her job right! Is your sex life with your wife feeling tepid? Don’t worry about it, just flash back to hotter times while you do the deed! Checking in through airport security? Just rewind your past week for the agents to put them at ease!
Much like “Fifteen Million Merits,” “The Entire History Of You” reveals the intricacies of its world slowly, without much didactic information just being dumped directly to camera. We follow Liam (Toby Kebbell) as he leaves a job appraisal (which he decides, upon re-watching, went badly) and goes to a party, where his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker, of Attack The Block and Broadchurch among others) is seemingly flirting with an old friend called Jonas (Tom Cullen, who I know best as the lead of the wonderful 2011 romantic drama Weekend, which everyone should check out).
Nothing particularly interesting happens. One partygoer wants Liam to throw his appraisal up on screen, a suggestion Jonas helps shut down magnanimously. Another talks about how she was “gouged” of her grain months ago and never got a new one, enjoying existence without it so much, which sparks murmurs of interest and protests from one woman who talks about how easily the brain can create false memories and how the grain counteracts that.
Most importantly, though, we understand that Ffion is laughing a little too much at Jonas’ jokes, and acting little too uncomfortable around her husband. We’re bracing for the fallout, and that’s mostly what “The Entire History Of You” is—Liam’s painstaking quest, using grain footage (which he can slow down, zoom in on and even have a computer lip-read) to prove that something is up with Ffion and Jonas. It’s a near-future sci-fi take on Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right (now there’s a reference I never imagined including in an A.V. Club review), and of course, it ends with Liam uncovering the uncomfortable truth.
Watching Liam sit Ffion down on the couch to show her specific instances of flirtation, or check statements she’s making now versus ones she’s made in the past, sent a dark shiver of recognition up my spine. I thought of a past relationship where me and my then-girlfriend would whip out our phones to check the record of some failed night of planning to see who had texted what when. Pretty much everything we do on the internet and on our phones leaves a virtual paper trail; “The Entire History Of You” steps that up to a whole new, if sadly believable, level.
Ffion admits to a fling with Jonas—at first saying it lasted one week (Liam brings up footage of their first time together when she mentioned Jonas, not by name, which is as uncomfortable to watch as it sounds), then one month, then six months. Liam drunkenly confronts Jonas in his home, making him delete any footage of Ffion from his grain, and from this encounter realizes she slept with him again, after marrying Liam. The final denouement lays bare the ultimate truth, but also leaves Liam alone in an empty house with only his memories (and the recordings on his grain) to keep him company.
It’s brutally depressing stuff, often uncomfortable to watch but nicely acted, particularly by Whittaker. The tale is simple enough and well told, but it makes some logical leaps and bounds that I was never totally on board with—Liam’s paranoia escalates rapidly and dangerously, and his sudden propensity to swill scotch from a glass and resort to brute violence doesn’t completely jibe with the character we’re originally presented with. In short, for things to move quickly enough, things have to move a little too quickly.
But as a creepy, up-to-date parable that still tells a tale as old as time, “The Entire History Of You” is pretty outstanding. It builds to a climax the audience may well have predicted (Liam forces Ffion to show him her most recent encounter with Jonas), but we are smartly spared from seeing. Every time a character plays back something on their grain, their eyes glow dully as the images are accessed, giving them a demonic look. I’m sure that was an intentional decision.
- “Going grainless” is huge with hookers, for obvious reasons.
- The cut between Liam and Ffion’s re-do sex and their actual positions in bed is quite a devastating one.