It’s the most wonderful time of the year
Every episode of Black Mirror contains its own little bleak world, but the show is known for recurring symbols that link every storyline to an interconnected universe, from the “White Bear” symbol to Waldo the bear and “San Junipero”/St Juniper’s hospital. But one could make the argument that another inextricable motif of Black Mirror is Christmas time.
Since the show first debuted in December 2011, two seasons and two specials have aired during the holiday period. One of those specials is Bandersnatch, the interactive movie about a young game developer in 1984 (get it?) adapting a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style book. (The film’s five main endings give varying degrees of meta and, like a greedy kid hopped up on too many candy canes, I’m sure many viewers went back to uncover all of them.)
“White Christmas,” one of Black Mirror’s best episodes and its most popular, centers on three interconnected stories: the three ghosts of Christmas, if you will. Each story subverts hallmarks of the festive season — technology (the most common category of gift), “cookies” (digital clones of people stored in small, egg-shaped gadget not unlike smart devices, another popular gift), family breakdown and estrangement — to illuminate its dark side like holiday lights. It ends with one of the characters stuck in a snowglobe, forced to relive Christmas and the mistakes he’s made over and over again. For the one in seven people who hate Christmas, this is a fate worse than being trapped in an elevator with Mariah Carey’s Christmas hits playing.
Even the Black Mirror episodes that don’t explicitly reference the giving season have surprises like an advent calendar: A Christmas tree is visible in the background of an “Arkangle” scene putting a new spin on parent’s fears about what their children are exposed to. The events of “USS Callister” take place, yes, in an outer space game simulation, but the people trapped within it are from the same gaming company preparing to break from work for the Christmas holiday.
Image: Netflix It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in “USS Callister”
But it’s more than just a backdrop. Black Mirror is uniquely positioned to critique what is marketed to us as the most wonderful time of the year but which often brings out the worst in many of us. “Traditional” Christmas pop culture is riddled with toxic men not unlike those in “White Christmas” and “USS Callister,” and bad moms akin to Marie, who plants a surveillance chip in her daughter’s brain in “Arkangel.” Layer that in with the overarching theme of Black Mirror — to examine how technology has changed our lives, most often for the worst — and if our parents and grandparents complaining about the youths spending too much time on our devices is any indication, it’s impacted the giving season as well.
This year is poised to be a Christmas meltdown to end all Christmas meltdowns, what with the supply chain screwing up our gift giving plans and the first holiday back for many (as the pandemic continues to roll along) meaning tensions will be running high. But people who work in retail, of non-Christian backgrounds, who don’t have family or aren’t on good terms with them or otherwise don’t celebrate the holiday (it me) have long known this.
Retail and service workers are on the receiving end of abuse from customers and employers alike, and mask and vaccine mandates created add tension. Pressure to make up for last year’s “lost” Christmas equals pressure on the hip pocket, with Americans expect to spend more on Christmas gifts this year than in the 20 years prior, and more than half of shoppers going into debt with “buy now pay later” options easier than ever. The binary of waste increase and food insecurity around the holidays is a stark one, highlighting the inequality of American life more so than any other season. And while conservatives push a “war on Christmas” agenda with any mention of the secular “holidays” rather than the birth of Christ (the exact date of which there is some consternation about), but the copious decorations and the patron saint of Christmas Mariah’s greatest hits from Thanksgiving onwards — and sometimes even earlier, despite the fact that Hanukkah started the Sunday after Thanksgiving this year! — indicate that Christmas is well and truly staying put.
We are indeed living in the darkest timeline, and it’s all reflected back to us in the inky glass screens of the smart devices under the tree this Christmas from which Black Mirror draws its name. Black Mirror is at its best when it critiques things that closely affect many of our lives: technology and social media use, the disintegration of our relationships and, indeed, society. In our own lives, the pressure of the holiday season serves a similar purpose to Black Mirror, increasing tension, resentment and division, even for those who spend all year making their list and checking it twice. It’s no wonder that creator Charlie Brooker said he has no plans to make any new episodes for the foreseeable future. (Representatives of the show declined to comment for this article.) There are certainly more feel-bad holiday offerings this year than ever before — movies like Silent Night, a foreboding, domestic thriller about extended family coming together for the holidays; or HBO Max’s Station Eleven, where a viral pandemic hits the world just before Christmas.
But if you’re craving a familiar flick to throw on after the presents have been unwrapped, dinner has been served and the leftovers put away for another day, you can always sub out another Home Alone rewatch for an episode of Black Mirror. After all, ’tis the season.