It’s no secret that Black Mirror is all about highlighting the sombre, more disturbing aspects of our society. This satirical series, written by everyone’s favourite cynic Charlie Brooker, touches upon themes that we might prefer to ignore; but Black Mirror makes them impossible to ignore, waving them in our faces and leading us to having an existential crisis by the end of each episode. The whole beauty of the show is how similar the scenarios that play out are to real life, making us as an audience fearful of the future of the technological age we live in.
A theme within Black Mirror that stands out from the rest is retributive justice. How do we as a society want to see criminals punished for their crimes? Do we favour “an eye for an eye” punishment? Does this really benefit society, or is it more harmful than we realise? The topic, of course, expands beyond the justice system and into more everyday life scenarios that we could easily experience ourselves. The first person storytelling causes the issues to feel more personal to us, causing more contemplation of our own beliefs and ideas regarding retribution. But what examples are there of this within the show?
Warning: spoilers for series 1 and 2 ahead!
Who am I? Where am I? Why are all these people filming me? Victoria hasn’t got a clue. She’s the protagonist in this story, she’s woken up in her home with a massive headache and no memory, and for some reason whenever she goes outside people are filming her on their phones. Creepy. What makes it even creepier are the people chasing her down with weapons, trying to kill her, and no one seems to give a shit. They just keep filming her. Why, though? Why is she so interesting to them?
As it turns out, Victoria is a child murderer. The whole scenario she’s been told of people hunting her because of some sort of weird transmission that makes everyone a sadist is actually complete bollocks, and the people filming her are really members of the public come to see her be punished for her crime – what really takes the cake, though, is that when the event draws to a close, when people have finished yelling abuse at Victoria and throwing food at her, she’s sat back down in the same chair she woke up in and her memory is wiped. The cycle starts again.
So people come to watch Victoria get punished for their own entertainment, at a little paradise named ‘White Bear Justice Park’. We see this happen through Victoria’s eyes, and the entire thing is very, very troubling – which is the whole point. Brooker wants us to look at this and think “is this sort of punishment really justified?”
Retribution is a popular use of punishment in many cultures, and a lot of people hold the opinion that those who commit crimes should have the same done to them in order to balance out the wrongdoing. Technically, this makes things ‘fair’ – if someone hits you, you hit them back, you’re both satisfied, problem solved, right? Not exactly. If someone hits you, you hit them back, they’re probably going to hit you back again, and you hit them again, and so on; the cycle carries on, and everyone involved is just really pissed off.
But of course Victoria’s situation isn’t as simple as this. For starters, she participated in the murder of a child. So, naturally, she should see some negative consequences for her actions. However, the way we see her punished is highly unsettling; people watch her suffer for their entertainment. That doesn’t sit right with me. A viewer, Craig A. Harper highlighted that these circumstances aren’t actually that far off from real life:
Justice is becoming more accessible through widespread social-media sharing of court judgements and the televising of proceedings. In addition, there seems to be a hunger for literally seeing justice being done. This is evidenced by the sheer number of people who have flocked to video-site YouTube to watch the execution video of Sadaam Hussein (former Iraqi dictator) – currently around 15,000,000 if you combined the views on the first page of videos.
Again, creepy. I’m not really one for watching public executions, so I can’t really understand why people would want to see something like that. Because Black Mirror is heavily focused upon the consequences of new technology in the world, this could actually bring up the question on whether technology is causing us to become more openly brutal towards people. It’s used to continuously wipe Victoria’s memory, and it’s used to film her punishment. It’s also what she used to film the murder of the child she participated in. Is new technology bringing old savage ideas out of the woodwork?
The Entire History of You
This episode doesn’t directly address retribution as one of its core themes, nor does it address the criminal justice system – what caught my attention was the idea of performing retribution in our personal lives. Liam, the main character, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him, and as result drinks himself stupid and lashes out at his wife (Ffion) and her partner (Jonas) with both verbal and physical abuse. His actions are terrifying to watch, but is his anger justified because the paternity of his child has now come into question due to the infidelity?
Being cheated on could happen to anyone. It’s distressing, it makes you think that there’s something wrong with you and makes it difficult to trust future romantic partners. There’s a whole plethora of emotions a person can go through when experiencing infidelity, and there’s no doubt it would include overwhelming anger towards the cheating person. That’s what makes this example of retribution particularly personal.
Liam uses alcohol to cope with his jealousy, and this encourages him to continue digging into his suspicions of his wife’s unfaithfulness. His distrust towards Ffion goes round in circles: he doubts her honesty, yells at her, and apologises. It gets to a point where he goes to Jonas’ house and physically attacks him. It gets to a point where he grabs Ffion and screams in her face. It gets to a point where Liam harms himself because he feels so much regret for his actions. If Liam shows remorse for his abuse, do we therefore overlook his violent behaviour and sympathise with him?
Ffion lies to Liam again and again, to the point where we as an audience believe that Liam might be delusional. In the end, though, we see he was right. The only reason we know this is because of the grain technology, which allows people to replay memories in their head or on the TV – so if this didn’t exist, would Liam of ever found out about the infidelity? Did the technology motivate his retributive behaviour? Was it this thirst for retribution that destroyed his relationship with his wife, or had her infidelity already done that?
Meet Matt. He helps guys get laid by viewing a first person livestream of the events they attend and giving them tips on what to say and how to act in order to seduce women. He also watches them have sex on the livestream and shares the footage online with other men. Unsurprisingly, his wife doesn’t know about this.
Things take a turn for the worst when he witnesses a client get murdered on this livestream. Woopsie! Matt’s in a bit of a pickle. If he tells anyone about this murder, then he’s going to get caught being a pervert. So, naturally, he doesn’t tell anyone and destroys all the evidence of his creeping. This doesn’t exactly work out for him, as he still ends up being punished for this behaviour – and, of course, this punishment comes in a very unique form of retribution.
Part of the technology within this episode comes in the form of ‘blocking’ – it’s similar to the concept we have online, except it’s in real life; the blocked person appears as a grey blur in your vision, and can no longer communicate with you, but can still physically touch you. When Matt is convicted for his weird activities, his punishment is being ‘blocked’ from everyone, everywhere. In everyone else’s eyesight, he appears as a red blur. This means that everyone knows he is a criminal, and could put him at risk of violent attacks for random individuals’ own personal vigilante justice.
Matt is charismatic, and really enjoys the social side of life. Are we more sympathetic towards him because of this? Or is preventing him from socialisation a justified punishment for his creepiness? Being cut off could eventually cause him psychological trauma. But do his actions cause us to feel some sort of sadistic joy out of seeing him suffer?
As we find technology developing at an alarmingly quick rate, we’re forced to find solutions to the issues it presents to us at the same pace. The issues it poses can take extremely dark forms, and according to Black Mirror, it appears that we could begin to use this newfound power with dark intentions – such as using it for new, more brutal methods of retributive justice. It could trigger a new discussion on just how far we should go with these methods, and could set new boundaries on what constitutes inhumane punishment in the digital age.
Should we use technology to punish murderers repeatedly for the entertainment of the public? Should we use technology to catch out unfaithful lovers in their infidelity? Should we use technology to prevent criminals from communicating with those around them? It’s a discussion that could lead to even more divisions in an already highly divided society.