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Saturday, November 05, 2016

#ImWithSusan: Finding Friends in the Black Mirror "Nosedive"

[NOTE: This is the first in a series of reviews of Black Mirror Season 3. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know!]

All of the episodes of Charlie Booker's brilliant sci-fi series Black Mirror take place in a near-distant future, but in the first installment of the newly-released third season ("Nosedive") that future is far more "near" than it is "distant." And it is the uncanny nearness of the "Nosedive" world that makes it both almost-unbearably uncomfortable to watch and deeply, at times painfully, disturbing. And/yet/but, if watched with one's head tilted askance at exactly the right angle, I think, "Nosedive" is perhaps the most potentially hopeful Black Mirror episode so far.

Booker's imagined world in "Nosedive" is somewhat unusual by Black Mirror standards for its lack of "futuristic" technologies. In the "Nosedive"world, realtors can holographically "insert" you into a home you're considering buying to help persuade you the home is a good fit. People have eye-implants that allow them to see important information about others' digital selves projected onto their meatspace selves. The automobiles in"Nosedive" are eco-friendly, battery-powered iCars that you plug in with a USB cable. But, all in all, that's about it as far as the imagined "futuristic" technology goes.

In fact, when we meet Lacie, the protagonist of "Nosedive" (played charmingly and sympathetically by Bryce Dallas Howard), she's making her way through a world that looks very, very familiar. A jog around the neighborhood, a few extended moments checking herself out in the bathroom mirror while getting ready for the day, an argument with her deadbeat gamer brother/housemate, a trip to the local cafe. Pretty standard stuff.

Except that, in Lacie's world, everyone is being "rated" (on a 5-star system) by everyone else in every interaction, everywhere, all the time. And all those ratings go on the permanent record.

The 5-star system of "Nosedive" works to stratify society in entirely anticipatable ways, of course, but there is something both simple and brilliant about this particular plot device. The ranking criteria that "Nosedive" inhabitants use (and are subject to) are all fully present in our world right now in official or unofficial ways. (Think credit ratings, grade point averages, test scores, criminal records, Facebook likes, Yelp reviews, page hits, retweets, and Tinder swipes... but also the largely "secret" stratifying mechanisms of gossip, rumor, prejudice, and innuendo.) In our IRL world, those mechanisms work relatively independent of one another, even as their combined effects establish and reinforce political, economic, and digital-access strata, which form the deep struts and girders of our social ontology today. In "Nosedive," however, Booker manages to seamlessly integrate them all into a kind of head-to-toe-- or, rather, head-to-soul-- evaluative system that is all the more oppressive and inescapable for its being totally, thoroughly, and indiscriminately democratic.

[Side note: no piece of art has ever made me more sympathetic to economists' worry over the tragedy of the commons or Plato's complaints about democracy (in Book VIII of his Republic) than "Nosedive."]

We know from the episode's title that Lacie's efforts to improve her 4.243 rating will not end well. The arc of the story tracks Lacie's inevitable nosedive through a series of both potentially-avoidable and accidentally-incurred demerits in ways that are at times incredibly uncomfortable to watch mostly because of the there-but-for-the-Grace-of-God-go-I proximity of those missteps to any of our present-day encounters with the social world. In fact, the lion's share of Lacie's nosedive revolve around her attempts to social-climb via her drop-dead gorgeous, could-be "friend" Naomie (also played charmingly and somewhat sympathetically by Alice Eve), who is a high-4's-ranked yoga enthusiast but otherwise totally vapid social media whore, and who has asked Lacie to be her Maid of Honor in an attempt to demonstrate something like "authenticity" to her (Naomie's) bourgeois wedding guests.

The gut-punch of "Nosedive"-- don't try to breathe easy now, there is ALWAYS a gut-punch in every Black Mirror episode-- comes in the form of (by this point, dismally low-rated and *officially* uninvited) Lacie's decision to crash Naomie's wedding reception. After having practiced her Maid-of-Honor toast for weeks, and more or less parlaying her entire future life on the successful delivery of (and presumed uptick in social status that would accompany) that speech, Lacie refuses any acquiescence to amor fati. Instead, Lacie sneaks into Naomie's wedding reception, rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet, to bogart the mic and proceed as if the existential disaster of her preceding 48 hours were nothing but a terrible dream.

Only it wasn't a terrible dream. Lacie really is the homo sacer in this scene, where she insists on her wedding toast being heard even as she appears in that social space as the "dishonorable" Maid of Honor-- uninvited but not unseen, disavowed but not yet fully disowned,  abandoned but not yet outcast, punishable but not executable. I quite literally squirmed while watching this penultimate scene in "Nosedive," which manages to capitalize upon the most deep-seated fears of every women who comes to understand herself as "woman" in a heteronormative culture: what if I don't get married? what if I'm always the bridesmaid and never the bride? still worse, what if I f**k up the wedding of a friend who managed to do it all right? 

In part motivated by those same deep, nagging, and involuntary fears, I also cheered for Lacie as she delivered her well-rehearsed but monumentally disastrous Maid of Honor speech. I found genuine delight in witnessing her kamikaze nosedive. I felt the restraints of overdetermined gender-norms loosen a bit watching Lacie cast all caution to the wind. I might have even sighed, breathed deep, said aloud: you go, girl.  But of course I knew that any action by any woman that motivates me to say you go girl will not end well.

After that speech in "Nosedive," Lacie is physically apprehended and dragged out of the wedding reception by cops. She is arrested and thrown in jail, where her futuristic eye-implants are removed, preventing her from "seeing" the ratings of others and, in effect, completely removing her from the social order. And here's the surprising thing: this is not a dystopian turn in "Nosedive."

But wait, DJ, back it up a few scenes.

The best scene in "Nosedive," which I've left for the end of this review because it's the best scene in "Nosedive," involves a short hitchhike-ride that Lacie takes on the way to Naomie's wedding, at what appears to be the inflection point of her so-called "nosedive," with a truck driver named Susan (played by Cherry Jones). Susan is a former 4.6, now a 1.4, who lost her husband to cancer because, at the time, Susan and her husband's combined ratings weren't enough to merit quality medical treatment. Now, having lost her husband, Susan has decided that the whole dog-and-pony show of social rankings and ratings is bullshi*t. For Susan, there's no real damage to be done in just going about her life as if the ratings and ranking system didn't exist. She speaks her mind. She says what she means. She does not pander or accommodate or indulge. She does not suffer fools, least of all those who pander, accommodate, or indulge. Susan picks up Lacie from the side of the road, shows compassion for the wretched of the earth, because she knows their station, she shares their station. And in Susan's short ride with Lacie, she tells Lacie the story of what she calls her coming to the decision that it is sometimes worth it to "take a shit at the breakfast table."

"It took some effort," Susan says. True that. #ImWithSusan

When she finally gets to a spot on her route where she needs to drop Lacie off, Susan leaves Lacie with an "emergency escape hatch," i.e., a thermos full of liquid courage, (Nah, I don't mean some futuristic Black Mirror juice. I just mean straight-up, get-you-drunk alcohol.) That emergency escape hatch is, of course, what finally converts Lacie into a Susan. And a homo sacer wedding guest. And a criminal.

The final scene of "Nosedive" (when Lacie goes to jail) is brilliant, and awful, and hilarious, and terrifying... and I suppose it is also the most crucial element if one is inclined (as I am) to figure this episode as perhaps the least depressing and most hopeful of all the Black Mirror episodes so far. (For those of you who are thinking but what about "San Junipero"?! just wait for my forthcoming review of that episode.) For my part, I think all of the heart and the hope that "Nosedive" has to offer, which is not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, is found in the cab of Susan's truck.

It is Susan.

Other Random Episode Notes:
  • This episode reminded me a lot of "Fifteen Million Merits" (Black Mirror S01E02), though "Nosedive" has a much happier/hopeful turn in the end than "Fifteen Million Merits" did. I think it's a great credit to "Nosedive" that it never really even entertained the question of "merit."
  • I really can't say enough about the amazing performance by Bryce Dallas Howard (who plays "Lacie"), Her character is one that could very easily be despicable-- or, worse, dismissable and unsympathetic-- but Howard always manages to stay just barely on this side of likeability. She is naive but not guileless, affable but not annoying, enthusiastic but not zealous, charming but not insincere,.. and she is somehow exactly the right amount of beautiful without (like Naomie) being oh please get outta my face with that.
  • The scene in which Naomie finally kicks Lacie to the curb by claiming that she (Naomie) would be cool with a "vintage-bond, low-4" but is absolutely not down with taking "the kind of damage that comes along with having 2.6 at her wedding" is such a deliciously brilliant dig at hipster culture that I can't even. Sooooo brilliant.
  •  The absolute model case of "comic relief" imho-- a scene that uses humor to relieve tension-- is when Lacie says "WHAT THE F*CK?!" (the second time) in her "Nosedive" wedding speech. I was wound up in emotional knots at that point in her speech and I literally guffawed when that line came. 
  • I'm not sure whether or not this is a criticism or a credit, but srsly #NosediveSoWhite. On the one hand, I think that the capital-W Whiteness of "Nosedive"-- as opposed to the actual, morphological whiteness (see Charles Mills) of "Nosedive"-- is effective in reinforcing how social, political, and economic stratification works in our world, and how it is likely to continue to work in racially-stratifying (i.e., white supremacist) ways if access to digital-media and similar (fundamentally neoliberal) "ratings" systems continue to determine ingress and egress to privilege/disadvantage in the future. On the other hand, omg #NosediveSoWhite.
  • Funniest clapback ever (from the final insult-exchange between Lacie and her cellmate): "Your face is a biological car-crash that makes Picasso screw his eyes up and say WELL THAN JUST DON'T MAKE SENSE.'"
  • I want to go on the record noting that "It is Susan," with which I end this post, should not be taken as some reductive humanist declaration.  I hope this will become more obvious in my subsequent Black Mirror posts, but I consider myself a humanist in the same way that Derrida considered himself a democrat.  That is to say, "humanist" is the best word available (that most people would understand) for describing what I am now, but it is not the best or final word on that matter.  In fact, it isn't the best word available right now. The best word available (for me) would be singularitarian.

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