The last few years, in the absence of a new season of Black Mirror, I’ve re-watched all my all favorite episodes. White Christmas, season 2’s Christmas episode, is by far my favorite, and absolutely the best Christmas episode of anything, ever. This episode, featuring three intertwined tales of technological terror, are filled with Christmas dread.
Matt (Jon Hamm) and Joe Potter (Rafe Spall) are practically strangers, though they’ve been living together for five years, out in a cabin in the woods. We don’t know what brought them there, but we do know they barely speak to each other. On Christmas day, Matt decides to try to get Potter to talk to him a bit. The two are an odd couple – Matt’s a charismatic (or obnoxious, depending on how you look at it) and handsome American, and Potter is a quiet and reserved Englishman who has more than a hint of sadness about him.
Matt opens up about his past as a “guru” of sorts — a dating coach for socially awkward men. He tells a story of helping a man named Harry bumble through conversation at a holiday party. He does this using the “Z-eye” technology, which allows him to see and hear everything another person is seeing. He’s not alone when he does this, as he’s streaming the date to a group of guys who also chime in with advice.
While it seems like there’s a touch of altruism to Matt’s line of work, it’s obviously voyeuristic in a cruel way – the woman on the date has no idea that there’s a group of men watching her. Jon Hamm plays this kind of charming and devious man perfectly; he’s a great manipulator, skilled in the art of getting people to do things that they don’t want to do. That’s why his real job (helping guys get dates is a side gig) can best be described as a consultant to artificial intelligence.
The artificial intelligence that White Christmas introduces us to comes in the form of a “cookie”: a copy of a person’s consciousness. As Matt explains this to Potter, we meet Greta (Oona Chaplin), who clones her consciousness to help her with her busy day-to-day life. This cookie, a clone without a physical form, is enslaved to do whatever the actual person wants. Greta’s cookie is replicated from her consciousness so well, that at first she doesn’t really understand what’s happening – she thinks that she’s the “real” Greta, and Matt has to help her to understand that she’s not. This is a horrific thing to imagine. While the cookie may simply be artificial intelligence, it thinks it’s real. While it’d be extremely useful for lots of people to have their own cookies, it’s also extremely cruel. We see cookie-Greta in absolute despair as she is trapped and alone in a life that she did not consent to.
Here’s what Black Mirror does so well, consistently. There’s the technology that we already have, taken up a notch. While I don’t know if anything like cookies are ever going to exist, they certainly could exist – I think they might be pretty popular. Imagine if you could upgrade your Google Assistant, so that you didn’t have to control it, but that a bit of your consciousness did all the work for you, with your actual self none the wiser. Black Mirror forces us to ask ourselves about our relationship with technology in a way that we’re not normally confronted with. Would you do this? Would you enslave a clone of your own consciousness because it’s not “real”?
Finally, Potter opens up about how he ended up in the cabin with Matt. We see Potter actually being pretty gregarious in his life with his girlfriend Beth (Janet Montgomery). Rafe Spall’s acting is excellent in this role as we see him happy with Beth, singing karaoke, getting incredibly drunk. It’s a stark contrast between the downtrodden man we see in the cabin with Matt. What happens between Potter and Beth is the crux of this episode, and ultimately how everything will be tied together.
Without spoiling too much more about the plot, Potter ends up blocked by Beth. The Z-eyes blocking feature not only makes it so that if you’re blocked, you cannot see the person who blocked you, but they also cannot see you – instead, they see an amorphous, pixelated blob. We live in a world where so many of us spend time online, have relationships where we mostly communicate via technology, and relationships purely formed via the internet. Most of us have either blocked someone, or been blocked. Often, once you block someone you barely know, you never really see them (or think about them) online again. Again, Black Mirror has taken this concept up a few notches. What if blocking someone meant that you really couldn’t see them, or them you? It’s not hard to imagine, is it?
Potter’s completely unable to move on from his past with Beth — in a way, he’s just as much trapped by the effects of technology as Greta, the cookie. Technology is a catalyst for real harm in each of our character’s stories here. The quick fix Beth goes for in blocking Joe leads to devastating consequences; Matt playing virtual wing-man to Harry also leads to terrible ends.
White Christmas isn’t just a tale of technology and morality, but it’s a human story too, about what happens when we allow technology too far into our lives. The episode moves quickly through each story – though it’s one of the longest episodes of Black Mirror, it’s suspenseful in every scene. There’s just enough time spent on each mystery before moving along to the next, and by the end, the story is wrapped up neatly. It’s absolutely devastating and terrible, but it’s perfectly clear how each step of the story led us to the ending.
White Christmas, with its bleak and depressing morality tale, is the perfect antidote to an overdose of Christmas movies like Love Actually and Happiest Season, and shows like HBO Max’s 12 Dates of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching those too, but we all need to find a balance in our lives. Whether or not there will be a season 6 of Black Mirror remains to be seen, but for now, I’m content rewatching the best series to ever come to Netflix.
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