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Reflections From a Black Mirror: S3 E1 “Nosedive” (Netflix)

Reflections From a Black Mirror: S3 E1 “Nosedive” (Netflix)

Reflections From a Black Mirror (Netflix)

That tweet is from Butcher Billy, a Brazillian Pop-Art genius. If you get a chance to look through all of Mr. Billy's work you have to do it. His stuff is all amazing. He did comic-style cover art for all of his favorite Black Mirror episodes, but the rest of his stuff is even more jaw-dropping.

Anyway, Black Mirror is one of the best shows on television.

It is unusually deep and powerful social criticism, sometimes it is so seamless (and contemporary) that its criticism can often be mistaken as a celebration of elements of the status quo (much like many of the fans of Starship Troopers love that movie for its call to fascism).

Many have compared Black Mirror to the Twilight Zone.

I guess that is fair but most Twilight Zone episodes operated in defense of the social order while I think of Black Mirror as an excoriation of our ethical status quo and a window into how technology has magnified our cultural hypocrisy and cruelty (I will admit that this might be unfair to the TZ).

Unlike my other writing about television, I think this will probably end up more commentary than the usual recap.

My last "Reflection" was for the episode "The National Anthem"

A Nosedive Into Lacie's World

I will admit, I have been putting off writing my Nosedive recap for a few weeks because it follows the structure of a Charlie Brown special.

Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) is every bit as earnest as Charlie Brown ever was and just wants just as badly (maybe more badly) to be liked. Nosedive, as an episode, is deceptively simple. Lacie wants to live a postcard perfect (and Bravo channel) lifestyle and needs to increase her Klout score to do it.

Why?

Because in Lacie's world, the entire world revolves around the use of a Klout-style app. Every human being uses smartphones and the app (which has facial recognition) to rate every interaction with every other human being.

So, in the world of Nosedive, the cool kids are immediately apparent, can identify each other,  and know immediately who all of the uncool kids are because of this universally shared social media app. 

People learn not just who the people they encounter are, but because their phones have facial recognition software, the app also informs them what each person's universal rating is in real time. One other great feature of the app is that everyone else who sees an interaction can rate it as well (meaning that people can pile on when they something that they don't like).

If a barista makes you a perfect cup of coffee, for instance, you might give them a 5. If someone bumps you rudely, you might give them a zero and everyone else around the bump might also give them a zero.

The numerical impact of the ratings that people award you are weighted as well So, if you bump someone with a high rating the effect of the downvotes count more than if you bump someone with a low rating and if you impress someone with a low rating it doesn't help you as much as if you impress someone with a high rating.

In an odd way, this reminds me of financial disparities now (the 1% vs. the 99%) except that in Lacie's world, popularity (not money) is the first and only gateway to success. I suspect that this "popularity first" feature has a really negative effect on the innovation and productivity in Lacie's society (would Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have succeeded in an environment where the popular kids in high school have the presumptive keys to the kingdom and the nerds, socially inept, and worker bees remain trapped in mediocrity?).

Lacie Is Given an Opportunity

Lacie has ambition, earnestness to spare, and a great attitude. In fact, her "problem" is she approaches every task with desperate earnestness.

She lives with her unambitious brother in what looks like a decent house but their lease is coming due and Lacie seems committed to moving to a much more fabulous pad that she cannot afford unless her ratings go up (high ratings get you a rent break).

Despite where she ranks (somewhere in the middle), she believes that the only thing holding her back is a lack of opportunity.

In other words, she is a true believer that the current app-based social structure will treat her fairly. She even hires a consultant to help her get her ratings up quickly and the consultant advises that she finds and gets upvoted by a group of highly-ranked people.  

In many ways, she is a counterpoint to the radically earnest character that Amy Schumer often plays on her eponymous television show. Schumer often plays the character of a woman who gives men everything they (supposedly) ever wanted. And just like Lacie, she finds out every time, no matter how compliant she is, the football is always yanked away whenever she gets close to the winning kick.

Amy Schumer's character exposes the truth at the heart of male desire (that make desire is really about desire itself and not about women's failings. A woman can never satisfy a desire that exists ONLY as an alternative to real connection and intimacy).

Lacie's character exposes the truth at the heart of social ratings (that ratings only exist to justify and codify social hierarchy and reward and insulate only those who are willing to enforce caste systems). 

Someone may indeed be naturally cool, but what sets these people apart is their willingness to appear empathetic when necessary but never at the expense of maintaining the social structure. Which is why Lacie is, from the start, doomed.

Lacie is not naturally cruel, and she wants to be "liked" by a group of people who remain "popular" precisely because they don't really care about anyone but themselves and their own status, she really doesn't fit in with the popular kids.

Lacie doesn't know it, but she is playing a Zero Sum Game (the only sure way to win is not to play).

But, Nosedive is also a commentary on the "American Dream" aka the notion that anyone can make it America if they only work hard enough (your failures are a result of your lack of effort not emblematic of flaws in the system itself).

When Lacie takes a trip to visit her dream condos, you see her desire is to live in a glossy magazine quality home lovingly enveloped by her gorgeous model-quality boyfriend. Part of what she is buying into is the fantasy of "the good life" sold endlessly by celebrity culture today.

Lacie is a Bravo "Real Housewife" without portfolio (or a  home). 

The system needs and feeds on her belief but in the process of cannibalizing her naked desire, churns out nothing but disdain for people who have to try hard for popularity.   

So anyway, when Lacie was a kid she was "befriended" by Naomi (Alice Eve) as a child (Naomi is a super popular but very cruel, superficial, and thoughtless person). We later find out (in exposition from Lacie's brother) that Naomi was always really cruel and awful to Lacie despite calling her a "friend."

Naomi calls Lacie out of the blue to announce that she is getting married, but it seems clear that Naomi has long ago left Lacie behind just like the doll "Mr. Rags" that they made together as kids (Mr. Rags is a physical representation of Lacie's desire, it is an ugly doll that serves as a metaphor for their relationship - Lacie authentically loves the doll and Naomi could care less about it).

Equally surprising is that Naomi has decided to make Lacie her "Maid of Honor" for her wedding ceremony which of course Lacie quickly accepts as it both makes her feel like Naomi cares about her and also would provide her the ratings boost necessary to afford the rent of her new dream condo (which she signed up for despite not having the money to afford it).

Naomi has a high rating and her husband and the entire wedding party will be made up of popular people.

So, the wedding is the opportunity Lacie needs to get her ratings up.

One of the most impressive parts of the Nosedive episode is how Bryce Dallas Howard is never anything but superficial in all of her conversations with Naomi but at no moment seems self-aware of how superficial her relationship with Naomi really is.

The rest of Nosedive is Lacie's long and slow car-crash journey from the middle to the bottom.

Fascists Wearing Democratic Clothing

indie-music-and-television-blog-black-mirror-waldo-trump-meme

Lacie spends the rest of Nosedive watching every possible interaction and choice go horribly wrong.

Even while leaving for the airport the cab driver and another person downvote her for petty reasons.

And once she arrives at the airport the woman at the check-in counter informs her that her flight was canceled and that no new flight would be available (for someone of her status) until the next day.

And after getting this news, when Lacie responds angrily (and for the first time shows frustration with the unfairness of her situation) and she uses profanity. And for showing her displeasure with the unfairness of the system, Lacie is punished severely in the way that would hurt her the most when she needs grace the most (dropping her rating a full point (for one day) and putting her on a penalty that results in any new downvotes counting twice).

 But, I think this critique is a bit deeper than just exposing that the use of ugly words can have value.

What Nosedive exposes is how social expectations are used by powerful people to discipline and enforce class lines on the powerless. 

Recently, I have been watching the documentary "Hip-Hop Evolution" on Netflix (for like the tenth time) while I write this and I just reached the NWA portion (in Part 4).

During the rise of the hip-hop "gang" NWA there was a national outrage in response to many of the songs and lyrics on their classic album "Straight Outta Compton." This national outrage ultimately resulted in national Congressional Hearings and in a national albums rating system).

Obviously, Lacie isn't living any experience like what inspired "Straight Outta Compton" but both what happens to Lacie and what happened after the release of "F The Police" demonstrates how social norms and expectations are used to discipline dissent.

Most recently, during the national response to Colin Kaepernick's National Anthem protests and the response to Meryl Streep's Golden Globes speech millions of people opined that these protests were done "in the wrong way" and from "inappropriate" social positions.

When do people from within normal social structures usually object most to protest? Whenever protest is used at a time when it could actually disrupt the seamless illusion that everything is okay. This was the real message behind the brilliant restaurant scene in Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil. What really matters is the appearance that the system functions smoothly not the uncomfortable truth lying barely underneath the illusion. 

When would Lacie have the most reason to protest her treatment by an airline? I am guessing it is probably at the airport.  People downvote her in the line not because her anger is wrong or inappropriate but instead because her protest might inconvenience them and delay their own participation in socially desirable goods.

In short, we care more about someone or something causing our own discomfort (disturbing the appearance of social fairness) than we do about injustice. And this intense narcissistic protection of self is what really trickles down. Earlier in Nosedive, Lacie is socially pressured to pile on an employee at work who she clearly likes but that the office has decided to turn against. After being socially pressured Lacie turns against him too and the very last time we see him, he is locked out of his office for having low ratings.

Anyway, poor Lacie gets her rating knocked down so much that she can't even rent a good car to get to drive herself to the wedding. The smart car she ends up with doesn't even have English-speaking interfaces but in her typical indefatigable manner, Lacie keeps on trucking.

And Lacie keeps on trucking until she finds out that her car is out of juice so she pulls over only to find that her car's charger was so antiquated it wouldn't interface with the chargers (damn electric cars). After her polite interaction with the charging station attendant even he unfairly downvotes her.

So, she starts to walk. 

No, seriously, she starts to walk the rest of the way to the wedding.

After a short period of time, Lacie gets picked up by a woman truck driver named Susan (Cherry Jones) with ratings so low that Lacie is reluctant to even accept the ride. But as it turns out, Susan (the lowest rated person in Nosedive) turns out to be the most authentic and nice person that Lacie encounters on her entire journey.

After Susan drops Lacie off, Naomi calls her and tells her that she is no longer invited to the wedding (because her ratings have dropped so far). Naomi lets it slip that she only invited Lacie because it would look good for her to have a friend who had "acceptably" low ratings. What Naomi is saying is that she wants to give the appearance of being concerned with the lower castes but not to actually have to be around or expose her friends to real social outcasts.

As long as Lacie was at an acceptable level, Naomi could use her to appear more like a caring and empathetic human being. If there is one common theme in Nosedive it is that the illusion is what matters most to continuing unjust systems.

Once Lacie finally arrives at the "island" resort where the wedding will take place she has to sneak in past armed guards waiting to stop social pariahs just like her. She does manage to break in and literally crashes the wedding even threatening Naomi's "Ken Doll" of a bride with a knife before being arrested.

And then, stripped of all hope of social redemption, her smartphone, and her dignity she finally can drop all pretense and even at her lowest point, locked in a tiny holding cell, she is able to have an authentic and enjoyable interaction with a man in the holding cell across from her.

And ultimately, authentic interactions with people like the truck driver and the guy in the holding cell (or with her brother, who also doesn't really care about anything but his friends) should be what matters and that kind of authenticity requires real honesty (honesty being the ONLY thing that can't exist inside the world of Lacie's app, a world maintained entirely through the illusion of compassion). 

Closing Time

Okay, that's the end of another episode of Black Mirror. I think I only have about four left (including everyone's favorite "San Junipero").

Still to come this week, two Mr. Robot posts and a Flash recap.

Thanks for reading! 

Let me know what you are thinking, leave a comment!

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