A Christmas Special has become somewhat cemented into festive traditions, as we gather around a warm fire watching our favourite series. Andy Williams once described it as ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’, and it appears that television reacts with a similar kind of optimism. Sometimes it’s with comedic glee, such as Mark’s hilarious ‘No turkey, Jeremy?’ rant in Peep Show, which brilliantly captures the trials and tribulations of cooking a Christmas dinner. Other series use the setting as a plot device, like the long-awaited catharsis to the ‘will they, or won’t they?’ story of Tim and Dawn in the final episode of The Office.
Christmas television has become so conventional with broadcasting that I often wonder if ‘Special’ editions of shows such as EastEnders or Strictly Come Dancing will actually ever end. Contrary to this, Charlie Brooker’s anthology series Black Mirror has never been one to familiarise with convention, never mind something as traditional as Christmas. Back in 2014 though, White Christmas brought something original and exciting to our screens, an episode that examines a time not too distant from our own, albeit with a few frightening technology updates.
The episode utilises the Christmas setting with great effect – focusing on three very different, but flawed people in storylines that weave in and out of each other, intertwining like decorations on a tree. At the heart of Brooker’s Christmas nightmare are Matt (Jon Hamm in excellent form), and Joe (Rafe Spall), an initially quiet, humble man who wakes up on Christmas Day in a wintery outpost. Brooker’s commentary on our increasingly dependent relationship with technology has always felt dangerously prescient, and here features a concept that echoes Google Glass. It’s similar to the perception in the Season 1 episode The Entire History of You, except that it’s been hijacked for voyeurism.
‘Part 1’ of the episode centres on Matt’s seedy activities as a ‘dating coach’, which consists of helping a young client seduce a young woman. There’s an office Christmas party in which the shy, naïve Harry intrudes upon, with Matt’s instructions in his ear acting as some sort of creepy conscience. Not weirded out enough yet? You will be. Matt’s goals are for his client to pull so he can sell the live stream to a group of online peeping Toms. This is only Matt’s job on the side, which obviously disgusts Joe, as his real profession is then revealed. The episode then unfolds into a Kubrickian commentary on identity and consciousness, with Brooker savaging what can only be described as digital slavery. It’s Black Mirror at its most prophetic, and at its most eerily plausible.
And then we have Joe’s story, as his presence in the outpost is told in its full Shakespearian tragedy. Christmas may have never felt bleaker, but the episode is consistently engaging, as the issues surrounding social-blocking become a harsh reality for Joe. It’s hard not to feel a sense of sympathy for this seemingly understated character, who is developed into a sort-of serial stalker. That being said, episodes such as White Bear reflect that Brooker is someone unafraid to make his protagonists suffer. In White Christmas Brooker confirms this status.
Matt will live in a world where he’s perpetually blocked by everyone that surrounds him, whereas Joe will experience an equally terrifying sense of isolation. Brooker finds humour even in the most horrific of circumstances, poking fun at the monotony of over-played seasonal songs. As somebody who has spent perhaps too much time in a supermarket over the Christmas period, feelings of repetitiveness and mundanity can be truly palpable. Think the perennial Bobby Helms’ Jingle Bell Rock song, and how satisfying it would sometimes be if the ‘Rock’ was replaced with ‘Stop’. Well, that’s how it must feel for Rafe Spall’s Joe, who finds himself in a never-ending loop to the sound of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, an already soul-crushing song, which Black Mirror effectively turns into torture. It’s absolutely brilliant from Brooker.
Black Mirror returns on 29th December 2017 and will be available on Netflix.