“Black Museum” opens with Nish driving along an empty road in a seemingly anachronistic car, listening Dionne Warwick’s rendition of “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me.” This should be an immediate clue of what the episode is up to; however, as Nish pulls into an electric charging station, it seems at first that her goal is simply to charge her car. She then walks next door to the Black Museum. This plays as though she is merely looking for something to do while she waits for her car to charge, but we ultimately learn that this is not the case.
“Black Museum” is rife with Easter eggs; that is, references to other episodes of Black Mirror. The aforementioned charging station is called BRB. After Nish enters the museum, we see a picture of Victoria Skillane, a hanging man who is probably Cartlon Bloom, a man in a mask with a shotgun, an AI bee, a bloody bathtub, the tablet from Arkangel, and the lollipop from USS Callister. I may well have missed something… Oh, right, the literal egg.
Later in the episode, Jack peruses a graphic novel called 15 Million Merits. The rats in Rolo Haynes’ first story are named Kenny and Hector. The hospital, which is referenced more than once, is called Saint Juniper’s, and when Haynes mentions cookies, Nish asks about sending old people to the cloud.
My point is not to try to list up all of the Easter eggs in this episode, but to think about what is going on at a meta level. This is Black Mirror offering us an episode called “Black Museum” that gathers up elements from the previous stories that have been told. We are thus meaningfully implicated in the question this episode asks. What are we doing when we enjoy this show? Why do we enjoy it?
We are presented with a triptych of stories, as we were in “White Christmas” – and these, once again, are told to us primarily by an unreliable narrator who is also despicable. Just as Matt lied in his recounting of his adventures leading the voyeuristic perverts club, Rolo lies as he tells Nish that Clayton Leigh’s family didn’t care what happened to him. (Of course, she knows better.) And both seem to have been involved in the development of technology for its own sake at some level; however heinous the crimes in which they ultimately engaged.
The first story involves a doctor, named Peter Dawson. Haynes offers him the chance to feel what his patients are experiencing, in order to better diagnose their ailments. He has an implant put it (via a procedure Haynes describes as both quick and irreversible), which enables him to feel whatever it is that the person wearing the concomitant “hairnet doohickey” is feeling. This helps him to diagnose patients, but also has advantages in the bedroom. Apparently they let him take the device home with him – which creates some continuity questions, but whatever – such that, as Haynes puts it, he is able to experience both male and female orgasms at the same time.
Things take a turn, however, when Dawson experiences the death of Senator Whitley. I really have no idea about Haynes’ claim that death releases a “tsunami of endorphins” followed by an experience of nothingness, though there may be some basis for this idea. Regardless, Dawson gets a taste for pain, and things go downhill from there. His girlfriend isn’t into it. He starts lurking around the ER for another taste of death, and ultimately gets barred from seeing patients.
So, he cuts himself and so on, but it lacks the element of fear. Thus we end up with him being caught as he drills into some guy. And now he is in coma; maybe smiling (Haynes made up the boner).
The questions that one might ask in relation to the technology at play in this story are hardly raised by the episode. For example, though Dawson clearly represents a case of this ability to experience the feelings of others gone awry, is this technology objectionable in and of itself? It is the latter type of question that Black Mirror tends to focus on, by homing in on interpersonal dynamics and the understandable decisions that people make in a world that include the tech in question. Dawson’s story, on the other hand, doesn’t flow from the intrinsic logic of his “sympathetic diagnoser” so much as from the exceptional fact that through it he experienced death without dying. Surely, such a device could be used more propitiously; Haynes himself notes that Dawson saved lives before things went wrong. But this question remains unexplored. Haynes’ telling of the story is, instead, salacious, and Nish’s only question is whether Dawson is in prison as she believes he deserves.
Rolo’s next story is discordant with Black Mirror‘s tendencies in a different way. Here, the technology in question – a digital copy of a person, or “cookie” – is familiar from previous episodes, but its deployment is more straight-forwardly objectionable. After Jack and Carrie get together and have a child, she is hit by a van; an event that leaves her in a coma. There is a device that allows her somehow to answer yes or no questions, but then Haynes arrives with the offer to place her consciousness into Jack’s mind. He isn’t sure at first, but Carrie lights up the “Yes” light on the device, leading Haynes to say, “She’s made up her mind; what about you?” – a question he will repeat later in the story.
It is also a question that is manipulative. It undermines Jack’s ability to make a rational decision by instead asking him to focus on his emotions in relation to the woman he loves. Because, to be honest, it is hard to see how anyone could ever rationally think this to be a good idea.
The problems that arise are all too predictable: Jack lacks privacy, and Carrie lacks agency. Only he can determine what it is that “they” do, but she is always watching. Her frustration at not being able to exert any control is understandable, but so too is his. Why is it, though, that privacy is something we value?
The crux of the issue seems not to be a matter of consequences. The argument offered in support of government surveillance that, “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about” falls flat. If it goes through for anyone, it is only in a circumscribed manner; that is, only with the thought that the surveillance itself is limited its scope, and only focused on looking for signs of terrorism, or something like that. The kind of thorough-going surveillance portraying in Orwell’s 1984, on the other hand, is likely to strike all of us as objectionable. This is because the very fact of being watched affects one’s behavior. When a guest leaves, there is a certain sense of relief, for example. It is no surprise that Jack says that he hasn’t been able to masturbate since Carrie took up space in his head. It’s not a matter of something particular to their relationship, but something far more general. One might be able to imagine, e.g., a relationship wherein masturbation was not such an issue, but something would be; it could even be something as simple as what you watch on TV.
So, in an attempt to mitigate the effects of this clearly bad idea, Jack signs up for an upgrade that enables him to place Carrie on pause, and proceeds to do so for a matter of months. This pisses her off, of course. They come to an arrangement to turn her on over the weekends so she can see their son, but that runs into problems when Jack meets another woman named Emily and strikes up a relationship with her. Ultimately, Carrie’s consciousness gets placed in a stuffed monkey that can only say either, “Monkey loves you” or “Monkey needs a hug” and her son Parker eventually gets sick of the toy.
This is pretty terrible, but, again, what is striking is the extent to which it is not possible to think otherwise. Black Mirror tends to truck in far more ambiguity than this. The cookie of Joe in “White Christmas” may have been subjected to a more terrible fate – forced to listen to an annoying song for some 1.5 million years, at least – but Joe himself was at least guilty of a crime. Carrie was innocent, and while one may be able to sympathize with the ways in which Jack became annoyed at her presence in his mind, nothing justifies the idea of her being trapped inside of stuffed monkey for eternity. For, as Haynes notes, the monkey itself is the crime. Cookies have been granted human rights (as we saw in a news scroll in Hated in the Nation), which also made her deletion illegal.
This leads to the last story, which gets to why Nish is really visiting the Black Museum. The main exhibit is a holographic cookie of Clayton Leigh, alleged murderer. Haynes says he originally wanted to get celebrities and the like, but procuring the rights was too difficult. We flashback to Leigh signing himself over prior to his execution. Haynes says his family didn’t care, while we are shown Leigh’s wife begging him not to it. But he does, and the family is to get the profits.
Thus, Haynes’ main attraction, which allows visitors to the Black Museum to pull the lever to execute Leigh themselves, and gives them a souvenir keychain containing a copy of his consciousness, suffering for all time.
Apparently, it was a hit, until the protests and the like that Nish mentions. There’s a good chance that Leigh was innocent, and more and more people became aware of that. A deep question that the episode poses, but does not explore, is whether that should matter. Would it be OK to do this to someone – or a cookie of someone – if they truly had committed some heinous crime?
In fact, “Black Museum” does suggest a certain answer to that question, as Nish enacts her revenge on Haynes for having done this to her father, and captures his suffering in a memento of her own. Did you cheer when this happened? As Nish placed an eternally suffering copy of Haynes’ soul around her car mirror? Does the despicable nature of his actions mean it is just to deprive him of his rights?
This is where the move to grant human rights to cookies becomes more interesting, because we are led to think about the rights of criminals, murderers, terrorists and the like. Is what someone has done ever a warrant for depriving them of their rights? To what extent?
We certainly have a history, as human beings, of doing precisely that, and the move is not without a philosophical basis. Social Contract theory, for example, would suggest that one only has a moral status on the basis of an agreement to the Social Contract. This would be a set of rules grounded in the notion of mutual benefit. I agree not to kill you on condition that you all agree not to kill me, for example. Which works OK – the agreement need not be explicit – but this approach to morality leaves the criminal out of the moral story entirely. They are in breach of contract, and thus no longer protected by it. If one thinks, on the other hand, that how we treat criminals matters, morally, then such an approach will seem to be sorely lacking.
After killing Haynes, and trapping a suffering copy of his soul in a keychain souvenir, Nish sets the Black Museum on fire and drives off into the sunset. She has taken the Carrie-monkey with her. Dionne Warwick plays once again, and it is revealed that Nish’s mother has been along for the ride in her mind. She tells Nish that she has done good.
But, has she, though? Isn’t this just a revenge fantasy, far less nuanced than what we have come to expect from Black Mirror? Should we really be taking glee in seeing Haynes suffer in that keychain?
This gets to the real point of “Black Museum,” which is to call into question our motivation as viewers. What are we in this for? Are we just looking for fucked up stories centered around technology? Are we feeling schadenfreude as the bad people get their comeuppance? Are we thinking about whether it is deserved, or about how this is actually a critique of the world we are already living in?
The manner in which Rolo Haynes presents his stories call us into question. His interest is by no means detached, or neutral; it feels almost prurient. Are we like him, when it comes to these stories? The Black Museum clearly seems to be a representation of Black Mirror itself. What might it mean, then, that at the end they decided to burn it down?