If you’re one of those curmudgeonly “Bah, humbug!”-types who has already tired of the warm sentiment, glitzy nostalgia and general feeling of goodwill the festive period traditionally bestows upon us, then Channel 4 has a chilling alternative guaranteed to make your shrivelled heart shrink another three sizes: Black Mirror: White Christmas, the seasonal special of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian satire anthology.
This feature-length episode begins with Rafe Spall’s character Joe Potter waking up in a remote snowy outpost as Wizard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ endlessly blasts from a radio. Potter, of course, is not alone, sharing his desolate tundra with Matt Trent – a much-hyped Jon Hamm, somewhat typecast as a sly scumbag – who cajoles his cabin mate into joining him for Christmas dinner so that they can swap yarns about their lives in the outside world and reveal how they came to arrive in their arctic purgatory. But is anything really as it appears?
White Christmas serves as Brooker’s personal homage to The Simpsons’s iconic ‘Treehouse of Horrors’ specials, enveloping three separate tales of tech-paranoia into one portmanteau horror with the bleak outpost serving as the frame.
The first story follows Hamm’s character, who runs an online dating service that doubles as an underground hub for horny webcam owners. Through the magic of an electronic implant called ‘Z-Eye’, Trent is able to see through the eyes of his client – a shy whippet played by Rasmus Hardiker – and coach him in the art of seduction by using social media to ‘research’ his potential lovers – which seems entirely plausible considering the recent scandal about proselytising pickup artists.
Hamm also features in the second narrative strand, which finds Oona Chaplin playing the overworked Greta, who undergoes a dangerous surgery to copy her consciousness and enslave it in an egg to make the perfect personal assistant. The actual surgery is depicted in a horrifying manner, as Greta’s internal monologue describes the dislocating horror of the procedure, and the tale only becomes more disturbing as Trent tortures the copy until she complies with her owners demands.
Needless to say, both tales unfold in unexpected and unsettling ways, and Brooker ventures down some grim avenues – Hardiker’s character suffers a particularly harrowing end at the hands of his chosen one-night stand. What’s frustrating is that neither story can deliver the emotional impact to ground the dystopian fantasy in any real meaning. This is almost entirely due to the way we constantly cut back to Hamm narrating from the outpost, which disrupts the intimacy of the story and makes for a disjointed viewing experience.
But it’s also because these first two stories are merely setups for the ideas and themes explored in greater depth in Spall’s tale, and unsurprisingly his is the one that registers the greatest impact. Recalling two of Black Mirror’s strongest episodes, The Entire History of You and Be Right Back, Spall’s narrative focuses on the implosion of his character’s once-loving relationship.
Throughout the episode, Brooker weaves his typical anxieties about how technological advancements are destroying our ability to make real human connections, focusing mostly on wearable technology. Thus, Google Glass mutates into an irreversible implant that can alter our perception of reality. This single idea spawns a wave a paranoid fantasies that are used to great effect, the most poignant being the concept of ‘blocking’ someone in real life.
This is used to devastating effect in Spall’s storyline when, following a domestic squabble with his pregnant girlfriend, Potter is forcibly removed from her life, appearing only as a static silhouette and a muffled voice. ‘Blocking’ has legal backing and comes with an enforced restraining order that pushes Potter into a plummeting spiral of grief and troubling thoughts of what might have been, and his endless suffering provides the episodes most subtly moving moments.
The performances are outstanding all-round, Hamm always charming if a little overpowering as he hides a dark manipulative streak behind a twinkling charisma that serves him well in coercing Potter to reveal his own truths. Chaplin also impresses in her dual role, juxtaposing the serenity of her character’s physical self with the tortured shell of her virtual double; it’s a pity we don’t get to see more of her. It’s Spall, though, who stands out most, transforming from an earnestly taciturn everyman wounded by heartbreak into a withered and tragic figure as he slowly unravels the full depth of his misery.
White Christmas is unlikely to rank among the strongest Black Mirror episodes, the sense that Hamm and Chaplin’s stories are incomplete is a hard one to shake and Brooker may have been better served devoting more time to Spall’s strand. And yet, while it is profoundly depressing, it’s hard to think of another show that is brave enough to be so bold and creative during a festive period that is perennially unimaginative. For that alone it should be celebrated, even if it isn’t fully enjoyed.
Click here to watch Black Mirror: White Christmas on 4oD