Luke Owen reviews the first episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror season 2…
Back for a second series, Black Mirror once again holds up its broken mirror to society to show us what we may not want to see.
In the first episode Be Right Back, Martha (Hayley Atwell) struggles with the death of her boyfriend Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) when a friend suggests that she sign-up for a new process which allows you to communicate with the dead as if they were alive. It’s another brilliant idea from Charlie Brooker that is handled quite well for the most part, but does lose its way by the last quarter.
Unlike the first episode of the last season where it was a black comedy that poked fun at social media and how it runs the media rather than the other way round, Be Right Back is a more sombre, low-key and all together depressing affair about grief and how people deal with it in different ways. In this alternative future, there is a way of contacting those you’ve lost by a computer accessing everything they’ve put out publicly via social media and then create an accurate profile of how they may talk. This goes a step further when Martha uploads videos and phone calls to the system so she can talk to Ash before things take a disturbing turn of events.
Because the story is simple in nature, at the centre of this episode is Atwell’s performance, which is simply fantastic. She shines as the troubled Martha with such brilliance and realism in what is easily the best performance of Black Mirror‘s short lifetime. We have two more episodes left, but I can’t see her being outdone here. Gleeson is equally as great and gives a nice and sweet performance at the start which instantly attaches you to him – making his death all the more tragic. From there he is reserved to voice acting only before the mid-show reveal in which he again gives a stellar performance. Even though their relationship isn’t given a whole lot of screen time, you feel an instant connection with them which adds a lot of gravitas to the mid and closing moments of the episode.
As with all good anthology shows of this ilk, it raises important questions. Is this a good way for people to deal with grief in a social media obsessed world? Just because we want to talk to someone we miss, would that help the grieving process, especially when that person isn’t real?
By the mid-point of the show, the episode takes a strangely dark turn as Martha connects with Ash in an almost Chia Pet style which leads to some incredible character moments and ideas. I think I preferred her talking to Ash via phone as it was a more powerful image, but this visual aspect was very thought provoking and made for a great story dynamic. Atwell’s performance in these scenes is simply breath-taking which is coupled beautifully with director Owen Harris’ low-key shot and lighting choices. Harris’ vision of the future is also ideal for this story with technology moving faster than life itself, which means that the surroundings look familiar and the technology doesn’t look that farfetched – adding to the believability of the story.
However, I do think the fault of the episode lies in its conclusion. After a wonderful slow burn build we’re left with a fairly anti-climactic ending which doesn’t really conclude any of Martha’s character progression. She makes her decision and through some simple words and emotions screws herself into a life she clearly doesn’t want. While it’s certainly an impactful ending and did leave me shell shocked, I don’t think it was right for the character or the story.
Regardless of the ending, Be Right Back is an incredible piece of television that is beautifully crafted. It’s slow burn storytelling and sombre atmosphere make for an immersive experience and Atwell’s performance is sublime. It’s a great start to what I’m sure will be another great series of Black Mirror.
Luke Owen is one of the co-editors of Flickering Myth and the host of the Flickering Myth Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @CGLuke_o.