Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has described this new episode of his anthology drama series as “a selection box for Christmas”. If this tale was, indeed, a box of chocolates, they'd no doubt be the ones from that famous Monty Python sketch – every bite into the delicious chocolatey goodness on the shell revealing something disgusting inside, like a crunchy frog or a cockroach cluster. Distasteful, yes. But you can't stop biting into the next one, either, because you just have to know what misery awaits...
And what misery it is: three interconnected stories, each of them alternating between hilarious and deeply uncomfortable, with the final scene guaranteed to stay in viewers' heads for a very long time. Wizzard's “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” is now a horror anthem so exquisitely terrifying you may never be able to hear it again without breaking into a cold sweat – and thus, given our familiarity with the song and its overuse at this time of year, it could even be argued that Charlie Brooker has ruined Christmas. That's quite some feat, Charlie! Do we congratulate you or punch you on the nose?
Much about this episode is fed by things we've seen in previous Black Mirrors, particularly the use of technology, but overall it's a damning indictment of the callousness of humans; what a lovely Christmassy subject! Despite being played for laughs (until the end, at least), the opening sequence featuring the bloke on the pull being given tips by a team of helpers is creepy as hell: stalking taken to a whole new level, particularly when we realise they're going to hang around and watch while he has sex with his conquest. Just... no. But when the guy is poisoned, it's both good to see him get his comeuppance and troubling, too – how are we supposed to feel about his death? Brooker's writing, as usual, plays to both our empathy and our sadism.
(One note here: unless we somehow missed any references to say otherwise, it seems Natalia Tena's character is murderous simply because she's suffering from a mental illness, as opposed to being manipulated by anything technological like many of the other characters. It's a bit of a shame such a hackneyed, old-fashioned depiction of schizophrenia slipped into to an otherwise incredibly enlightened script.)
Did You Spot?
There were three giant red “X”s above the bed when it looks as though the couple in the first story are about to do the dirty deed. Subtle...
Next up is a chilling sequence that sees a woman enslaving her own brain without a thought for the moral consequences for her cloned other half, an idea that cleverly pans out into the episode's final reveal. And then there's the real belly punch: the story of how Rafe Spall's tortured Potter ended up murdering a child, given a typically Brooker-esque twist by featuring Facebook-style “blocking” as the mechanism that creates the disaster. It's so sharp, so on the nose, that barely a second of the action rings false – well, if you pointedly look away from all that fake snow, that is.
Linking everything together is Jon Hamm as the charming – yet also snake-like – Matt, a role the star could probably play in his sleep after years on Mad Men, but in a show as low-key as this one, he excels. His eventual fate is almost as chilling as that of the people who's lives he's ruined: cursed to wander forever without a face. Ouch.
Black Mirror has been wowing us here since it first aired in 2011, and since hitting Netflix in the US this month it's gone ballistic (even Stephen King has tweeted his love for the show). Brooker has been cagey about whether the series will return or not (“Watch this space,” is all he'll say, although it's hard to know if he's talking about Black Mirror or something else entirely). On the strength of “White Christmas”, we can only hope he has much, much more nastiness up his sleeve. Although do we wish it could be Black Mirror every day? On the strength of this Wizzardry, that would be too much to cope with.
When we attended the preview screening at Channel 4 we were handed specially-made Black Mirror Christmas crackers containing jokes written for the occasion by Charlie Brooker himself. Here's the one that turned up in our cracker.
Location Location Location
The opening Christmas party sequences were filmed in the The Turk's Head pub, Twickenham, just over the road from this trusty reviewer's own home. This isn't the pub's debut on screen by a long way: among many other appearances, Ringo Starr played darts there in A Hard Day's Night.
Black Mirror is regularly compared to The Twilight Zone. It could be coincidence, but there seems to be a little homage here to the 1986 episode “To See The Invisible Man”, based on a Robert Silverberg short story, which also features a main character “blocked” from being seen by the rest of society for being a criminal.
Black Mirror: White Christmas aired on Tuesday 16 December on Channel 4 in the UK.