This isn’t exactly a recap, but it contains spoilers
I’m the kind of person who tends to replay things. In my head. Meetings, conversations at parties, awkward smalltalk in hallways, random exchanges with cashiers. I’ll turn these incidents over in my mind over and over again, examine them from every possible angle, seeking out the insinuations and undertones and tacit communications I may have missed in the moment. Statements I might have misinterpreted, facial expressions I didn’t notice at the time, gestures I caught only out of the corner of my eye. I don’t like this part of my personality, but it’s there. The only thing keeping this part of me at bay—this obsessive, vain, self-conscious part of me—is the limitation of my memory. I can’t recall everything from a dinner party or staff meeting; who can? And you can’t obsess over what you can’t remember.
Which is exactly why “The Entire History of You” terrifies me. It may not be the most conventionally scary episode of Black Mirror—there’s one coming up in Season 2, in particular, that’s a real doozy—but I still find it the most horrifying because it future it posits is just so plausible. In the episode, people have the ability to record their memories with surgically implanted “grains”; they can also play back these memories anytime they want to, on virtually any TV screen or, most chillingly, on their own eyeballs. One need not look far in our own world to see the likelihood of this kind of technology—or something like it—actually taking hold. Social media platforms from Twitter to Instagram have already led us to document ever more and more of our daily lives; if the technology to simply record everything for posterity presented itself, I could easily imagine the culture jumping for it. And the advent of wearable technology like Google Glass puts us within a stone’s throw of actually having this kind of capability with us wherever we go.
“The Entire History of You” pays lip service to the societal impacts of such technology taking hold—an advocate for grain implantation cites the unreliability of human memory, the myriad false or inaccurate memories that reside in our brains presenting themselves as true. It’s not hard to see how the ability to reliably record everything that happens to a person transforming, for instance, the way we as a society prosecute crime, particularly crimes like rape or unwitnessed police brutality, which rely so maddeningly on the shifting sands of human memory, and on people to be honest when it doesn’t serve their interests. On the other side of the ledger, the episode shows us the ways in which such technology could be used to further erode privacy: before Liam’s allowed to get on a plane, he must replay the last week’s worth of memories for a security guard, and Liam’s law firm is meanwhile looking into the possibility of retroactive lawsuits for retrieved memories of bad parenting
But Black Mirror doesn’t care that much about the societal impacts of technology—from episode to episode, the show is more interested in how the tech distorts the human person, how it dirties the soul by giving vent to impulses that might have been better left untapped. It’s a bit like my habit of dredging up moments of awkwardness, embarrassment, and shame from my past to torment myself with. That’s no way to live. We’re not meant to walk around like zombies with the past projected on our irises. We’re meant to live right now.
“The Entire History of You” isn’t quite as brilliant or complicated as the previous “15 Million Merits,” but it’s a perfect Twilight Zone-ish concoction that packs a hell of a punch. In a world where people can play back their memories at will, writer Charlie Brooker finds the perfect situation to use as a vehicle for his exploration of the technology: a fight between a married couple, Liam and Ffion. He thinks she was just a little too flirtatious with a man from the dinner party they’ve just come from, and their subsequent fight is the kind of winding, nasty all-nighter in which everything that gets said comes back to haunt the person who’s said it, and things said or unsaid in the distant past are invoked in support of one argument or another.
That description could fairly be applied to any fight by any couple anywhere—except that Liam and Ffion actually have the ability to look up and play back exactly what their partner said, all the way back to the beginning of the relationship. Liam, for instance, catches Ffion in a lie by replaying something she said years earlier, over pillow talk after their first time. But when Liam carelessly tells his wife, “Sometimes you’re a bitch,” Ffion immediately rewinds and plays it back to him on a loop: “You’re a bitch, you’re a bitch, you’re a bitch”—a moment that should resonate for anyone who’s ever said something to a loved one in the heat of the moment that they’ve immediately regretted.
Ultimately, the episode works better as story than it does as commentary. The final revelation that Liam’s suspicions were correct and Ffion did cheat on him, for instance, works well as a wicked twist, but may slightly undermine any point Brooker was trying to make. Wouldn’t it have been better if Liam’s suspicions were truly all in his head, that the grain was really making him paranoid? And the episode, moreover, contains no dramatization of what I find to be the most chilling effect of our society’s tendency to document more and more of our personal lives for posterity: the transformation of the everyday into a kind of performance. A world where every memory is recorded feels, to me, like a world where people are increasingly guarded with each other, playacting and art directing everyday life in an effort to make sure their memories come out right—like posing for an Instagram photo, except multiplied over every waking moment.
Even so, “The Entire History of You” is a near-perfect bit of television, packing more into its 45 minute runtime than most films manage in two hours. What sticks most about the episode, for me, are ultimately the stray moments—Liam and Ffion silently having sex, faced away from each other as a hot moment from their past love lives plays on their eyeballs. And the final scene of Liam wandering around an empty house, playing happy moments from his past. What exactly is going on in this scene? Did Ffion leave with their baby. Did she go to Jonas? Or is there something more sinister at play? What did Liam do?
It’s unclear—but what is clear, portrayed before our eyes on the screen, is Liam’s decision to root out his grain. In Black Mirror, this is what passes for a good choice, an ethical decision: the decision to look away. It’s a decision Charlie Brooker’s characters rarely make—and when they do, it’s often far too late anyway.