‘Black Museum’: On voyeurism, grisly anthologies, and an appropriately uncomfortable finale

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‘Black Museum’ is the final instalment in the latest series of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’; which, for anyone that doesn’t know, is one of the bleakest shows around. Often centred around our relationship with technology in the twenty-first century, and often a necessary critique of our obsession with social media and the validation we find in online worlds, it serves up some brilliant nihilism. After five episodes involving various versions of reality, malevolent artificial intelligence, and unprecedented violence, the brilliant fourth series drew to a close with a tale of voyeurism, societal injustice, and twisted curiosity.

The episode begins in a desolate desert landscape, as a young woman (Letitia Wright) kills some time in the remote, titular Black Museum while her (solar-powered!) car charges. From the moment our protagonist, introduced to us as Nish, steps foot inside this house of curiosities, the entire atmosphere of the episode becomes increasingly unnerving. After being greeted by a rather sleazy curator, Rolo Haynes, whose name is surely up there with some of the Bond villains for outlandishness, Nish follows him on a tour of the museum’s grisly artefacts. Relic by disturbing relict, Nish makes her way through the gallery’s features, as Haynes, played by Douglas Hodge, narrates the tales behind a few of the objects and explains exactly how they ended up in a museum dedicated to criminal items.

So, we begin our journey through some truly disturbing stories, some grotesque, and others downright tragic, as they unfold before our eyes in a gruesome anthology. Each tale told by Haynes affects us differently, but all leave us with the unsettling reminder that there really are people in this world that wish to take advantage of other’s misfortunes. Where one suffers, another stands to gain. It’s a depressing thought, but such is the nature of ‘Black Mirror’. The first story we are told by Haynes is that of a doctor; one rapidly losing patients and, subsequently, caught in the throes of desperation. Haynes, who reveals himself to be a former pioneer in technology and a ‘recruiter’ of volunteers for experiments, offered the doctor a solution – of sorts. After all, this is ‘Black Mirror’. No ‘solution’ is ever exactly what it seems. Eventually, the doctor’s newfound ability to sense the pain of others led him to develop a sadomasochistic addiction; in which the greater the pain of others became, the more his pleasure grew. His unfortunate obsession results in some of the most horrifying visuals that ‘Black Mirror’ has ever produced, from self-mutilation to the brutal murder of an innocent in the pursuit of sexual gratification. Such scenes prove incredibly difficult to watch, and leave a sour aftertaste. Ultimately, it is a grisly anecdote and a deeply uncomfortable concept. So far, so ‘Black Mirror’.

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Our second story is less grisly, but far more heart-wrenching. The criminal item used to set the scene here seems harmless enough: a toy monkey with a wide smile spread across its face. This monkey, however, is home to some truly upsetting memories. A loving father, Jack, tending to his comatose wife, is approached by none other than Haynes, who, the episode begins to make clearer, is an unapologetic opportunist, and told of a way in which his partner, Carrie, can return to both him and their young son. Following Haynes’ persuasion, Jack agrees to have Carrie’s consciousness transferred into his brain, so that she is able to see, feel, and hear the world again. In doing so, she can finally embrace their child, Parker, again and, Jack initially believes, re-join the two of them in familial bliss. All, however, does not go entirely according to plan. What begin as minor irritations, such as Carrie scolding Jack for snapping at Parker and voicing complaints about his apparent lack of personal hygiene, soon develop into full blown arguments; and drive Jack to the brink of insanity. As his relationship with Carrie sours, and a new one shows promise, Jack returns to Haynes and asks what he can do about the now unwanted voice inside his head. Haynes offers yet another ‘resolution’ and in comes the toy monkey. As a supposed compromise between Jack’s frustration and Carrie’s desire to see Parker, Carrie’s consciousness is once again transferred elsewhere – this time into the furry body of a cuddly toy. For Jack, all is well. Carrie is still able to feel Parker, his mind is free of Carrie’s opinions, and he can live in peace with his new girlfriend. For Carrie, however, existence becomes a prison. Trapped inside an inanimate object, she is able to elicit only two emotions in the form of what are now rather haunting phrases: ‘monkey loves you’ and ‘monkey needs a hug’. Soon, as children do, Parker grows bored of his new plaything and his mother is left to suffer for the rest of eternity, perpetually imprisoned inside a discarded toy. Bleak doesn’t begin to cover it. This tale packs a huge emotional punch and will likely stay with many viewers for a while, for it is a concept so unimaginable that it left me genuinely shaken. Though only a short story, it is surely one of the most tragic in ‘Black Mirror’ history. Truly haunting.

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Following these two anecdotes, we come to the museum’s infamous ‘main attraction’, as Haynes leads Nish behind a curtain and reveals the sadistic feature that the entire episode has been leading up to. There, in a tiny, dreary cell sits a broken shell of a ‘man’, or, rather, a projection of a man’s consciousness. This, Haynes gleefully tells us, is Clayton Leigh (Babs Olusanmokun): a former death-row convict, whose ‘ghost’ is doomed to an eternity of torture. Having been convicted of murder, despite the serious doubt that we learn surrounded his case, Leigh agreed to sign his consciousness over to an evidently sociopathic Haynes, and is now part of a horrifying, torturously ‘interactive’ display. Guests are able to force Leigh to relive the agony of electrocution in the chair, as they simply pull a lever and watch as volt after volt courses through his body and leaves him to wallow in pain. Leigh’s suffering is an infuriating reminder of the way in which the lives of black people are often subjected to extreme injustice, while white supremacists get a kick out of watching Leigh and countless others like him ache and turn up in droves to inflict even more misery upon them. It is both timely and effective, leaving us to seethe as Leigh stares hollowly at a glass wall. After years upon years of torment, Leigh’s consciousness has become little more than an empty vessel, reduced to a vegetative state at the hands of a malicious public. It is heart-breaking to watch, and sickening to think about. To say what occurs following Nish’s introduction to what is left of Leigh would be to spoil an incredible ending, and the final, blistering scenes of ‘Black Museum’ deserve more than that.

Ultimately, ‘Black Museum’ is a thoroughly intriguing episode and feels like the perfect ending to the fourth series of ‘Black Mirror’. It forces its audience to consider our own capacity for voyeurism, as we sit and watch the unthinkable occur with every series of the show we consume, and offers up what is one of the most unsettling thoughts ‘Black Mirror’ has ever presented us with; that it is not our relationship with technology that will lead to horror, but our own desire to create suffering.

 

USS Callister | Arkangel | Crocodile | Hang the DJ | Metalhead | Black Museum

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