Charlie Brooker ruins Christmas for everyone with one of the best bits of telly of the year.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve written about TV (or, well, anything) on here but when I got the invite to visit the basement of Channel 4’s swish HQ and watch the brand new Black Mirror special, White Christmas, of course I couldn’t resist.
Along with BBC Two’s Inside No 9, Black Mirror has seen the resurgence of the Tales of the Unexpected-style anthology series to British television. This feature-length Christmas special takes its inspiration from the classic portmanteau horror films such as Dead of Night and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, where strangers are gathered together by someone (pretty much always Peter Cushing) to swap scary stories which are usually linked together with a twist ending.
Here, the framing device is provided by Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall stationed at a snowy outpost far away from the rest of civilisation, swapping tales about their past around the Christmas dinner table. Game of Thrones actors Oona Chaplin and Natalia Tena are among those who appear in these short stories.
Charlie Brooker’s first two series of twisted tales were very well received when they were first broadcast here in the UK and are now receiving a new, even bigger, wave of critical acclaim in the United States with their release on Netflix there in just the last couple of weeks. The six episodes so far have been diverse in style and setting, from the absurd and darkly comic The National Anthem to the claustrophobic dystopia of reality TV satire Fifteen Million Merits, but were all about our relationship with technology and anxieties over how things might be going just a few short steps into the future.
This seasonal episode references back to, as far as I could tell, every single one of those previous six episodes, both thematically and also with some Easter eggs hidden away for the more eagle-eyed viewer (Update: I’ve since asked Charlie and he’s confirmed that there’s a nod to every episode buried in there somewhere, so there’s some fun to be had on rewatch). Where those previous episodes have generally changed in tone from week to week, sometimes more comic, melancholic or, in the case of White Bear, horrific, here things start off with some very funny moments but soon a sense of dread builds and things start to get very, very dark.
Without wanting to spoil anything, I can confidently say that the ending is easily the most haunting thing you’ll see on television this Christmas, with the final images living long in the memory and ensuring that you’ll never be able to hear a certain popular Yuletide song in the same way again. Although, as Brooker says, it’s “not as bleak as whatever EastEnders will be doing on Christmas Day”, it is still pretty damn bleak, even heartbreaking. He added that it fits alongside the tradition of scary stories during the festive season, from A Christmas Carol to the BBC’s 1970s MR James adaptations such as Whistle and I’ll Come to You.
For much of the episode, Mad Men star John Hamm has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and he is superb, with his effortless charm shining through the screen. He says when he got the script he realised it was something special “from the very first page”, calling it “like nothing else he’d seen before”. When Rafe Spall finally starts to tell his story, though, he is utterly incredible as he deals with the most difficult and traumatic tale of the lot, a take on ‘blocking’ someone which goes far beyond not being able to see their social media posts. Again, he says the script had him hooked as soon as he started reading, calling it a “page-turner”. I’d like to tell you more about Chaplin and Tena’s roles but some things are best left to go into with as little foreknowledge as possible.
White Christmas makes excellent use of the feature-length format (on set, Brooker and producer Annabel Jones whispered to each other that they were making ‘Black Mirror: The Movie’), giving each of the three stories room to breathe and allowing the overarching narrative to take its time. When it does reach its shocking conclusion, it ties together everything we’ve seen over the previous 90 minutes in a way that is as satisfying as it is chilling. The themes of the episode are ripped right out of today’s headlines, from seedy dating coaches and Twitter trolls to Google Glass and the Amazon Echo, all with the series’ now-familiar warnings about where all our dazzling new technology might be taking us in the not-too-distant future if we’re not careful.
If you’re a fan of Black Mirror, as I am, then you will love this episode. The three stories aren’t all as good as each other, with the middle one not quite landing the emotional punches it needs to or fully exploring the issues it hints at, but overall it is right up there with the best of the series so far and will be one of the highlights of another excellent year for television drama. But, boy, is it bleak. Really, really bleak.
And as for more Black Mirror to come? “Watch this space”, says Brooker.