This is article is part of our Black Mirror Rewind series. The article contains heavy spoilers.
Black Mirror Season 2 Episode 1
Through four seasons and 19 episodes, Black Mirror has presented us with countless different casts, technologies, moods, moments, and murders. There is one theme that reigns supreme in each episode, however – one thesis statement that can accurately sum up the events of any given episode: Technology changes. People don’t.
Never has that theme been more cleanly presented, better articulated, or devastatingly realized than it is in “Be Right Back,” the season two opener.
“Be Right Back” is the best episode of Black Mirror because it never loses sight of its humanity. It understands that all of this technology and change isn’t the point. We are. The technology that we create and come to rely on reveals far more about us than almost anything else.
We’re a species still getting over the traumatic fears that come along with basic existence. We create email and new telecommunications devices to stay close to one another – to feel like we’re part of a pack, huddled together in a cold, uncaring world. We create entertainment like Black Mirror to pass all the hours we’re given and maybe even think about them critically. We create new medical technologies to buy us precious more time to figure all this shit out.
Human beings are a complicated, contradictory species living in a complicated, contradictory world. But when our lives are broken down to the most basic equation possible, they could be described as a quest to find love that conquers fear – all set against the backdrop of death.
In “Be Right Back,” we think we’ve found a way to buy more time – a way to defeat both death and fear so that love can live forever. We’re wrong. Because we almost always are.
“Be Right Back” opens with one of the most realistically comfortable and happy couples the show has ever featured. Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) and Martha (Hayley Atwell) are in love. We can tell that they’re in love because they just are. It’s not an act of expression. It’s an act of comfort and fit, and they fit together almost perfectly.
Ash is a lovable, red-headed goober. He’s a little too preoccupied with his phone, but aren’t we all? Still, he knows how to provide Martha with affection and attention when it’s important – even if he is a bit too knackered after a brief love-making session to help her finish. Look, man, we’ve all been there with this and the phone thing, too.
Martha and Ash’s love is perfect because it’s imperfect. They’re their own people – deep, complicated people filled with unknown depth. Martha is fascinated and disgusted to find out that Ash even apparently loves the Bee Gees of all things. That’s one of those fun little revelations that happens deep into a relationship that ultimately reveals nothing other than the surprising joy that there are still weird, stupid things to discover about your partner.
Martha is an artist and Ash is a delivery driver of some sort. One morning, Martha begins work on a new, important piece, leaving Ash to make the a delivery on his own. So he does. Yet throughout the day, she doesn’t hear from Ash. Anyone with a friend or a partner who is particularly communicative should know that feeling of dread.
As dusk begins to set in, Martha calls the delivery service and discovers that Ash never delivered the package. She calls her sister to calm down. Of course everything is ok, she says. You know the batteries on those phones are shit, she says. Then as Martha sits at her kitchen table, we see the glimmer of the unmistakable red and blue flashing lights of the police approaching her house. It’s among the most artful and devastating moments Black Mirror has ever presented. It’s real, it’s familiar, it’s scary.
Martha sleepwalks through the funeral. One of her friends, Sarah, mentions a new program to her that might help. After all, wasn’t Ash a “heavy-user?” Martha screams at her and returns home.
She sits in bed on her computer, rifling through Amazon-like pages of all the usual tools we’ve used to process grief historically: books. Then, in her email box, she sees a message from “Ash Starmer.”
“Yes it’s me.”
Martha calls her friend, screaming once again. She doesn’t care what it is. It’s obscene. It’s disgusting. Her friend explains that’s why she signed her up. Because it hurts. You click the link to the email and you talk to it. This unnamed system has scoured the internet for the digital impressions of Ash: social media, blog posts, etc. Then it creates a facsimile to communicate with.
“It won’t be…” Martha begins.
“No it won’t,” Sarah says. “But it will help.”
It’s not him. It’s not real. But it could help.
“Be Right Back” is an amazing episode of television because it understands our fears and holds our hand through them. It understands our deep-seated need or desire for the technology it’s about to present. It’s creepy, yes. It’s not real, yes. But will it help? Maybe. We’ve erected an entire industry full of rituals and routines around death just casting about in the darkness for something that will help – something that will make it all seem less real, or more real, or something, I don’t know.
We go through with the rituals because we’re afraid. And that’s ultimately what drives Martha to go through with this particular ritual. Fear. She discovers that she’s pregnant and in a low moment when her sister, Naomi, isn’t there to answer the phone, she decides to reach out to Fake Ash.
“Is that you?” she types to the picture of Ash in her email.
“No, it’s the late Abraham Lincoln,” he responds.
She laughs – out of shock and bewilderment.
“Of course, it’s me,” he continues.
“I only came here to say one thing.”
“What one thing?”
“Wow. So I’ll be a dad? I wish I was there with you now.”
If “Be Right Back” ended right there, at minute number 15, it would already have a claim to being one of the best Black Mirror episodes ever. It’s haunting, it’s devastating, and it’s unexpectedly cathartic in the way that all the best Black Mirror stories are.
Still “Be Right Back,” continues on. It gets richer, and scarier, and sadder. Because Martha’s interaction with Ash isn’t real but she finds it to be real enough. They continue to communicate. First just through email. Then Martha tells Ash she wishes she could speak to him. Like really speak. Well, as fate would have it, the next thing we know Martha is uploading hours of videos of Ash speaking to a website. Her phone rings.
“So…how am I sounding?” Ash says.
“You sound just like him.”
“Almost creepy isn’t it? I mean, I say creepy but I mean it’s totally batshit crazy I can talk to you. I don’t even have a mouth.”
“That’s just the sort of thing he would say.”
“That’s why I said it.”
Jesus, this episode. Martha begins to spend the majority of her days with Ash in her ear via bluetooth. They go for walks. She tells him about memories they cherished, and memories they don’t. She ignores calls from her sister.
One day after Martha gets her first ultrasound and wants to share the heartbeat with fake Ash, she drops and breaks her phone. She has a full-blown meltdown in the hospital waiting room. She’s lost him…again.
She rushes home after getting a new phone and the moment it’s charged she gets back in touch with Ash. It’s a terrifying experience. A traumatic one. The limitations of this interaction have become clear. Ash is just a voice on the other end of a telephone call. But phones break, calls get dropped.
“You’re very fragile,” Martha says.
“I was gonna talk to you about that…” Ash says.
And that’s how Ash gets his very own body.
Delivery men deliver a big crate filled with packing peanuts and a dehydrated human form. Martha adds the creepy, faceless mannequin creature to the bathtub, along with some electrolytes and nutrient gel – and just like that, Ash is back.
The sense of escalation in “Be Right Back” is remarkable. The episode is almost equally divided into three different portions of Ash’s “afterlife.” First, there are the email conversations, then the phone conversations, and finally the body. If the episode had jumped directly to the uncanny valley body version of Ash, I suspect both we and Martha would have rejected it. But by presenting them one-by-one in order it all somehow seems a lot more reasonable.
Not only that, but the escalation introduces a pseudo theme of addiction. Martha misses Ash, obviously. She misses everything about him, fully, completely, unrelentingly. The things that she is getting back, however, are just little pieces of him. First, his writing, and then his voice, before finally getting his body. But none of these things are him. They aren’t Ash. They’re just pieces that are filling in Martha’s dopamine receptors until those receptors are tapped out and she needs more. It’s like watching someone reconcile love and death in the form of an opiate addiction.
The final portion of “Be Right Back,” in which Ash has a corporeal form is undoubtedly its most creepy. When Martha first “meets” him, she notices that he doesn’t have a birthmark on his chest like Ash did. So he makes one.
He doesn’t eat. But he does cook. He looks like Ash on a good day. “The photos we keep tend to be flattering. I guess I wasn’t any different.” He doesn’t sleep but he’s remarkable in bed, attentive to her needs. This Ash will never be too tired to help Martha finish. He’s connected to the internet, so he knows exactly how much alcohol she should or should not be drinking in her first trimester.
He’s not real. But he does help.
Until he doesn’t. “Be Right Back” never becomes a horror movie. Ash’s software never gets corrupted. Martha is never in danger. Fake Ash is by all means a well-behaved, picture perfect approximation of the original. At the end of the day, however, he’s not Ash. And Martha can no longer pretend that he is.
There are no more surprises. She’ll never have another moment like when she discovered Ash liked the Bee Gees. This Ash is just an echo of all the things he had once posted online. He’s also safe. He’ll do what she says. He won’t argue.
When Martha demands Ash go downstairs to sleep and he immediately complies, it leads to one of the most provocative, unusual moments of the episode or any Black Mirror episode.
She hits him.
“Fight me! Hit me. HIT ME! Come on! Why are you just standing there taking this?” she cries.
“Did I ever hit you?” he asks, bewildered.
“No. Of course you didn’t but you might have if I had done this,” she says hitting him again.
Domestic violence is rightly one of the most taboo subjects in both real life and television. It’s abusive, and ugly, and terrifying. And somehow “Be Right Back” puts the audience in the position where we understand what Martha means when she commands a man, or at least the digital impression of a man, to hit her. It’s dangerous and it’s scary. And that’s what she wants. Or at least she wants something close to it. Something closer to an actual human being, who actually at least possesses the ability to react emotionally. Without logic. Not a machine that is programmed to respond in a series of algorithmic, non-violent ways.
It’s as good a climax as this episode can possibly achieve because of its ugliness. The back half of “Be Right Back” has a lot of work to do. It must somehow build a relationship between Martha and this newly corporeal Ash and then tear it all down again in about 20 minutes. Their hallway confrontation in which Martha outright pleads for violence is devastating and perfect.
The next day she leads Ash to a cliff and commands that he jump off. He cheerily agrees to do so before she tells him that’s not what the real Ash would do. Martha is at her wit’s end. She doesn’t know what else to do. Ash’s software tries to learn. It tries to beg for his life. But none of this is working anymore.
It’s not real.
And it’s not helping.
Martha screams and we flash-forward to the future. Martha’s daughter has been born and is now in her adolescence. It’s her birthday as a matter of fact. Martha’s daughter asks for another slice of cake so she can take it upstairs.
“It’s not the weekend,” Martha says.
“But it is my birthday,” her daughter says.
Martha opens up the attic door and her daughter climbs up to spend time with her friend, Ash. She beckons her mom to come up and join them. Martha hesitates, full of undeniable pain and then does so.
Back in the episode’s beginning, Ash and Martha were gathered on the couch in this very home and Ash was looking at a picture of his long-dead brother. After his brother died, Ash’s mother couldn’t deal with the pain and she hid all evidence of her son up in the attic – all of his toys, all of his photographs, everything.
By “Be Right Back’s” end, Martha has done the very same. What remains of Ash is the ultimate photograph, the ultimate toy, the ultimate memento, the ultimate headstone. So to the attic he goes.
What’s the lesson here? What’s the meaning of all of this? There isn’t one. Because we ourselves have not figured any of this grief shit out yet. All our lives exist in that weird continuum of clashing forces like love, death, memory, grief, and fear.
Martha did her best to reconcile those forces and deal with her pain but she failed. And that’s ok. Because she has a daughter who now at least gets to see the ultimate photograph of her father. And maybe next time around, Martha’s daughter’s generation will cure death itself, or crack the meaning of life, or at the very least make the absolute best pastries, or whatever.
Technology changes. People don’t.
But we’re trying.