This article contains spoilers for the Black Mirror episode “Beyond the Sea.”
Black Mirror Season 6 Episode 3
David Ross (Josh Hartnett) has it all – a beautiful family, a designer home, wealth, good looks, and the kind of job that makes young guys stop him at the movies because they want to shake him by the hand. The man we meet in the opening scenes of Black Mirror’s “Beyond the Sea” is everything American society in 1969 told men they should be – except real.
The fact that David and his colleague Cliff Stanfield (Aaron Paul) are robotic replicas on Earth who timeshare their consciousnesses with their human bodies while they man a mission up in space is not this episode’s Black Mirror twist. That comes much later, and is not so much a twist as the sobering reminder that nothing is so dangerous to women and children as a man with a bruised ego. In the 1960s, obviously, when “Beyond the Sea” is set. Not now. Imagine if that were still true now!
The episode, which wends its leisurely way over 84 minutes to an abrupt and extremely cynical ending, does a good job of disguising that its true subject is male violence. First, it presents as a story about grief, and then it hints at a tender, complex romance. By its final scene though, in which David casually kicks out a chair on board their space craft and gestures for Cliff to sit down, its meaning is clear: this is a story about men who see women and kids as possessions. It uses a sci-fi setting as the stage on which to tell a domestic tale. These 1960s characters treat wives and children as the property of husbands, like a Buick, or a wristwatch. If someone smashes yours up, why shouldn’t you smash up somebody else’s to even the score?
The question we’re left with is whether Cliff – who knows that his own survival depends on David’s – will accept the arrogant kicked-chair invitation, or will choose to destroy them both and the mission along with them. That’s for us to interpret, but “Beyond the Sea” drops a few hints along the way…
To begin with, we’re invited to share David’s vision of himself as a hero, even one for our times. He’s an artist who lovingly sketches his kids, listens to French music, and generously gives his wife orgasms, all the while being a handsome American astronaut on a space mission that’s all about – as he tells the couple at the movie theatre – “the survival of the human body, of life.” What a guy.
Cliff, by contrast, is introduced as a much pricklier character. He’s a throwback to an older style of masculinity, someone who chops wood, spear-fishes, says grace at mealtimes, makes his young son Henry call him “Sir”, and “wail(s) on him plenty” to keep him in line. (This barely-there, polite boy who watches everything going on at home in a kind of traumatised silence apparently needs to be kept violently in line.)
Cliff has made the unilateral decision to move his family away from civilisation to the rural isolation of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. “Way out of the city, which I like,” he tells David. As for what his wife Lana (Kate Mara) and son like, no matter. “I think she likes it,” says Cliff, not having asked her. As head of the family, he makes the decisions. It’s a world in which – like in David’s kids’ bedroom when he was kissing them goodnight – little boys are given toy spaceships and planets to imagine their futures, while little girls get a dollhouse.
The Lana we meet clearly doesn’t like the new place. Distractedly reading the pulp bestsellers of the day – Arthur Hailey’s Airport and Jacqueline Susann’s Hollywood addiction hit Valley of the Dolls – Mara’s character seems bored, lonely, distant and craves society. When she tentatively asks Cliff if they could host a garden party to meet the locals, and he nixes the idea, it’s possible to piece together this man’s motivation for wanting to keep his beautiful “butterfly” wife in the middle of nowhere, away from the temptations and threats of other people. She is his, after all.
Threats are out there, as David’s story shows. Early on in the episode, a Charles Manson-like cult led by Rory Culkin’s “Kappa” breaks into his California home, destroys his replica and – in a highly distressing scene – murders his wife and kids in apparent protest at the unnatural abomination of the robot timeshare. That motivates Lana’s suggestion that Cliff offer David temporary use of his “Link” as a respite from his spaceship-bound grief. For Cliff’s own survival, he needs David not to throw himself out of the airlock, so it’s in everybody’s interest to try to help the man.
So begins a tender story about a neglected wife basking in her husband’s renewed attention – or rather, the attention of another man wearing her husband’s robot (a terrific double performance from Aaron Paul with able support from Mara). David visits Earth once a week in Cliff’s replica to paint the Stanfields a picture of their house, and for a while it all goes dreamily in the buzzing-cicada setting, which is rendered with nostalgic romance by Brooklyn director John Crowley and co. All signs point towards another bittersweet romance from Black Mirror.
Until one day, it all falls apart. David attempts to seduce Lana using the tried-and-tested move we saw him use on his own wife, and Lana shakes herself awake and refuses to play along. “You want this,” David tells her, “you want this”. Lana rejects David when she sees him for what he is – not a tragic hero but an entitled conman who thinks that the world, and her body, are owed to him. As a result, David murders her and her child. Take that, humiliation! Now who’s boss? It’s a nasty tale as depressingly old as time.
And if possible, this version is even more depressing than that, because we’re led to understand that David isn’t even getting back at Lana by killing her; he’s getting even with Cliff and she’s just the means to that end. Before David decides on his murder plan, an enraged Cliff confronts David on the ship and repeats, “My wife, you fucking creep, my wife, mine”. David responds “I don’t have anything. Everything I had, gone, just… destroyed.” You have it all, says David, “You don’t know what you’ve got.” Anything, not anyone. Everything, not everyone. Destroyed like an object, not killed like a person. Cliff doesn’t know what he has, so David takes it from him. Fair’s fair.
Don’t be distracted by the robots, spaceship and 2001: A Space Odyssey quotes, or by this vision of an alternate past in which such advanced tech confusingly exists totally siloed from the rest of the clunky 1960s world, that’s just window dressing for Black Mirror’s most feminist protest episode yet. Kappa might be the 1960s boogeyman, and David the All-American hero, but their violence and misogyny are drawn from the same well. “Beyond the Sea” is a bleak-as-shit exploration of how society trains men to see women and children as possessions whose bodies belong to them to use and throw away as they see fit.
Did I say trains, present tense? Trained. Of course. In the 1960s. Not now.
All five episodes of Black Mirror season 6 are available to stream on Netflix now.