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Black Mirror's Best Episode Transcends Timeliness, Even as It Gets More Timely By the Day

"Be Right Back" gets at a fundamental terror of our age: that we're ceding all aspects of humanity to the code.
  • Domhnall Gleeson in Black Mirror's "Be Right Back" (Photo: Everett Collection)
    Domhnall Gleeson in Black Mirror's "Be Right Back" (Photo: Everett Collection)

    Next year, Black Mirror will not-so-boldly go where it’s gone before. News recently broke that the seventh season of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian sci-fi anthology series, set to premiere on Netflix sometime in 2025, will include a sequel — more specifically, a return to the virtual final frontier of "USS Callister," a.k.a. the Star Trek-themed episode from Season 4. 

    Going back for seconds is a first for Black Mirror, which has never before continued any of the technological cautionary tales it’s been telling since the waning weeks of 2011. (Not officially anyway; you could argue, in fact, that "USS Callister” simply threw a Starfleet uniform over the horrifying “cookie” premise of an earlier Mirror installment, “White Christmas.”) After the slightly muted reception to Season 6, it’s perhaps not so surprising to see Black Mirror retreat into past glories. But engineering an official “part two” still doesn’t feel entirely in the spirit of an ominous omnibus of speculative fiction that’s always prided itself on looking forward, not backward. 

    Before now, “This is just like that Black Mirror episode” is something people have said about real life, not other episodes of Black Mirror. Brooker has certainly bought into his own reputation as a soothsayer, wondering aloud if the moments where the world, well, mirrored his small-screen sensation were some kind of proof that he’s actually living in a simulation. There’s no denying that his hit series has gotten ahead of the vanguard a few times. Most recently, Season 6 opener “Joan is Awful” had the serendipitous fortune of reflecting the moment in which it was released: The arrival of ChatGPT and the Guild strikes put generative AI in the spotlight just as Annie Murphy was grappling with related issues on Netflix.

    Of course, anyone paying attention to trends in developing tech could see a few months into the future, no problem. Doesn’t the truly ahead-of-its-time science fiction reach further forward, putting a distant tomorrow’s anxieties on screen today? To really make the case for Black Mirror as feel-bad prophecy, you’re better off rewinding back a decade and change to the show’s pre-Netflix creative infancy (and, some would argue, creative zenith). While more recent episodes have managed to anticipate certain concerning technological developments, none have spoken as clearly to where we’ve landed — and to all the anxiety of the contemporary tech age — as Brooker’s haunting Season 2 heart-wrencher “Be Right Back.” That digital ghost story is Black Mirror as its most premonitory. Perhaps not coincidentally, it may also be the show’s finest hour.

    Written by Brooker, as nearly all Black Mirror episodes are, “Be Right Back” is essentially his take on that old campfire staple, “The Monkey’s Paw.” It stars Hayley Atwell as Martha, a young woman whose boyfriend, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), dies in a car accident. To cope with her grief, Martha reluctantly signs up for a program that creates a chatbot from all traces of the deceased’s online activity and social media. When simply swapping text messages with an AI modeled on her dead beau stops being enough, she permits the company to recreate his voice using available recordings, so she can suddenly talk to “Ash” on her phone. And when that proves a poor substitute for his in-the-flesh companionship, she takes the spooky last step of uploading all that personality data into an identical robotic body.

    Rewatching the episode, it’s possible to see ways that it doesn’t align with our present. One thing Brooker didn’t anticipate is how the language of social media would arguably become less conversational and more formulaic, more template-like — an online dialogue tree of catchphrases, recycled memes, and robotic one-liners. Plenty of living people already tweet and post like chatbots, generating their own algorithmic content. In a truly modern version of “Be Right Back,” an Ash recreated from his own digital footprint would respond to Martha with canned post-ironic slang: “We are so back,” he might say after emerging from his bathtub test tube, shouting “Let’s gooooo” at random intervals and imploring Martha to “let him cook.”

    In other ways, though, “Be Right Back” feels like it’s in spooky conversation with our present. For one thing, it indirectly communes with a dating scene that’s migrated online. Tinder was only five months old when the episode first aired in February of 2013, but Brooker structures it like a courtship that starts on a dating app, as Martha chats with a carefully curated version of Ash — the him that exists only on screens — before meeting irl. Then again, “Be Right Back” flips the primary concerns of that kind of modern relationship pattern: While real app users might be dismayed to discover that the person they’re dating is actually nothing like their idealized profile persona, Martha’s nightmare is that the witty, unflappable, Twitter version of Ash is a hollow shell of the real man who once sat behind the keyboard.

    That’s what “Be Right Back” is really about: the discrepancy between our online selves and our real selves, and how the former could never hope to compete with the complicated truth of the latter. But in probing that distinction, Brooker opens up a whole line of wider, increasingly relevant technological inquiry, all related to the matter of computers imitating people. In the tear-jerking tale of Martha and Ash, you can see the glimmers of a modern world inundated with the hologrammed dead, deepfake technology, and an internet littered with the sensitive personal information we scatter across its social platforms. On a deeper level, the episode gets at a fundamental terror of our age: that we’re ceding all aspects of humanity to the code.

    That extends, naturally, to the rise of AI — then a glint in Brooker’s eye, now a blinding beacon of distress. “Joan is Awful” might be Black Mirror’s most recent, topical meditation on the technology, but the show got to it a decade earlier with “Be Right Back,” which anticipated a more creepily realistic chatbot, a fake companion fronting like a real one. Disturbingly, reality has begun to catch up with the episode’s premise: Two years ago, Amazon advertised a new feature for Alexa by hinting at how it could allow the virtual assistant to speak in a dead relative’s voice. But was that Black Mirror predicting the future or shaping it? Other AI designers have copped to taking inspiration for their own beyond-the-grave programs from “Be Right Back.” Talk about mistaking a warning for a sales pitch.

    Martha going from chatbot to voice chat to physical replica (replicant?) of Ash is a journey from real science to science fiction. (As of now, we don’t have the capacity to actually replace our dead loved ones with cybernetic clones.) But it’s also a microcosm of how something like AI develops: Every advance follows the last one, inching the technology forward step by step, until it’s too late to turn back. As a series, Black Mirror has always been about where we could end up if we aren’t careful. “Be Right Back” takes that further by showing how it happens — the seductive, incremental creep across ethical boundaries. In that respect, it grows more relevant (and more prophetic) by the day.

    Of course, prescience is not the only or even the main yardstick by which Black Mirror should be judged. Season 2’s “The Waldo Moment” may, in some respects, have foreshadowed the electoral victories of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, but it’s also one of Mirror’s most glibly forgettable hours. Conversely, though the later “Metalhead” has nothing terribly timely nor specific to say about our plugged-in world, it’s a stylish exercise in chiefly wordless storytelling and engaging post-apocalyptic world-building. Regardless of how often the show has anticipated some concerning new wrinkles of our ongoing digital age, it does not live or die on its utility as a crystal ball.

    The best episodes of Black Mirror transcend mere timeliness. They’re attuned to our general technological anxiety without commenting on any one particular technology. Like their most significant ancestor, The Twilight Zone, they use various outlandish conceits to speak to the human condition. 

    Even if “Be Right Back” didn’t prove prescient, it would remain a devastating portrait of loss, coping mechanisms, and the ways we bury our true selves under a more polished public image, with and without the use of computers. The performances are tremendous. Gleeson does a note-perfect rendition of almost-human charm, subtly telegraphing the recalibrations of his artificial mind. And Atwell harrowingly voices Martha’s emotional confusion, especially at the episode’s climax, when her knowledge that the machine before her is not Ash — that it can never be Ash — clashes with what her eyes and ears tell her. In that crushing moment, Black Mirror does more than show us the future. Like the greatest science fiction, it shows us who we are.

    A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.