TV Recap: Black Mirror, Black Museum
It’s a little odd to me that an anthology series has episodes that are themselves anthologies, but, aside from artificially making it feel like we get longer seasons, it does make for a decent showcase for smaller stories that I don’t think would have been able to carry their own full episodes. While the bite-sized shorts in ‘Black Museum’ aren’t nearly as strong as the few featured in the last Black Mirror anthology episode, ‘White Christmas’, these premises are good enough to shine without having to worry about stretching their legs out where there isn’t much room. One of the segments is much stronger than the others, and in that sense this is the most Twilight Zone-like episode of the entire series thus far.
A woman’s (Letitia Wright) car runs out of energy out in the middle of nowhere. Her energy pad device will take hours to recharge so she goes in to the only building in sight, a quaint building called the Black Museum. Before she even enters she’s greeted by the eccentric owner, Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), who seems more than happy to see a potential customer. He’s overheating so the woman offers him some water and he eagerly shows her around the museum of oddities (that includes more than a few easter eggs from the series’ past that I won’t spoil here). These pieces each have their own dark pasts, and over the course of the episode we learn three of their origins.
The first item, a futuristic hairnet, leads to what is by far the most interesting of the three tales. Conceived by Penn Jillette, of all people, the episode follows a doctor struggling with the loss of recent patients and wanting desperately to do better. Enter Rolo, who pitches him a new technology that would allow him to feel every single pain that his patients have without the side effects, effectively removing misdiagnosis from the equation. The doc signs up immediately and uses his new implant for great good, but it all falls apart when he accidentally experiences a patient’s death for the first time. From that point forward, he is no longer focused on saving patients, but rather chasing the ultimate pain high. His license is revoked after the unnecessary deaths of a few patients he was leeching pain from, so he decides to self mutilate. That only gets him so far, though, so he resorts to murder to get his fix.
At this point in story time, Rolo is sweating bullets, but he continues on. The second item is an innocuous looking orange plush monkey. A man and a woman are playing in the park with their child. The woman steps back a bit to take a picture and is hit by a van. She falls into a coma, unable to do anything but say yes and no through the use of a machine wired into her brain. Never the one to pass up a tragedy to manipulate, Rolo comes in once more to offer a brand new technology that would allow the woman’s brain to be uploaded into the man’s brain. She lives inside his brain in a room similar to the sunken place from Get Out, where she can see and feel everything he does, but can only speak directly to him. The pairing doesn’t work long, and the man eventually gets so upset with their bickering that he places her on pause for extended periods of time. When he falls for a new woman, he returns to Rolo to remove her completely and her mind is uploaded to the orange monkey and given to her child. She’s once again only able to communicate through limited phrases, and is eventually forgotten and now eternally lives at the museum.
At this point, Rolo’s completely flustered and having trouble breathing, but they come upon a hologram of a prisoner in a cell, and he soldiers through one more gloomy tale. The hologram in the cell is the likeness of a convicted murderer killed on death row. Before he was electrocuted, surprise surprise, Rolo got to speak to him and convinced the man to give him control over his consciousness in exchange for his family sharing any profits made using it in the future. It turns out the prisoner has been living in the hologram, used for years in this exhibit where strangers pay to flip the switch and play executioner. The endless torture reenacting has ruined his brain, leaving him an emotionless shell.
At this point, Rolo can barely stand or talk, and the woman who he’s been speaking to explains what’s going on. She’s poisoned him, and from his immobile state she puts him through the hell he’s inflicted on others. As she’s preparing to download the man’s consciousness, she explains that she is the daughter of the tortured prisoner. Rolo’s brain is then uploaded to the prisoner’s, leaving him stuck in his own sunken place, forced to watch as she flips the switch for the final time, electrocuting the two to death. When they’re dead, she takes the orange monkey, sets the cursed place on fire, and drives off.
Reading back, that all sounds pretty great, but in execution it all feels a little slapdash. The pessimistic stories are all fine, particularly the first, but they lack the punch that it feels like they were striving for, and the wraparound story is underdeveloped. Douglas Hodge really goes for it, though, and ends up the one consistent bright spot in an overall messy episode. It almost feels as if they produced four whole narratives with one episode’s usual budget and production time, while in contrast the few tales in ‘White Christmas’ felt fully produced. ‘White Christmas’, which remains my favorite episode of the series, is proof that a collection of shorts can work wonders, even if ‘Black Museum’ doesn’t quite do so.