Reflecting Black Mirror Season 4
Warning: spoilers ahead.
As the first episode of the hit Netflix series Black Mirror’s fourth season, “USS Callister” makes clever commentary on the toxic fan boy archetype and forces us to question our own roles in the current media landscape.
“USS Callister” is a sci-fi thriller with comedic surrealist elements. At first, the episode follows the perspective of Robert Daly, a software engineer and co-owner of the company he works for, Callister Inc.
Daly is the head designer of a popular massively multiplayer online game (MMO) known as Infinity, as well as a massive pushover who lacks the social skills necessary to defend himself against the abuse of his co-workers.
The story sets up Daly as a nice, sympathetic guy, who is undeserving of his sad situation in life; he comes across as pitiful and misunderstood. The audience is intended to identify with him in these ways.
When the real main character, Nanette Cole, is introduced, she’s presented as the love interest who will supposedly pull Daly from the trenches of social ineptitude. Nanette is a device that supports Daly’s positive character arch, or so we think.
In the beginning, the audience is forced to assume that Daly is the main character. Because of this, the audience is more willing to accept—and even gloss over—some of the creepier characteristics that he displays, such as kissing two women in his virtual online game and becoming instantly obsessed with a woman he just met.
Even as Nanette tells a co-worker that she’s not interested in Daly “like that,” the audience will have a hard time believing her.
Because of the traditional rom-com tropes that we’re used to seeing displayed in the media, we assume that Nanette is being coy, unwilling to divulge her true feelings.
However, like all episodes of Black Mirror, there is something decidedly unsettling about the whole set up. “USS Callister” is particularly brilliant because of the switch up that it pulls on viewers after setting up these character archetypes.
Any seasoned fan of the show will know that something is about to go terribly wrong, and it does.
When Daly overhears Nanette confessing that she’s only interested in him professionally, not romantically, he snaps. The behaviors that we were willing to gloss over previously are brought out into the open in the extreme.
Before leaving the office late at night, Daly takes Nanette’s used coffee cup out of the trash can. Later, at home, he swaps her DNA from the cup and uploads it to his personal version of the Infinity game. This is where the point of view shifts.
Nanette awakens inside the game, and is dressed in a mini skirt and go-go boots; this alludes to old 1960’s sci-fi styles. We find that Daly’s personal game is not filled with made-up characters, but instead the uploaded consciousnesses of his co-workers: humans made up of computer code, but with all the same memories, thoughts and emotions as the real versions of themselves.
Daly puts them in his Star Trek space adventure to control, manipulate and torture them.
It is here that Daly’s true nature comes out. He is bitter, vengeful, and borderline psychopathic. His poorly adjusted social skills manifest themselves in a very frightening way. As he’s unable to stand up for himself or enact any control over his own life, he uses his fantasy world to over compensate and play out his cruel fantasies.
This subversion of the nice guy trope requires the viewers to question how we usually accept it in the other media and what the real life implications of this acceptance are.
Traditionally, characters like Daly are depicted as good people, if a little bit socially awkward and misunderstood.
Because of this, the trope insists that they are deserving of the love of their object of desire, usually a beautiful woman far out of their league. In service of the trope, we are willing to gloss over their creepy, entitled, misogynistic attitudes toward women and cheer for them as the heroes of their stories.
Black Mirror challenges this by taking the trope to its logical conclusion, as it would play out in the real world.
In reality, an inability to navigate social situations in a well-adjusted manner, using fantasy worlds to escape reality and find a sense of control, and an entitled attitude toward women are all problems.
These issues should not be treated as endearing or “adorkable,” but frightening for their deeper implications.
The brilliance of Black Mirror’s subversion of this trope is in how it portrays the villain. The real villain is not, as we originally think, Daly’s abusive coworkers. It isn’t even Daly himself. It is the audience.
The people who readily accept characters like Daly as heroes in every other piece of media we consume.