“Black Museum,” or: A Russian nesting doll of every major Black Mirror motif, plus so many hair-pin twists that my brain was rattling at the episode’s end. The episode deals with the general theme of every Black Mirror episode — aka the way technology entraps us. Yet it begins with a departure from what we typically see in this futuristic show: An image of a vintage car driving through the sprawling Nevada desert. Black Mirror is officially American, you guys.
At the episode’s start, it’s unclear when we are. The driver, a young woman (Letitia Wright), is blasting Motown in a vintage-looking car. Then, she drives to an abandoned gas station in the middle of a flat, sprawling plot of land, with only a medium-sized structure nearby. Wait! That’s not a gas station. It’s a charging station. When are we?!
Unfortunately, none of the stations are working, so she has to charge the inefficient way. She lays a black sheet on the front window, which likely convert the sun’s rays to car fuel – in the short span of 3 and a half hours. This is the first real indication we’ve gotten that this episode definitely takes place in the future.
While she’s waiting, the girl meanders over to the nearby structure: The Black Museum. The sign on the outside indicates tours won’t begin until 11. So she walks to the side of the structure, and does climbs up on a chair for some reason — we’re not sure why.
Finally, the woman is let inside by the owner of the museum, an American man named Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodges). The museum’s decor is kind of like a freak show-meets-vampire lair. And Rolo’s aesthetic matches the strangely nostalgic feel of the museum: he wears a vest and a bow tie. Rolo says more people will be coming for the tour. But we know that’s not true — the highway is empty. She calls him on his B.S. and asks to take the tour herself.
Fine, then: Rolo will just give the girl, who introduced herself as Nish, a solo tour, if she’s sure she can handle it. It’s “intense,” as he says. She nods. She can handle it. Rolo comments on Nish’s British accent. Nish says she’s just passing through the area from Salt Lake, and is in the region to surprise her father.
“Awful long trip for a young girl,” Rolo says, setting off the first of a series of tense interactions they’ll share during the tour. Nish responds that he’s being quite old fashioned. Though this is but a small argument, there’s clearly a generational (or moral) divide between Nish and Rolo.
With that, Nish and Rolo walk into the museum’s main exhibition room — though, as Rolo teases, the main attraction is behind the red curtains on the far left side of the room. The museum strikes an interesting juxtaposition between old-fashioned roadside attraction and exhibit of futuristic science experiments. Different artifacts are in glass cases throughout the large space.
So, what is this place, anyway? Rolo is happy to explain. “Authentic criminological artifications. If it did something bad, chances are it’s in here,” Rolo says. “There’s a sad sick story behind everything here.” At first glance, it’s hard to tell what’s so sad and sick about these objects. After all, this doesn’t look like a medieval torture chamber. There’s what looks like an iPad in a glass case. A stuffed monkey. A set of glowing orbs over a mannequin’s head.
Nish explains that she’s in no rush; her car is charging. This gives Rolo the chance to talk, something he loves to do. He embarks on three stories. Here’s the first: This contraption is called “Dawson’s Sympathetic Diagnoser,” and Rolo was actually involved in its creation.
Back when he was living in Manhattan, Rolo worked in med tech at a hospital. He needed a recruit to try out his department’s newest invention: A device that beams physical sensation from one individual to another. So, he grabbed Peter Dawson, the doctor whose patients died with the most frequency (what do they call a doctor who graduated at the bottom of his class?).
During their meeting, Rolo told Dawson he’d been chosen to be a medical pioneer, to go where no man has gone before. He’d be implanted with a round sensor in his neck, so that he could feel the pain of any of his patients. Then, Peter would create a catalogue of what every single kind of illness feels like. This is appendicitis. This is melanoma. He’d feel the precise pain, without any of the repercussions.
What happens next I can’t unsee. Dr. Peter Dawson goes through an array of pain/orgasm faces so spectacularly melodramatic I almost had to pause my computer. Standing over his patients’ beds, Dawson’s face looked like it was splitting open by the birth of Athena. His expressions got more extreme when he was having sex with his coworker-girlfriend while she wore the Sympathetic Diagnoser. Rolo enviously explains to Nish that Dawson could feel male and female pleasure.
Everything was going too well for Dawson. Nish knows Rolo is setting her up for the big “but.” So, she asks. “But…?”
Well, the trouble began when of Dr. Dawson’s patients, a Senator who had been poisoned by Russians, died while wearing the Sympathetic Diagnoser. After experiencing the flood of endorphins that occurs before death, and then the nothingness that follows, Dawson emerged forever changed. Now, the feeling of pain actually brought him extreme pleasure. He became addicted to pain, and exploited his patients for their pain. He actually let patients die while wearing the Sympathetic Diagnoser. He also started hitting his girlfriend in bed, because mere pleasure wasn’t enough.
Dawson was fired from his job, for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, the procedure was irreversible. So Dawson, who was at this point constantly sweating profusely, returned home to his large, dark mancave in a high-rise building (isn’t that always where TV bachelors live in New York?). Since he couldn't’ get his pain from patients, he got it from his own body. He began mutilating his body to the point where he was teetering on death.
On the TV before him, an investigation about a man who murdered a weather anchor played.
It wasn’t not enough. Dawson went out into the New York night with a drill and murdered a hobo. Where did he plug in the drill? Dawson pretty much had an orgasm while doing so. It is awful to behold. He was arrested, and sent to the hospital, where he’s been in a coma ever since. In the retelling of the story, Rolo says that Dawson still has an erection — but then admits that he made that tidbit up.
By the time the story ends, Rolo is sweating. There must be no A.C. in the Black Museum. Nish offers him water, which he downs like a madman.
Onto the next artifact: A stuffed monkey. This story dates back to a couple, Jack and Carrie, who met at a party. Carrie got pregnant soon after they met. They are a happy family, lah dee dah, until a trip to the lake. Carrie wanted a photo of Jack and their son, Parker, posing before a pond. She took a few steps backwards, and then was wiped out by a bus. She was comatose for years. Still, Jack visited her faithfully in the hospital. She was able to communicate using some futuristic coma communicator device that lit up green when she meant to say yes, and red when she meant to say no.
Rolo, who’s still up to no good, came to Jack with a whole new invention, one perfect for him. Rolo said his company would be able to digitally extract Carrie’s consciousness, give her a new lease on life. (As Nish points out, this is a rudimentary iteration of the technology we see in the episode “San Junipero,” when people’s consciousness are uploaded into a vacation land).
Where would Carrie go? Easy — right into Jack’s mind, which would be compressed to make room for Carrie. Surprisingly, Jack’s first thought wasn’t, “I love my partner but do not want her commenting on my every move,” as mine would have been. Instead, it was about money. Rolo reassured him that the procedure would be free.
Next thing we know, we’re seeing a small tube placed Carrie’s temple. The tube sucked out her consciousness. Then, the same device was put to Jack’s temple. Ipso, facto, consciousness replaced. Carrie awoke, and found herself sitting in a Voice-like red chair in a blank room in Jack’s mind. She saw the world distorted, through the round lens of his pupils. Everything he ate, she tasted. Everything he did, she felt. When he hugged Parker, Carrie was able to hug her son for the first time in years. It’s heartwarming.
But OF COURSE this doesn’t work. Putting your partner in your mind is a terrible idea! Carrie became difficult, and criticizes everything Jack did, like the way he peed and the pace at which he read graphic novels. They fought, but to Parker, it just looked like Jack was fighting with himself.
In the background of that fight, we see the same newscast of Clayton Leeds being convicted of murdering Denise, a weather woman.
At wit’s end, Jack went to Rolo for help. Rolo revealed that Carrie’s consciousness could be paused. After a bad fight, he paused her for many weeks. Then, they came up with a deal: Carrie would be awake on the weekends, when they both would atke Parker to the park.
While walking to the park, Jack’s hottie neighbor, Emily, said hello, which in TV world means they’re going to be a couple in T-1 minute. This bothered Carrie profusely (even though she was no longer attached to a body). This is a weird, weird, Black Mirror love triangle. At one point, Emily went up to Jack, stared him in the eyes, and firmly said, “Carrie, stop giving him shit.”
This situation clearly was unsustainable. So, Rolo had a final (and progressively ill advised) idea: Put Carrie within the body of a creepy stuffed monkey. From there, she would be able to feel, and see, and respond with two answers: I love you, and give monkey a hug. When Carrie realized her ability to communicate was so limited, she freaked out. She started pressing both of the buttons rapidly. Emily pinned the monkey to the wall and told Carrie to quit it. Poor Carrie! Parker liked this monkey for a while, but not for long enough. After a while, monkey was discarded, and Carrie was trapped there forever.
After the UN made it illegal to transfer human consciousness into limited formats like a stuffed monkey, Rolo lost his job. He started the museum instead, where he collects remnants of his old job. Yet Carrie’s consciousness can’t be removed from the monkey, because that’s also illegal. So she’s still in there. That gives Nish major heebie-jeebies.
Now, it’s time to reveal the big hurrah. Nish and Rolo travel behind the curtain, where they see a Black man, semi-transparent, huddled in the corner of the room. Nish looks deeply disturbed. Rolo looks deeply sweaty, and tells her not to worry — this guy is a convicted felon. As it turns out, he’s Clayton, the man who had been on the news in the past two stories. While he was in prison, Rolo had offered him a chance to live forever. If he were to be executed, Clayton could sell his consciousness to him, and Rolo would donate the proceeds to his wife and family. Though Clayton’s wife didn’t want him to do so — after all, Clayton was pleading innocence! — he did so anyway. Clayton was executed by electric chair, and Rolo got his soul.
Rolo explains, now, the real reason why his Black Museum used to host truckloads of visitors. Visitors could electrocute the prisoner. Or, at least, a feeling and sentient hologram of the prisoner, resurrected from the moment of his death. They hooked him up in an electric chair, and pulled the lever up to ten seconds. All visitors got a keychain with his face, playing over and over again in agony.
As he tells the story, Rolo gets more and more beet red. Then, Nish does something unexpected: She drops her accent. And she starts to tell the story for him. Oh, yeah: THIS IS A MURDER SETUP!
Nish mentions the campaign Clayton’s wife started to get him out of there. That visitor attendance dropped, after the campaign. That soon, only sadists and people with pain fetishes were visiting. Eventually, Rolo confesses, as he becomes more and more red, he let some wealthy man pay him to electrocute Clayton for more than 10 seconds. Clayton’s mind was shot after that, and he’s been a vegetable ever since.
At last, Nish mentions that Clayton’s wife visited, and saw her husband like a “docile animal.” She couldn’t handle it. She killed herself. Have you figured it out yet? Nish is Clayton’s daughter. This is the surprise visit she’s mentioned at the beginning of the episode.
Rolo is clearly unwell at this point. He’s beet red and choking. Nish says that she’d poisoned the water she’d given him earlier, and he has about 30 seconds of life left. As he dies, she collects his consciousness and uploads it into her father’s hologram’s brain, and announces she’s going to perform the world’s first “double decker mercy killing.” She turns the electricity on, and kills them both.
Nish takes the small keychain with Rolo’s face preserved in a state of agony. She struts out of the museum, and then rounds the corner to unjam the air conditioner, which she clearly had broken so that Rolo would drink her poison. She returns to the car, which is charged. She hangs the keychain from the rearview mirror.
And then, the final twist: Nish addresses her mother, who is in the back of her mind just like Carrie. Her mother had been present for every single devious twist.
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