Last year’s Technology Issue published a list of TV Techno-Fables, the first show on the list being Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s exceedingly bleak anthology series, which just released its third season on Netflix this month. In the list we discussed that, despite The Twilight Zone comparison often thrown at Black Mirror, the show “does not contain a whiff of Rod Serling’s compassionate humanism.” In other words, if the show is as prophetic as it often feels, Brooker sees no hope entering the equation.

That was all before Season 3, though! Most things have not changed. As with all Black Mirror episodes, the concept is simple enough. The first episode of season 3, like all of the quasi-dystopian tales that came before it, is placed in an almost-present future. Everything, including the technology being used, is recognizable to life as we live it now, besides one or two notched-up variables. There’s no denying that this closeness to everyday life is Black Mirror’s aim: besides a very minor sci-fi tweak, the show is exactly as ominous as it is relatable.

[Note: basic plot spoilers below, though I’ve tried not to spoil where things end.]

In this episode, “Nosedive,” which is directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) and co-written by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur (Parks and Rec), we are meant to look long and hard into the counterfeit power of social media. In Lacie’s world (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), everyone is rating one another on their phones on a 1-5 scale, with the easy swipe of a finger. They are rated getting coffee, rated picking up a cab, rated after a shared elevator ride. Like Tinder or Facebook, friendships are garnered and connections are validated by the swift, real-time approval of acquaintances. “Nosedive” ratchets up the cost, though, when we see that Lacie (who begins the episode a better-than-average 4.2) seeks to move into an upper-echelon, aspirational neighborhood, Pelican Cove. We soon find out that Pelican Cove is a “lifestyle community,” a place that has high “metrics on romantic geneses” and a neighborhood salon. Lacie can see—literally, via some holographic advertising—herself at the kitchen, hair just right, a buff, high-4 gent telling her sweet nothings at the kitchen island. If she just had this…


Unfortunately, Cinderella needs to be a 4.5 or better to be able to afford this lifestyle community. Otherwise, no deal. And so Lacie visits what can only be called a reputation statistician to see how she might “increase the velocity of her popularity arc.” (If that sounds too bleak to be believable, it sort of already exists.) To get that extra three-tenths before the condo sells, she needs “a Boost,” a significant number of “upvotes from quality people,” not just service industry folks. In other words, she needs to schmooze with the elites. Her consultant offers her some tips to make it happen: “Use authentic gestures.” “Don’t try too hard—high 4s can see right through that.” “Be yourself.” Palpably bogged down, Lacie continues trying to be the self that will get upvotes.

Out of the blue, though, she strikes gold. An old “friend” from childhood, Naomi (played by Alice Eve), a devastating 4.8 who we learn used to bully Lacie, asks Lacie to be the maid of honor in her wedding—a wedding which will be brimming with high 4s. Baffled by the choice, but sure she will get the ratings she needs at such a high-tier occasion, she puts down a payment on the condo, memorizes her teary, gag-inducing speech, and loads up her pink suitcase for the airport.

As you might suspect—and this is just one of the reasons why this show is so often discussed alongside its spiritual godmother, The Twilight Zone—things do not go as planned. Her flight gets canceled and her outburst at the departure desk gets her docked by the airport authorities from 4.2 to 3.2. She must rent a car now, but her rating leaves her with the oldest on the lot. Before she knows it, the car is out of juice and she’s hitchhiking to the wedding, her rating dropping by the minute. In a world whereby kindness and high ratings have incentive, Lacie finds herself in no kinder a world. When she is picked up by a trucker, her “value” has been nearly cut in half.


But this is also where Jesus Christ herself enters the scene. Her name is Susan, she’s a 1.4, and she has a blue Thermos and a red Thermos—one for coffee, one for bourbon. Lacie is hesitant to get in a semi-truck with a 1.4, but she’s desperate, so she goes for it. Susan (played by Cherry Jones) is our only extended glimpse into an authentic human being. She explains to Lacie that she was a 4.6 once, that she used to live for her ratings. When her husband got cancer, though, her rating meant nothing. She used her rating to get in with the best doctors and the best trials, but, as she says it, “The cancer didn’t give a shit. It just kept growing.” Her husband’s death exposed the uselessness of her own efforts to beat it. Her rating was as dead to her as he was. Paradoxically, for Susan, this came as a huge relief: “It was like taking off tight shoes.”

Lacie can’t understand Susan’s liberation. While it sounds nice to Lacie, she cannot choose to take the tight shoes off. She has to “get there.” Susan asks her what that place is, and Lacie says, “I don’t know. To be enough. To be able to breathe out for once.” Until then, Lacie defends, you have to play the numbers game—it’s terrible, but it’s the way the world works.

She’s right. It is the way the world works. If you want a Pelican Cove condo, you need a 4.5 or higher. I sometimes think this is precisely what I’d have said had Jesus asked me to follow him. I’d be less like the disciples and more like the rich young ruler: “Thanks, but you must not understand what I’m up against. Of course I’d like to do that, but what planet do you think I live on? Who doesn’t want to take off tight shoes, but how else will they let me in?” We will never, so long as we are human, choose to take them off. They must be forcibly removed. In other words, we must, like Susan, meet it in death.

I won’t completely spoil the ending. It should be no surprise, though, that the hope of the story (and there is hope in this Black Mirror episode!) comes when what little Lacie has left is, well, confiscated. Like all of us, she will not ‘die to herself’—she cannot release the false promises of her popularity arc any more than we can. Instead, the arc must nosedive. A theology of the cross makes room for this downward trajectory. When Lacie’s brother, earlier in the episode, ridicules the apartments in Pelican Cove as “fake smile jail cells,” she thinks he is the fool. She does not know she is walking the cruciform (and all too surprising) path where her true liberation will find her.