Aristotelian Tragedy in Black Mirror
Black Mirror’s delightfully macabre blend of sci-fi horror stories is fascinating for myriad reasons, one of which has to be the fact it’s comprised of just that: stories. Unlike more traditional series, each Black Mirror episode must introduce characters, construct a setting and plot, and create and eventually resolve conflict within a single show. The very nature of the series is designed to set people on edge and provide some emotional turmoil only to turn around and do it all over again from scratch. Since the gruesome and terrifying aspects of the show are often the grand takeaways, it’s easy to miss that Black Mirror fits squarely within the framework of a tragedy—“San Junipero” (S03E04) notwithstanding! Each episode must hit the marks of what constitutes a tragic story to fit the purpose and genre of the series. The limited scope of each episode, then, lend itself to easy dissection as works of tragedy.
Aristotle’s De Poetica is the earliest known work of dramatic theory. Like his discussions on politics, ethics, or physics, Aristotle aims to deconstruct the basic tenets of “poetry,” specifically the workings of drama and more pointedly of tragedy (1447a). Aristotle lists a number of qualities defining what a tragedy is in nature and form, but the purpose of a tragic story is that the overarching piece produces the emotions of pity and fear (1449b). Now that doesn’t seem like a tall order on paper. Even in thought, it just sounds like combining the elements of a sad story with a scary story will win they day.
Well…kind of. Look at “Arkangel” (S04E02). The story of “Arkangel” revolves around the familiar trope of an overprotective parent who goes too far. The episode’s trademark piece of techno-fiction doesn’t really drive the story. We don’t have to keep thinking to ourselves “okay, this is just someone’s consciousness trapped in a virtual world” like in other episodes. No, it’s a real mother whose distrust and control of her daughter gets out of hand until she suddenly and then epically loses her. The wails of the mother in the penultimate scene perfectly capture the definition of tragedy as we are at once both piteous of the mother and fearful of what might happen to the daughter. Sad story, scary story.
Consider also “The Entire History of You” (S01E03). The techno-fiction of eye-cameras with an unsettling amount of data space plays more of a role here than in “Arkangel,” but the driving piece of story is yet again tragic human character. A man is seized with an unhealthy amount of suspicion that his wife has had an affair. The suspicion slowly consumes his life until, through drunken rage and hostility, not only is he proved correct but he also learns the child he believes is his may not actually be. Our pity for the man reaches its peak moment as we learn the truth at the same time he does, with the remorseful wife’s background tears completely marking the mood of tragedy in the room. And as we watch him painfully remove his “grain” with a razor blade in the ensuing scene, the fear is palpable until we’re released with a cut to black.
Surely, though, “sad story/scary story” is not the extent of Aristotle’s thesis on tragedy. I already hinted that there’s more in referring to things like “tragic character” or “tragic mood.” Namely, Aristotle lists three required elements: peripety, discovery, and suffering (1452a). Peripety is a reversal, often sudden, of circumstances. Discovery is exactly as it sounds, the movement from not knowing to knowing something. Suffering too is well-understood, and Aristotle specifically refers to suffering in action, something “destructive or painful” (1452b). Aristotle mentions that when all three of these elements combine, it will expertly arouse pity and fear as well as bring a sound conclusion to a tragic work.
“White Bear” (S02E02) showcases, in haunting detail, these tragic elements on display. Through the course of the episode, we watch a community socially terrorize a woman, Victoria. The set up for pity and fear is excruciating as hints of the mystery of what exactly is going on never fully materialize until the climax. Blinding lights hit Victoria, she’s on a stage, applause erupts, and a man steps on stage to, game-show style, reveal to Victoria that she has been enduring justice for her part in a brutal murder. We have a sudden reversal of circumstances as Victoria, the victim of the story up to that point, discovers that she is a prisoner being punished and that her suffering will recycle again and again when her memory is wiped. Peripety, discovery, and suffering—enough to give us whiplash at how fast it all came about. The episode doesn’t even end with Victoria in frame, only the sounds of her agony as her torturer wipes her memory once again, giving us the sense that her tragedy will carry on even as the credits roll.
“Shut Up and Dance” (S03E03) shares a similar combination of tragic elements, but not to the same effect. And I think that’s because the elements seemed to be aimed at the audience instead of the character. The sudden reveal that the boy, who we had been watching suffer at the hands of blackmailers, was actually looking at child pornography at the beginning of the episode, is certainly a dramatic and tragic turn for us, but not for him. In that moment, the boy doesn’t discover anything other than that another “viewer” had been caught by the blackmailers. The elements also don’t combine at the end of the episode, leaving Kenny’s ultimate suffering feeling less tragic and more “conflicting,” as many reviewers of the episode pointed out.
The definition and elements of tragedy wouldn’t work without a proper story, and Black Mirror doesn’t always set up proper plot for tragedy. Aristotle conceives of three plots “to be avoided” (1452b). Firstly, a tragic story can’t have a protagonist “passing from happiness to misery.” That seems counter-intuitive. Bing in “Fifteen Million Merits” (S01E02) traverses from happiness to misery. His happiness swells when he kindles a friendship with the vocally-talented Abi. He supports her, he hopes, into a new life of stardom and off of the bike only to witness her be whisked into a world of porn. He must endure the misery of that event each day as he is forced to watch advertisements of Abi on crude, pornographic display. Aristotle says a story like this is repulsive but doesn’t fit the definition of tragedy. Maybe some would pity Bing, but there’s greater pity on what befell Abi. And hardly anything about his situation arouses fear save perhaps that Bing is locked in a virtual box that won’t let him skip ads! In credit to the episode though, it continues on and arrives at a weird place. We see Bing work to confront the people who corrupted Abi and champion a world without virtual blinders only to then choose to sink right back into that same virtual machine. The tragedy of the episode is “fumbled” at best because the plot of the story isn’t tragic.
The second and third plots to be avoided in tragedy are similar—a bad character passing from misery to happiness and an extremely bad character falling from happiness to misery (1452b-1453a). Black Mirror does avoid the second, but the third cropped up in its most recent series. The oddly titled “Crocodile” (S04E03) features a recognizably bad or evil protagonist in Mia. Fifteen years after she assists in the cover-up of a murder, Mia is happily married, has a child, and is a successful career-woman. However, her cohort from years earlier arrives, saying he intends to turn himself in to rid his guilty conscience. She murders him coldly and takes pain to cover it up only to be revealed when an insurance investigator discovers her actions in a happenstance-weaving of story lines. She murders the insurance investigator and goes on to kill her husband and son. Mia’s story is certainly suspenseful, but at no time does it evoke pity or fear for Mia because she deserves the misfortune she endures—less a tragedy and more a fable of just deserts. What we seem to be meant to feel for Mia is that she doesn’t actually want to commit her bad acts but is simply trying to preserve and protect her good life. But even the discovery that her most heinous murder of the child was unnecessary, since the boy was blind and therefore didn’t witness anything, doesn’t serve a tragic end but only reinforces her bad character. That’s tragic irony, not tragic plot!
As we see in “Crocodile,” character in a tragedy has to follow guidelines for the work as a whole to succeed in arousing pity and fear. As has become the norm, Aristotle has a list of qualities for tragic characters. They must be good, appropriate, real, and consistent (1454a). Lacie from “Nosedive” (S03E01) provides excellent fodder for understanding tragic character. She is good, meaning morally upright. The story of “Nosedive” presents Lacie as perhaps having only a single flaw in that she wants to achieve good social status, and thereby good socioeconomic status. The techno-fiction of being able to rate people is perhaps morally subpar for those of us watching, but we don’t find flaw in Lacie for making her way through that world as best she can. Moreover, it’s characters around Lacie, like her friend Naomi, who present us with bad character.
Now, one might read Aristotle’s requirement of “appropriate” character as a need for stereotyping. After all, he explains “manly” character would not be appropriate for a female. To bring that requirement forward a bit, we might think of “appropriate” as “contextual.” We understand Lacie’s socioeconomic situation to be middle-of-the-road, so we see contextually how she lives and behaves as something “appropriate” to our expectations of that quality. Indeed, she lives with her brother, she has a full-time job, she doesn’t have servants, etc. Aristotle doesn’t offer much for what he means for realness besides “like the reality.” This could be more of an overarching quality about drama in general. Characters must seem real so that an audience may identify themselves and so be adequately primed to feel the emotions being evoked within the work. Lacie’s struggle with “fakeness” is something a modern audience is certainly familiar with, and funnily enough, better represents “reality.”
Finally, consistency of Lacie’s character is more about her decisions and actions. She goes to great lengths to present herself in a favorable way. When Naomi calls Lacie to tell her not to come to her wedding to give the bridesmaid speech, her reaction is to continue on to the wedding anyway. Her driven, goal-oriented character has been established throughout the episode, so it would seem out of character for her to give up so easily. Aristotle’s aim with the qualities of a tragic character is to showcase people recognizably better than ourselves, not to make the suffering seem worse, but rather because such is required for tragedy to work. In order for us to feel the pity and fear for Lacie at the end of “Nosedive,” she has to be good, contextual, real, and consistent. Even though we may be relieved by the episode’s end when Lacie gets out of the game of ratings as she’s jailed up and stripped of her device, we are still driven to pity her circumstances and fear for what she will encounter going forward, despite her newfound freedom to cuss at someone.
It would be unfair to not look to at least one of Aristotle’s extra-literary philosophies on tragedy when discussing Black Mirror. It is a show after all. Besides character and plot, Aristotle described four other major elements outside the story of a dramatic work: diction, melody, thought, and spectacle (1450a). Of those, he hardly concerns himself with spectacle, calling it “the least artistic of all the parts” and that it’s “more a matter for the costumier than the poet.” Of course, theater has done nothing if not exponentially scaled up the visual element of dramatic works since Aristotle’s day, and spectacle is essential to what really sells the tragedy in Black Mirror. Consider the main motif of the series, what I’ve been referring to as techno-fiction. Whether or not the technology is central to the story, the visual aspect of the devices, from small circular LEDs worn on the temple to consciousness-laden Alexa’s, all look real. It’s not hard to get behind their existence within the world, and that’s essential so that they don’t take focus away from the story but rather contribute to it.
“Playtest” (S03E02) centers on an Alternate Reality Game gone wrong. Instead of using our tablet or cell phone screens to interact with the world, the episode posits that a “mushroom implant” augments players’ senses so they can interact with the game on their own. We’re taken through the character Cooper’s “tutorial” round of Whac-a-Mole, and just like that we’re sold on this fictional device. The remainder of the episode is then devoted to playing out the tragedy for Cooper as the implant “learns” his greatest fear is not grotesque figures or jump scares but rather the more personal fear of losing his parents and himself to senility.
Spectacle can also become a central piece of the drama. “Metalhead” (S04E05) contains the least amount of dialogue of any episode. It’s also shot in black and white—as an homage to the horror genre and killer robot shows, sure—but the spectacle of a world devoid of color hones in on the oppressive tension of the post-apocalyptic world. By the time the peripety and discovery that the protagonist was trying to recover teddy bears comes at the end, the visual primer of the episode has left us more than willing to feel excessive pity for what the woman endured just to retrieve some comfort for, we then assume, children.
Black Mirror is by no means a master class in Aristotelian tragedy. His dramatic theory is but the first of centuries of comprehensive literary philosophy. What we learn from in his De Poetica though is that there are requirements to telling stories that reach an audience’s emotional core. Eliciting pity and fear in a world growing ever more cynical with each technological evolution is a herculean task. That’s part of why Black Mirror has developed such a following with only a handful of episodes. It has modernized, literally and creatively, the work of tragedy.
Matt Hummel of Evansville, IN works as a paralegal by day for the Public Defender Agency, assisting those whose social rank has taken a ‘nosedive.’ But by night he’s involved in any manner of project, including especially writing pop culture pieces about the wisdom behind digital puppets running for political office. He’s also a performer, so this piece on Aristotelian Tragedy was a ‘playtest’ of sorts looking through his own black mirror. This Christmas, he’ll be teaching his kids not to post negativity online because, seriously, that episode wrecked him…