Simulation in Black Mirror‘s “Be Right Back”

Reality is the simulation of life. 

Wait. No, that’s not right. Let me try again. 

Simulation is the reality of life. From the moment humans discovered they were only perceiving their lives through a limited number of senses, the idea of comparing what is truly real to what is just our perception of reality has thrown our collective minds for a loop. We have now mastered the idea that our senses and minds can be manipulated in order to create new realities we call simulations. It has been suggested by many critics and historians that the images we use in contemporary art, photography, film, television, etc. are now less accurately representational and more hyperreal. Instead of seeing photographs of actual cops, we watch police serials. Our life experiences of everything outside our little bubble is curated by others and transmitted through the “black mirrors” we’ve surrounded ourselves with.

This is an examination of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” from two perspectives. Firstly, it is important to see the episode from the outside. What kind of simulation is this episode of television in itself? How does it distort our reality to tell its story? Secondly, the episode internally presents us with a metaphor for simulation worth analyzing in its own right. What is the plot of the story trying to tell us about our own experiences? How is it reflective of our current relationship with simulations? By analyzing both perspectives, we discover that, in addition to the plot twists in the episode, “Be Right Back” has a thematic twist; it is actually about our relationship with television itself.  

Television is obviously the medium by which the episode is presented. Black Mirror was originally a traditional television program, but now it has found more popularity through its current life on Netflix. Watching this episode is subjecting yourself to a simulation. The story isn’t based upon any real events or characters, and the technology presented within it doesn’t actually exist. Being this image without context, “Be Right Back” doesn’t concern itself too much with being accurate to reality. The main character, Martha, seems to be able to afford a luxurious home and the expensive piece of tech that sets the story off without having that taxing of a job. We see her working as an artist, but with a digital workstation that current artists could only dream of. Additionally, the technology used to recreate her husband has more features than it would if it existed in our world, all without a need for a power source. It’s perfectly made, somehow affordable, and publicly accessible, while still being in a world that references Twitter and Facebook as current conveniences rather than old relics. This is a fake world: a simulation the audience willingly buys into in order to hear the story. 

The episode of course ignores these inconveniencies of real life in order to tell a story about willing simulation. Like all Black Mirror episodes, the events in it are not real, but metaphorically hyper real, in order to indirectly address our very real human relationship with technology. As our protagonist, Martha seems to act as an audience surrogate, allowing personal reflection. She buys a robotic version of her deceased lover that continues to learn and adapt new characteristics of him based on her feedback. But Martha realizes it will always be a piece of software and never truly replace him. However, note the ending. She cannot bring herself to destroy it, because she has bought into the simulation enough that destroying the robot’s pleading face would emotionally harm her. Even though Martha knows for a fact it isn’t real, by buying into the simulation long enough she has given it a permanent place in her heart that can psychologically affect her reality.  

This is, to a certain extent, Black Mirror’s commentary upon itself. Considering the show’s premise being a commentary on technology and entertainment (especially when it comes to the titular black mirror of our screens) this is no surprise. Like the robotic version of Martha’s lover, television is created by algorithms specifically created to curate to our desires. The robot starts by simply taking data from social media, just as an production studio might learn from what its target demographic is posting online. Then when Martha asks for something different, the robot aims to please and change to what she wants. It would destroy itself as soon as it becomes non-profitable, just as a television series might be cancelled as soon as its fans rebel.

The episode is pointing out the dangers of this dynamic with television. Through the story, the show points out that when the audience develop an attachment to the pieces of media they let into their minds, even while they accept that the media isn’t truly real. Watchers often laugh with their favorite characters, cry during dramatic moments, and get annoyed when a show doesn’t reflect their worldview. This is similar to how Martha reacts emotionally to the robot’s pleading with her, even while realizing that he is a piece of software. She keeps him around for weekends, unable to let go. “Be Right Back” shows the audience what getting invested in simulations can do to your psyche. It gives you a place where you pretend, if only once a week, that this story is plausible, these characters are real, and the simulation is reality. Like Martha, we could end up never being able to let go of these fake creations of our own mind.  

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