At first, USS Callister, the first episode of Black Mirror‘s fourth season, seems like a love story. Socially awkward introverted John Daly is instantly smitten with his company’s new programmer that goes out of her way to introduce herself to him. You see, Daly is the inventor of the technology that drives MMPORG Infinity and Nanette Cole is so awed by his work that on her first day she enters his office without asking and heaps praise on him.
It’s the kind of attention that Daly, with his receding hairline and obsession with classic television series Space Fleet, is not used to. It’s also the kind of situation that should have a high probability of conversion for the Chief Technology Officer of a revolutionary gaming company. Hell, she loves his code–wink wink nudge nudge.
After Nanette leaves Daly’s office and he watches her interact with the rest of the crew–excuse me, office staff–we witness a true depth of dysfunction, changing the story into something different. He looks on enviously as the company’s CEO (and his friend) James Walton flirts openly with Nanette. Another female employee warns Nanette to keep a distance from Daly because he tends to stare. On cue we watch him peering through the blinds of his office to observe that god damn world that he just can’t be a part of.
Swiftly, though our sympathies were originally with him, our perception of Daly has shifted, especially in light of the recent real world public exposure of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. The episode plays with this tension deftly, almost as if it was written and shot in the few short months since the story broke. As Walton hits on Nanette, it seems we’re in for another Hollywood portrayal of the true-and-honest beta rescuing the girl from the misogynistic-and-predatory alpha. Except beyond the initial sexual tensions, the story becomes remarkably nonsexual; and that choice is what makes it so powerful. It subverts the common narrative construction that we have been fed for decades.
The Black Mirror twist here is that Infinity is an immersive VR MMPORG that players login to with a neural device. Daly, with his expertise and high level access, has created a separate secret virtual reality of the Space Fleet vessel USS Callister into which he imports copies of the consciousnesses of his co-workers. These digital clones serve as his crew that he captains as a Kirk who is more Tiberius than James T.
This scenario is Daly’s beta wish fulfillment of the highest order. Unable to actualize himself the way he wants to in real life, he creates a fictional world in which he degrades, abuses, and berates the people he can’t connect with as easily as he assumes others do, especially Walton, the stand-in alpha, who is labeled a player by a female employee.
Actor Jesse Plemons plays the duality of Daly perfectly, crafting a character that is terrifyingly dichotomous. In the real world he is reclusive, nearly always alone in his office or apartment. In his virtual world he is tyrannical, controlling the narrative and punishing those consciousnesses that don’t comply with it. Most notably, Plemons captures how desexualized Daly is through withdrawn body language and passivity in social interactions, explaining why he codes the avatars in his virtual fantasy to lack genitals and why he punishes the non-compliant consciousnesses by transforming their avatars into spider-like monsters. Ultimately, he sees those people who don’t accept his view of the world as monsters.
If this episode were pure fiction, it wouldn’t be so disturbing. The Twitter hashtag “WhedonsLaw” is a reminder of just how real it is though. Whedon’s Law basically states that if a male feminist decries all men as predators and rapists then he is engaging in that behavior himself. The law rests on the psychological concept of projection–“in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. It is associated with Whedon because he is known for creating strong female characters and championing leftist causes and viewpoints such as rape culture–and being a complete hypocrite about them
The most telling information about Whedon is his ex-wife’s accusations against him. Essentially she claims he used his position as television showrunner to coerce women into sexual relationships even though he championed feminism publicly and privately told her their marriage was strong. Interestingly, she wrote that “he accepted the duality as a part of his life.” Whedon wanted to be what he believed a good guy to be and to do what the guys he believed were bad are doing. Daly’s duality is no different as he looks on real-life Walton’s sexual bravado with disdainful envy and punishes virtual Walton by torturing his virtual son.
Ultimately what Daly is looking for, and what makes the decision to de-sexualize his tyranny so wise, is external validation. He invented something amazing and, in his eyes, everyone else is reaping the rewards. It is the same perspective an artistic creator like Whedon (or a big-shot producer like Weinstein) has. They see alphas achieving certain values they want and misidentify the methods use to gain that success.
The use of virtual reality drives this point home. The only way for Daly’s delusion to work is for him to fabricate a fictional world that bends to his will. In reality, men cannot lead the way he captains the crew of the USS Callister. Yet he tells himself that story and forces that narrative on others, harming the consciousnesses that he enters into the simulation without their consent. Imagine how harmful it would be if his story was forced upon millions of consciousnesses rather than just his coworkers’?
“It’s all real. Think about it. Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? I mean, whether Jesus is real or not, he’s had a bigger impact on the world than any of us have. And the same can be said for Bugs Bunny and Superman and Harry Potter. They’ve changed my life, changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of real? They might be imaginary, but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around till long after we’re dead. So in a way, those things are more realer than any of us.” – Kyle Broflovski, Imaginationland, South Park
Whedon and his kind have made their stories real for decades. From Revenge of the Nerds to American Pie to Spider-Man: Homecoming, they’ve crafted stories around the concepts of masculinity, alpha, beta, and sexuality–and we bought them without asking why they were told. Why are the jocks of Alpha Beta concerned with bullying the nerds to the point that the nerds are justified in seeking revenge? Why are Jim and his friends so unable to express basic sexual interest in girls? Why are the two antagonists to Peter Parker father figures who are successful in business? The creators of these worlds sold us their perspective and not only did we buy it–we made it our own.
With the climax and resolution of USS Callister, Black Mirror challenges us to take virtual reality back. Daly is defeated by the crew he assembled, and we’re reminded, with a little help from a vulgarity that only Aaron Paul can bring, the world will always be a tough place to create and live in.
We just shouldn’t use that difficulty as justification to sit in our offices, leer at the world, and craft art that indulges our psychological weaknesses.