Friday, December 29, 2017

BLACK MIRROR: "USS Callister" and the Inescapable Abuser

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the Black Mirror episode "USS Callister." If you haven't seen it yet and are concerned about spoilers, please do not read on.

I'm not being a dingus this time. I'm living my best life and, while heavily caffeinated and panicking about some work-related mistakes I made, marathoning season 4 of Black Mirror. This is absolutely how to calm me down before the New Year with no horrible repercussions, I'm sure.

The new season kicks off with "USS Callister," an episode for which I think many of us were extremely excited. The trailers, both kindly and slightly infuriatingly, gave away absolutely nothing of this ST:TOS pastiche except that it looked note-perfect and carried an undercurrent of dread.

I wasn't sure what I was expecting -- it certainly wasn't a take-down of a covert narcissist and a study in why victims of abuse don't speak up for years, but here we are.

When abusers "skin" their life.

One might not expect the real-world Robert Daly -- quiet, introverted, unable to speak up even when in a position where he can and should -- to fit the pattern for an abuser or narcissist. He is, in every way, one of those who -- while seeming "the type" -- doesn't necessarily seem capable of being an active abuser. He's just a bit creepy, a bit clingy, and maybe you want to steer clear. But he wouldn't actually do anything.

These are the moments that I always beg everyone to remember that abusers are human. Not because they deserve love and empathy and a second chance, but because without understanding the humanity of those that hurt us, we will never get used to the idea that someone can "seem okay" and still be bad. When we expect our monsters to be monsters, we will never see the monsters.

To wit, Daly's alteration of the world around him on the USS Callister. The women are there for his pleasure, the men are there to stroke his ego, and anyone who doesn't like that is automatically a monster.

Strip away the literal aspect of that, and you have the life of your quieter abusers. As long as things are generally fine, no ruckus is raised. But if things get too out of line to suit them -- if you run, speak up, say "no," call them out -- your life will be hell. And when an abuser has "skinned" their life to be made up of underlings and monsters? It's all too easy for them.

While seeing a Star Trek send-up is entertaining from a fan perspective, it's also an oddly appropriate choice. The world Daly's fiction is a world of technicolor innocence, justice, palatable progressive views, and the hero triumphing over the villain. In a world where good is good and bad is bad and people don't even have genitals to mess around with, it's unsurprising that Daly can fly with a feeling of "purity" about his actions. Even if that manufactured purity is more for his benefit than anyone else's.

"Why didn't you say something ages ago?"

An interesting choice in scripting was to make the most put-upon character on the USS Callister a man. Normally for an aggressive, misogynist, abusive type like Daly, the "normal" choice (especially in post-Weinstein entertainment) would be to have a woman suffer the deepest cut. But having Walton -- Daly's real-world peer -- as the most abused and emotionally compromised was a genius move, both to show how hard abusers are willing to go and that abuser/abused is not solely a male/female dynamic.

The women on the Callister before Nanette already have the emotional calluses: it's easier if you let him kiss you, and there's the tried-and-true "at least he doesn't" aspect to it. And the majority of the crew seems to have fallen unwillingly into the fiction: things are bad, but if the boat is rocked, it will be worse.

And that's something that people who question long-silent victims tend to miss out.

Going back to Walton. On a purely human-world court system ethical level, Daly has not laid a finger on the real Walton or the real Tommy. His actions have been carried out on artificial -- albeit sentient -- characters. Somewhere in his makeup, as sure as Walton is that he is not the real Walton, he is aware that every Tommy that Daly blasts out the airlocks isn't the real Tommy, and that his child is moving through the world safely without Daly's interference.

But that isn't the point. Hell, that isn't even the point for Daly. The point isn't to eliminate Tommy. That would be a whole other story. The point is to create the visceral reaction, to cause the pain, and to make it known that this pain is both the consequence for "misbehavior" and untraceable and bloodless.

My abuser used to brag that he knew ways to cause pain without causing injury or even leaving a mark. He taught me one of them, which I still remember in case I'm in a bad situation. But in retrospect, it's very telling that this ability -- the ability to hurt without a trace -- was such a point of pride for him. Because that is what all of this is about.

Daly's abuse is bloodless and, on purely human grounds, victimless. To a court of law, it might be seen as no worse than drowning some Sims named after people who were mean to you last week. But we as the viewers are aware that he is deliberately and maliciously hurting these people in the only uncatchable way he knows how.

Why haven't they done anything? They can't. Either because he holds too much sway for them to take the risk, or because he has extra special ways of breaking them that hurt more than simply bearing the day-to-day abuse. As is often the case in reality, it took one person with no fucks to give, a special skill set, and a willingness to put herself at risk to effect any change.

Escape and what comes after.

The crew of the USS Callister reached a very specific set of points before escape from their situation became possible. An exit was opened via Daly's own inattentiveness. A person with both previously untapped skills and an "outside source" became available. And -- worst of all -- they had to stop caring about whether or not they'd come out unscathed.

Remember that. The plan was an escape from, not an escape to. They never intended to survive the exodus from Daly's server. They simply wanted the abuse to end.

People who exit an abusive relationship, friendship, or partnership sadly often have to get to that point. The point is not where they're going next. It's only to end it. This shouldn't have to be the case. The crazy texts they send to anyone who will listen should be believed at least for long enough to ascertain that they're true (though tiny people trapped in a game is a tough one, Nanette, I'll give you that). The exit shouldn't be tiny, fleeting, deadly, and surrounded with obstacles. But this is what the abused face. And this is why you have (as mentioned above) years, even decades of silence.

What's interesting to note is that USS Callister joins San Junipero on the insanely short list of episodes where the good guys get an unambiguously happy ending. Our sentient mini-Callister team gets a new life on a slick starship with Nanette at the helm. And it's a wonderful little addition to show them speeding disinterested away from the trash-talking gamer: a sign that, on the outside of an abusive relationship, we're afforded the opportunity to see these abusers for the insecure people they really are.

And for the abuser...

Daly, Daly, Daly... what happens to Daly?

Well I mean, he's dead, obviously. Whether the rogue universe shut-down somehow deleted his consciousness straight out of his head, or whether he was stuck in an empty corner of game behind a Do Not Disturb sign over Christmas hols before succumbing to dehydration... as the Internet kids say, u kno he ded. Even WhatCulture couldn't thinkpiece their way out of that ending.

For our purposes, the literal nature of his death is actually pretty unimportant. What matters is how it happens: a perfect storm of his own carelessness and his targets working together that leaves him abandoned in his own world. And alone in his own world, the illusion shuts down -- because once the players are gone, there's no show.

This is not to say that silent victims are complicit; the situation is far too thorny for a criticism like that, as we've been over. But it is to say that, once an abuser's audience has walked off and left him in the dark, there's really nothing left. An abuser with no support is powerless, once everyone is aware of what he is.

It's the "everyone" part that's hard to get to.

What Are the Lessons?

1. Believe people who come to you for help, even if only for long enough to verify their story.

2. Don't discount the severity of a victim's situation based upon whether or not they are still in it; the consequences when they (attempt to) leave may be greater than the pain of staying.

3. If someone's bad enough to warn your friends about on the down-low, they are bad enough to out.

4. Don't be an abusive asshole or you'll die alone on Christmas.


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