Wednesday, January 3, 2018

BLACK MIRROR: "Arkangel" and the Fine Line of Caring

SPOILER WARNING: This entry contains spoilers for the Black Mirror episode "Arkangel." Please do not read on if you have not seen the episode and are worried about spoilers.

Y'all, I could never be a parent. Not because I don't like kids (I do; these days they're often better conversationalists than adults). I'm just really not convinced I could train up another human being to be safe, smart, and self-sufficient in less than two decades while being that emotionally attached to them.

That's the catch-22 of parenting: having someone you love and value more than anyone or anything else in the world, and knowing that there will be times when the right thing to do is let them make and learn from their own mistakes. That there's only so much you can say or do before they decide they don't want to listen. And that when your back is turned, they'll do some dumb shit anyway.

Finding that mix of guidance, protection, and allowing for personal experience is a difficult one -- especially since things can get bad at either extreme of the spectrum. Letting your kid drop out of a tree without checking to see if they're hurt is bad, but so is never letting your child go anywhere not completely cushioned. Making sure they're safe is important, but letting them have enough life experience to process pain and danger will ensure that, when you're not looking, they know what not to seek out.

Always Watching

Wanting to account for the impossibly dangerous in a modern world is understandable, and Marie's reaction is... almost understandable.

I had a saying throughout this season: "If someone offers you mad science, say no. If someone offers you free mad science, run." The Arkangel system in this episode will almost certainly never come into existence, partly because of the intricacy of its system, but mostly because of the deep invasion of privacy. It is, however, the sort of over-the-top project someone might try to sell to a terrified parent, and parental controls that let you alter what your child sees from your own iPad? Well, we'd never actually. Until we saw our baby terrified and nothing we could do about it, and then the finger flies to the tablet.

That is what Arkangel really is: the protective instinct made truly omnipotent. There is nothing wrong with having one. Not that "right" or "wrong" is an issue, because it's not a choice -- it's instinct. That's how come we didn't die out when our early ancestors decided to just ignore their babies screaming whenever they were hungry.

Despite not being a parent, I do have them. And I have friends who are parents. So while I may not experience the feeling viscerally, I do know of that desire to not have one's child suffer at all. Why can't we just lift the pain out of them, take the mean dog out of their route to school, hit a button so they don't have to watch kids beat each other up on the playground. That wish is noble and good and caring.


As much as a parent wants to be able to teach their child everything and have them completely ready for the world, some lessons only come with experience. Your kid may listen to you most of the time when you tell them not to pull the cat's tail, but that swat across the face from the cat will take the understanding from 85% to 100% in one go. It sucks, but experience is a better teacher even than our parents.

And that's really where the awful dichotomy of parenting is: when your instinct to protect is directly at odds with your child's need for a learning experience.

But It's Not All Bad

The hardcore luddites of social media will have you believe that life was infinitely superior when cell phones did not exist, when they rode in the back seat without seat belts, when they rode bicycles without helmets and ate paint chips and had to actually show up at people's houses to communicate with them.

And yes, there's a nice nostalgia to those days. But "Arkangel" took a surprising turn in showing that Sara's implant was not entirely a monstrous piece of equipment. It had moments of value: in particular, showing Marie that her father was having a heart attack in enough time for something to be done.

This moment, albeit brief, is something that's been creeping more and more into later-series Black Mirror, potentially because of the view people seem to believe it's projecting. Technology is neither good nor bad; it is. Humanity gives it an alignment (or, rather, humanity expresses their alignment onto it). "Arkangel," along with every episode this season with the exception of "Metalhead," expresses at least some positive outcome for its central tech -- be it intentional or (as in "USS Callister") as an unexpected saving grace.

We can read this a couple of ways, with the first being very straightforward: that "intrusive" tech can absolutely serve a purpose. GPS on our kids' phones, parental controls on the TV, etc. aren't necessarily evil simply because they aren't natural. With proper use and -- most importantly -- with regular interaction from the parent -- they can be good solutions for existing problems.

Similarly, we can read down through the metaphor into the overarching theme of protectiveness. That is, that there is a level at which a child can both have freedom and privacy and a parent can remain enough on top of things to act in a serious situation. Being a cautious parent in and of itself is not a crime, and is in fact kind of what keeps the whole famn damily alive.

And then there comes a point when you need to ease off.

Growing Pains

The timing of Sara's growing curiosity and confusion about the reality of the world, combined with her "graduation" from the Arkangel device, was probably not lost on anyone watching. There came a day when it was time for Mom to back off, for Sara to face her fears (the non-lethal ones, anyway) on her own, and to start learning what was out there in the world.

But here's where it gets complicated.

When you just block out what your kid oughtn't to see, you miss the bit where you have to explain what it is, why it's there, and why it could potentially hurt them. Did Sara ever have the "drug talk" with Marie? Did she ever have anything approaching sex ed that wasn't Trick's PornHub account or whatever travesty passed for it in her school?

One hopes and assumes that, with the tablet tucked away, Marie decided to double down on explaining the threats of the world to Sara. And given that their mother/daughter relationship seemed fairly healthy before the tablet came back out, there was probably some down-to-earth parenting going on.

It's hard to say whether Sara's one delve into drug use, or her makeup (and makeout) sessions with Trick, would have happened so soon if she hadn't been shielded from anything that upset her for the early part of her life. It clearly affected her enough to send her into bouts of self-harm just so she could try and see what was being hidden from her -- not an uncommon pattern for kids who are heavily sheltered without any education on what they're being sheltered from.

I'm absolutely anticipating parents calling Charlie Brooker out for saying kids should be allowed to have unprotected sex and do lines without their parents interfering, which is (at least I'm pretty sure) not what's going on here. The whole scenario devolved into a double-sided deception: a child needing to explore and a rebel, and a mother forbidding it while pretending she wasn't.

Would it have gone better if Marie had simply rolled over in bed that night and said "I saw what you were doing"? It's hard to tell. Just as it's hard for parents to understand that a child can deceive a parent, then come back and say "I love you" and actually mean it. Because after a certain age, we forget that children are less concerned with honesty in a loving parent/child relationship and more concerned with their parents not thinking ill of them.

Regardless, "I couldn't find you and I buckled and accidentally saw something you probably didn't want me to see" would have been a much easier talk to get through.

What If Moms But Too Much?

"Arkangel" returns to the typical Black Mirror style ending: a human shooting themselves in the foot with technology. And while Marie and Sara both survive -- at least for now -- their relationship does not.

Sara's actions seem insanely violent in the end, literally bashing Marie in the face with her tablet. But there's something important to note, and it's a fairly subtle tell: she didn't like doing it.

Once again, for only a few moments, we see the filter switching itself on and off. Remember that Trick spent a great deal of time catching Sara up on the "important" elements of sex and violence once the filter was switched off. And while real world gore and violence is still more traumatic than anything on a TV screen, Sara would have been largely desensitized to anything she did not find objectionable.

The filter blurred out her mother's injured face. Marie may have twisted Sara's life inside-out and betrayed her trust and felt she had a right to do so. But even then -- whether because of guilt or just general caring -- Sara didn't want to see her mother hurt.

And here, in a few moments, we see that Sara and Marie had the same motivation, carried out very differently: unconditional love twisted by anger. It's just that Sara's took only a few moments, and then she removed herself from the situation so she couldn't be hurt anymore.

S-Sort of.

The threatening sting as she hitches a ride in the truck of an unseen stranger hints that, maybe, Marie's actions have thrown Sara into far deeper danger than awkward teenage sex and one go at some cheap coke. Either way, she'll never know.

What are the lessons?

1. Modern parenting isn't inherently better or worse than "back in the day" -- new conveniences can be life-saving or stifling depending on how they're used.

2. Love and honesty are not as easily conflated in parent/child relationships -- on either side -- as we like to think.

3. They probably should be.

4. Loving your child involves the strength to let them make their own mistakes. Without the small mistakes early on, they run the risk of far bigger ones.


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