“Not to wax philosophical, but how long can happiness last, anyway?”
This line drops about halfway through Black Mirror’s “Black Museum,” heavy with its obvious import. Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) has surrounded himself with relics of his past career as a salesman of “neuro-technology” in the museum where they’re enshrined, waxing philosophical all the while. The tour we see him lead through the museum — the tour that, as it turns out, will be his very last — is a two-hander between him and a young, nameless woman (Letitia Wright), who pulls over on the side of the Black Museum’s dusty road, walks in with wary curiosity, and refuses to flinch at Rolo’s attempts to get under her skin with his melodramatic storytelling flourishes.
Rolo’s tour includes three distinct stories, essentially letting this episode function as its own anthology series of mini Black Mirror episodes. Each has its moments, but none particularly stand out. In fact, the parts of this episode that stick with you after it’s over belong almost entirely to Hodge and Wright, wandering around the museum floor, rather than the stories themselves.
“Black Museum” tells three stories, none of which are particularly memorable on their own merits
The first of Rolo’s stories revolves around what looks like an electric hairnet but apparently worked in tandem with an implant that allows someone to feel the physical sensations that the person wearing the hairnet is feeling. Rolo tells his visitor how he convinced a frustrated doctor (Daniel Lapaine) to try it out and how that doctor quickly became a star thanks to his unrivaled ability to diagnose his patients by feeling their pain.
“But?” Rolo’s visitor prompts, raising her eyebrows with unfazed certainty that this story about a doctor who could feel heart attacks and his girlfriend’s orgasms doesn’t end well. And indeed it doesn’t. Rolo explains that a brush with death sparked the implant to malfunction by not just letting the doctor feel his patients’ pain, but get off on it, to exactly the kind of disastrous ends you might expect. (Read: cold-blooded alleyway murder.)
The second story — about a tattered stuffed monkey toy propped up in a glass case — is a little less straightforward, and not especially convincing. The technology Rolo peddled here is one that can take the consciousness of comatose people and put it into another person’s head, letting them see and feel whatever their host body does. The example we see is a young married couple with a kid, who are very happy before the wife gets hit by a car, but become deeply bitter toward each other once her consciousness is inserted into her husband (Aldis Hodge). Eventually, he becomes so sick of this backseat driver that he elects to have her consciousness put into the stuffed monkey, in which, Rolo says with the ghost of a smirk, she remains to this day.
As good as Hodge traditionally is — and he is very good — it’s near impossible for him to sell the bizarre dissonance that is him arguing with someone inside his head. Also, the visual effect of his wife screaming impotently at him from an armchair in a vast void is not, to be blunt, very good.
The concepts of feeling someone else’s pain and a consciousness being stuck come together for Rolo’s third story, which picks up after Rolo’s adventures in consciousness replantation got him kicked out of the neuro-technology business and led him to open the Black Museum, making a tourist attraction out of the morally questionable oddities he used to peddle. For this grand finale, Rolo reveals what looks like a hologram of a man with sunken eyes, huddled in a prison cell behind bars. To his visitor’s visible discomfort, he tells the story of convincing this man on death row — whose guilt or innocence is hotly contested, depending whom you ask — to sell Rolo his consciousness in order to ensure his family’s financial security well after he’s executed.
But as Rolo tells his visitor with a delirious leer, he then used this consciousness to lay a tourist trap for eager gawkers, setting his prisoner up to get electrocuted over and over again for his visitor’s thrill.
As with many Black Mirror setups, this horror is both deeply cruel and entirely believable. And yes, there is something incredibly satisfying when Rolo’s visitor turns the tables on him, revealing herself to be his prisoner’s daughter as she combines all three technologies from throughout the episode to eradicate him in the most painful way possible. But in the end, this eleventh-hour combination of narrative threads isn’t quite enough to hold the episode together, making it hard not to see “Black Museum” as more of a leftovers grab bag than a worthy event in and of itself.