June 5, 2023

Few shows can transpire the unique sense of unease as effortlessly as Black Mirror does. What makes the show particularly unsettling is that though Black Mirror depicts fictional events set in a techno-centric dystopian future, viewers can sense that the building blocks for the dismal future have already begun piling up. While technology is a massive part of every Black Mirror episode, it serves primarily as magnifying glass to glance deeper into human nature and identity. And more often than not, what’s revealed through the lens is deeply disturbing.

The finest example of Black Mirror’s meditation on humanity appears in Season 1, Episode 3, “The Entire History of You.” The episode was written by Jesse Armstrong, co-creator and writer for hits like the British comedy Peep Show and HBO’s Succession. The idea started off with Armstrong pondering how data chips getting progressively small and powerful could allow individuals to store a lifetime’s worth of memories — from milestones like birthdays and weddings to more mundane events like business meetings. This chain of thought eventually led him to realize how important it is for humans to be able to forget things. How is one ever supposed to function with the constant reminder of our failures and humiliations? Pulling on this thread of curiosity, Armstrong crafts a compelling story about memories and truth within the context of a relationship that’s still devastating to watch more than a decade later.


What Is “Entire History of You” About?

“Entire History of You” takes the audience forward to a future where people can rewind their memories. Almost everyone has a “Grain,” a chip implanted in their head that records their memories which can later be reviewed, rewound, paused, and fast-forwarded using an iPod-like device. The technology is so ubiquitous in this society that those without the chip are considered weirdos. The advertisement for Grain promises the consumers a full spectrum experience of their memories because “memory is for living.” But if history teaches us anything, it’s that humans often use clever technology to do dumb things, finding new ways to inflict misery onto themselves and others. And that’s what the central character of the episode, Liam (Toby Kebbell), ends up doing.

Liam is a young lawyer on his way back from an appraisal interview. He’s convinced that he’s botched the interview and rewinds the memory, scrutinizing every word and facial expression, hoping to find some semblance of an answer. After a few replays, Liam concludes that he’s soon to be unemployed and heads to meet his wife, Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), at a dinner party. At the party, he senses tension between Ffion and her friend Jonas (Tom Cullen). Liam quickly becomes obsessed with this awkward encounter, gets in a fight with Ffion over it, and spends the entire night drinking and replaying the memories from the dinner. He carefully investigates every expression and body language, hoping it’ll betray a hint of his wife’s betrayal. As Liam’s obsession grows, he takes drastic measures to yank the truth out of Ffion and Jonas. Eventually, he discovers the uncomfortable truth that his wife did have an affair, but in the end, it’s obvious to both audience and Liam that he would have been better off in the bliss of ignorance.

How The Grain Magnifies Misery

Image via Netflix

It’s not uncommon for individuals to lie down and recall memories that inflict the most pain, especially in the context of a relationship. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary trait to learn from the past to avoid mistakes in the future. Or perhaps there’s a masochistic pleasure derived from replaying hurtful memories — almost like scratching an itch to the point that it’s painful until one realizes they’ve torn a hole through their skin. Or perhaps it’s a futile attempt to provide meaning to one’s pain in retrospect. In truth, though, no grand answer can ascribe meaning to one’s suffering, and if there is, it only guarantees more pain. Yet, it’s insurmountably difficult to stop the currents of memories. As bad as it already is, things only get worse when the technology of Grain gets added into the mix. Using the memory chip, individuals can physically manifest the memories into their screens and replay the recollections, conveniently rewinding and pausing at moments that peak in agony. And this is precisely the self-created hell that Liam indulges in for most of the episode.

Once Liam senses something’s off between Ffion and Jonas, he sits her down to show her the specificities of her flirtatious moments with Jonas. This quickly devolves into an argument which concludes with Liam calling Ffion a “bitch.” Liam quickly regrets his words, but the memory is already stored inside Ffion’s brain and her Grain. So, when Liam tries to apologize, Ffion replays the hurtful instance to remind him of his disrespect and also to gain the upper hand in the argument. No matter how healthy a relationship is, they all go through a series of heated arguments. And much of these arguments often involve rifling through old memories to pick the one that hurts the most. While the characters in the episode whip out their Grains, real-life couples make do with screenshots.

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“Entire History Of You” Is Black Mirror’s Saddest Episode

Toby Kebbell in the Black Mirror episode Entire History of You
Image via Channel 4

Ffion goes off to bed, but Liam stays all night drinking and scouring through the dinner’s memory, convinced that his wife is hiding something. By morning, Liam is sloppy drunk, and he even invites his uninvolved and uninterested babysitter to support him in his war against Ffion. It’s difficult to watch Liam go through pathetic bouts of jealousy and insecurity because they are universally recognizable feelings. Although the viewer may not relate to Liam and his actions, anyone who has been in a relationship or loved someone can empathize with the intense emotions he is experiencing.

After much back-and-forth, Ffion finally admits that she had a fling with Jonas and that she wasn’t entirely honest about the details. In a drunken rage, Liam confronts Jonas, thrashes him, and makes him delete the footage of the fling. But in the process, he learns that Ffion had an affair with Jonas one more time, after they got married. Liam reaches home and lashes out at his wife, demanding to know the whole story. But it’s not just that. He wants Ffion to replay the memories of her infidelity so that Liam can ascertain if the child he’s been raising is his. Finally, Ffion succumbs to Liam’s threats and displays the footage of her infidelity as her husband watches.

Jodie Whittaker in Black Mirror episode
Image via Channel 4

In the end, Liam is all alone. He walks through the house, replaying happy memories with his wife and kid. The memories have bright and warm colors and an almost dream-like quality, unlike the present scene, which feels dark and cold. After lingering with the memories for a while, Liam is confronted with the intolerable pain heralded by his search for truth. For all their flaws and dysfunctionality, Liam and Ffion really did love each other. But following the events that transpired, even the good memories have been stained, and Liam realizes that he’s better off not remembering anything at all. Finally, he stands in front of his bathroom mirror and gouges out his Grain.

The concluding scene is reminiscent of Oedipus Rex’s story from the Greek tragedy. After learning that he unwittingly killed his father and had sex with his mother, Oedipus gouges out his eyes, proclaiming, “Why should I have eyes? Why, when nothing I saw was worth seeing.” Both Liam and Oedipus journey to discover the truth only to learn that they were better off without it. The episode’s writer Jesse Armstrong has commented “how essential forgetting is to successful human relationship,” and that humans aren’t “quite strong enough to not keep touching the wounds.” In the end, it’s not just the emotional turmoil and relatable emotions that make “Entire History Of You” such a harrowing watch. It’s the indigestible fact that sometimes seeking the truth is just not worth one’s undoing, that being able to forget and carry on blissfully unaware is perhaps the better approach.

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