Be Right Back
"Be Right Back" is the first episode of the second series of British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror. It was written by series creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker, directed by Owen Harris and first aired on Channel 4 on 11 February 2013.
|"Be Right Back"|
|Black Mirror episode|
|Directed by||Owen Harris|
|Written by||Charlie Brooker|
Original Score by|
|Original air date||11 February 2013|
|Running time||44 minutes|
The episode tells the story of Martha (Hayley Atwell), a young woman whose boyfriend Ash Starmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is killed in a car accident. As she mourns him, she discovers that technology now allows her to communicate with an artificial intelligence imitating Ash, and reluctantly decides to try. "Be Right Back" had two sources of inspiration: the question of whether to delete a dead friend's phone number from one's contacts, and the idea that Twitter posts could be made by software mimicking dead people.
"Be Right Back" explores the theme of grief; it is a melancholy story similar to the previous episode, "The Entire History of You". Its presentation of Martha and Ash's relationship is brief but depicts a loving relationship, many aspects of which are inverted with Martha and the AI that imitates Ash, which is unable to replicate the small details of Ash's behaviour.
The episode received positive reviews, with the performances of Atwell and Gleeson receiving universal acclaim. However, the ending of the episode was met with criticism. Several real life artificial intelligence products have been compared to the one shown in the episode, including a Luka chatbot that was partially inspired by the episode.
Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash Starmer (Domhnall Gleeson) are a young couple who have moved to Ash's remote family house in the countryside where he was raised. The day after moving into the house, Ash is killed while returning the hire van.
After discovering she is pregnant, Martha reluctantly tries out a new online service that lets people stay in touch with the deceased after insistence from a friend. By using all of his past online communications and social media profiles, a new "Ash" can be created virtually. After starting out with instant messaging, Martha uploads videos and photos of Ash to the service's database, so that it can duplicate Ash's voice to talk to Martha over the phone. Martha begins to talk to the artificial Ash constantly, speaking with it on walks in the countryside and neglecting to reply to her sister's messages and calls.
After Martha accidentally drops her phone and panics when she temporarily loses contact with the artificial Ash, he tells her about the service's experimental stage. Following the artificial Ash's instructions, Martha turns a blank, synthetic body into an android that looks almost exactly identical to Ash. From the moment the android is activated, Martha is uncomfortable and struggles to accept its existence. Despite the android's satisfying her sexually, she is concerned by his inability to sleep and absence of personality traits of Ash's which were not documented in his online activities. One night, she orders the robot Ash to leave and is annoyed that he does so, as the real Ash would have resisted; pushing and punching the android in frustration, she tells him to leave the house. The next morning, Martha takes the artificial Ash to a cliff and orders him to jump off. As he begins to follow the order, Martha expresses her frustration that Ash would not have simply obeyed. The android begs for its own life. Martha screams.
The scene cuts to several years later, and Martha is shown to have raised her now seven-year-old daughter Ash (Indira Ainger) in the country house, keeping the Ash android locked in the attic. She allows her daughter to see the android on weekends, but Martha's daughter convinces her to allow her into the attic on her birthday. While her daughter is in the attic with the android, Martha waits at the bottom of the attic steps, close to tears, before joining them.
The episode was written by series creator Charlie Brooker. In an interview with Time Out, Brooker says that "Be Right Back" partially originated from a thought a few months after the death of a person he knew; when he was removing unneeded contacts from his phone, he considered how it would be "weirdly disrespectful" to delete their name. Another idea related to the episode came when Brooker was on Twitter and had the thought, "what if these people were dead and it was software emulating their thoughts?" Brooker also considered the inauthenticity of social media users, commenting in another interview that "I found myself being inauthentic on there and it reminded me of writing columns for a newspaper".
Hayley Atwell was a fan of the first series of the show, calling it "inventive and very smart", so she asked her agent to get her a part in the second series. Atwell's first impression of the script was that it was "really poignant, but it still had the wit." Asked in a 2013 interview whether they were "heavy users" of the internet, Atwell said that she was, while Brooker said that he rationed his Twitter usage as it caused him unhappiness.
The episode was directed by Owen Harris, who would later direct series three episode "San Junipero" – an episode which Harris described as "strangely similar" to this one as both are "relationship-led". Brooker believes that Harris is "very good with performers" and "gravitates" towards Black Mirror episodes that are "more tender". Brooker praises Harris' "good eye for those authentic, bittersweet and painful moments."
An unused idea for the episode was to have the audience realise "what a money-making scheme" the AI company in the episode is. Brooker says in an interview that "there was a point where she runs out of credit and has to top it up. I think that was even shot". Another idea was for viewers to "see other people who'd been brought back from their social media profiles."
In The New Yorker, Giles Harvey says that Brooker "was determined to make the devices and screens and interfaces used in 'Black Mirror' seem authentic." This is evidenced by an email sent to Martha reading "Martha, people in your position bought the following", and then showing "an array of grief-counselling books". Harvey comments that "the vignette stands for an accumulation of such intrusive moments—the death of solitude by a thousand digital cuts." Another article in Huffington Post notes the touch-screen easel shown briefly in the episode, with Brooker commenting that "the design team had a field day with that easel" and that they suggested "Oh, we should copyright this. It'd be brilliant if this existed."
On 22 January 2013, a trailer for the second series was released, featuring "a dream sequence", a "repetitive factory setting" and a "huge dust cloud". The advert ran on Channel 4 and in cinemas. A trailer for "Be Right Back" first aired on 1 February 2013. The episode premiered on 11 February 2013.
Brooker calls the episode "a ghost story". David Sims of The A.V. Club describes it as a "spare, haunting piece". Charles Bramesco of Vulture writes that it is a "high-concept tearjerker" which amalgamates a "cerebral sci-fi thought [experiment]" and a "sentimental core". Megan Logan of Inverse says the episode is "tragic, but it also carries a deep-seated optimism". Emily Yoshida of Grantland believes the episode is about grief, "one of the most primal emotions we know". Luke Owens of Flickering Myth agrees, summarising the episode as a "sombre, low-key and all together depressing affair about grief and how people deal with it in different ways." Similarly, James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly opines that the episode is a "moving exploration of grief". Roxanne Sancto of Paste says the episode "examines our own mortality and our tendency to play God", and demonstrates how humans have a "desperate need to reverse a natural and necessary part of life without considering the consequences". Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent calls the episode "tender" and "wistful", writing of Brooker that "his writing has changed since he became a husband and a father, but it's a thickening not a softening".
In contrast to the previous series opener, "The National Anthem", Brooker describes "Be Right Back" as "more earnest than people might expect" as well as "melancholy" and "very intimate and personal". Ryan Lambie of Den of Geek! makes similar comments, reviewing that the episode is "subtle and low-key" and that though previous episode "The Entire History of You" was written by Jesse Armstrong, "Be Right Back" has a "sombre tone" that is "more akin to [it]" than it is to the "button-pushing hour of drama" of "The National Anthem". Morgan Jeffery of Digital Spy also notes that the episode "[treads] similar ground" to "The Entire History of You".
Yoshida is another reviewer to make a connection between "Be Right Back" and "The Entire History of You", the latter of which begins with Liam "microanalyzing his potential employer's reactions after the job interview". Yoshida writes that Liam would "eventually convince himself to let it go" were he not able to replay the memory on his Grain, and this is similar to how Martha avoids the option to "find peace in [Ash's] absence" through the AI technology she replaces him with. Instead, Martha chooses to "forever nurse herself on a slow drip of delayed acceptance". Maura Johnston of The Boston Globe says that both "The Entire History of You" and this episode "revolve around the ideas of memory and its functions" and "[play] on the ideas of love and the ideal".
Reviewers have used the analogy that the episode is a version of "The Monkey's Paw" with futuristic technology. Lambie compares the storyline to Ubik by Philip K. Dick and 1984 film Starman, and the cinematography to 2010 film Never Let Me Go. TheWrap notes that the episode "shares some similarities" with 2013 film Her.
Unlike past episodes, this episode "shows us a character meeting a technology for the first time, rather than one who has been living with it for a while." Lambie says "the underlying theme is about technology's effects on relationships", while Johnston posits that the episode "offers insight into not just the grieving process, but the way people portray themselves in increasingly mediated public spaces", which "makes it a powerful statement on contemporary culture". According to Swain, the episode is a "powerful reminder to the soullessness of social media".
According to Lambie, Ash is "an affectionate boyfriend who's easily distracted by the inviting glow of his mobile phone" and Martha is "blissfully in love with Ash". Though Martha and Ash only appear together in a few scenes, we see their love through small details such as "little in-jokes, shared love of cheesy 70s tunes and childhood memories". Owens agrees, writing: "Even though their relationship isn't given a whole lot of screen time, you feel an instant connection with them which adds a lot of gravitas to the mid and closing moments of the episode". These scenes are later invoked "with the film's latter half cruelly mirroring all that we saw before", Sims writes. The AI replacement for Ash does not have the real version's "secret passion for the Bee Gees", and engages in "quite literal textbook intercourse" rather than "awkward sex". Ash's cause of death is "neither clear nor important", though Sims thinks that "his constant checking of his cellphone may have played a role". Sancto agrees, writing that Ash "finds it impossible to ignore his phone—an obsession that ultimately costs him his life".
Yoshida says that the presence of the AI version of Ash is "somehow menacing even though he appears completely docile; like Frankenstein's monster [...] he is scary not because of a bodily threat he poses, but because he is the manifestation of our hero's lack of forethought." Yoshida further comments that "[Martha's] inability to resist [Ash] is punctuated with moments of real revulsion at the situation she's in." Sims states that the replica of Ash is "self-aware", as it "knows it cannot replace Ash fully, and it knows its parameters as a computer program". The robotic Ash is "like a lost puppy" in that he follows Martha's "every request to the letter". Daniel M. Swain of HuffPost says that the replacement for Ash is "a handful of witty comments, starved of intimacy, actual feeling or anything of any meaning" as he can only imitate Ash's public persona. Jeffery calls this version of Ash "hollow, without a soul" and comments that "the intricacies of his and Martha's life together" are "lost in translation". Similarly, Logan says the episode is about "the intangibles of humanness that make up the people we love". Sutcliffe believes Ash fails as a replacement because of "the counter-intuitive truth that it's not always the sweetness and the give that you miss about someone you love but the sourness and the resistance, too".
First airing on Channel 4 on 11 February 2013 at 10 p.m., the episode garnered 1.6 million viewers, a 9% share of the audience. This was 14% higher than the time slot's average for the channel, but a lower figure than the 1.9 million viewers who watched "The National Anthem", the previous series' first episode.
David Sims of The A.V. Club gave it an A-, describing it as an "audacious" series opener. Sims comments that "you can predict the inevitable breakdown, but that doesn't make it any less engrossing" and says the "melancholy coda" is "too much to bear". Sims reviews that Atwell "does tremendous work, almost never letting her grief feel cartoonish or clichéd", while Gleeson has "an even bigger challenge as Ash" than in his previous work. Sims writes about the episode's climax: "It's amazing to watch Gleeson turn the emotions on after keeping them bottled in for an entire episode". In The Daily Telegraph, Sameer Rahim rated it 4 out of 5 stars, commenting: "The show touched on important ideas – the false way we sometimes present ourselves online, and our growing addiction to virtual lives – but it was also a touching exploration of grief. To my mind it's the best thing Brooker has done." Morgan Jeffery also gave the episode 4 out of 5 stars in Digital Spy, summarising that "Black Mirror's series two premiere is creepy and moving in equal measure. It has real heart and characters that live and breathe". However, Jeffery criticises that the episode "does stumble just a little at the final hurdle", with the ending seeming like a "cop-out" from Brooker because "like Martha, you get the feeling that he doesn't quite know what to do with Ash now that he's created him."
Ryan Lambie of Den of Geek! praises the performances of Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson, writing that Atwell is "the hub of almost every scene" and "puts in one of the best performances in Black Mirror's short history", while the characters of Ash and Martha have "a real spark [...] in the few scenes they share together". Lambie summarises, "By reducing his scope still further, 'Be Right Back' merely intensifies its dramatic strength. A sci-fi parable about bereavement and digital ghosts, this opening episode is appropriately haunting". Luke Owen of Flickering Myth reviews that Atwell gives "the best performance" in Black Mirror so far, with Gleeson's acting "equally as great". Owen praises Harris' directing, as "the surroundings look familiar and the technology doesn’t look that farfetched – adding to the believability of the story." Owen criticises that the episode's ending "doesn't really conclude any of Martha's character progression", but calls the episode overall an "incredible piece of television that is beautifully crafted". Mike Higgins of The Independent praises the cinematography in the countryside scene, but calls the ending a "puzzle" as "Ash has become just another sci-fi stock robot", and criticises that the episode "wasn't quite the social-media satire it hoped to be".
Empire ranked the first meeting between Martha and the Ash android as one of the 50 greatest sci-fi moments. Prior to the premiere of series 3, an article in Inverse by Megan Logan claimed that the episode was "the best episode of the series so far" and the "most heartbreaking", praising it for being "not only a great narrative and an affecting story, but a stunning, linear meditation on grief and love". Logan opined, "this episode is tragic, but it also carries a deep-seated optimism". Of the first seven episodes in the first two series of Black Mirror, the episode was ranked sixth-best by Roxanne Sancto of Paste and fifth-best in Metro, where Jon O'Brien comments that the episode is "by far the most emotive chapter of Black Mirror so far".
Some critical reviewers ranked the 13 episodes of series one to three of Black Mirror from best to worst. Aubrey Page of Collider believes the episode is the best of the 13, due to the "crushingly human storyline", "incredible performances" by Atwell and Gleeson, "haunting soundtrack" and "gutting" ending. The episode also appears first in a ranking by Charles Bramesco of Vulture, who says it "[packs] a lethal emotional gut punch" and "offers deep wisdom about the hazy intersection between human innovation and the elemental forces of life itself". It is fourth in James Hibberd's ranking for Entertainment Weekly, where it is called the show's "most emotional hour". In TheWrap, the episode is listed eighth and summarised as an "aching look at the qualities that make us us".
In real lifeEdit
In 2015, Luka co-founder Eugenia Kuyda used her AI startup resources to build a similar online service using her deceased friend's chat logs; "Be Right Back" was one of the sources of inspiration for the project. Having seen the episode after her friend's death, she questioned of the concept: "Is it letting go, by forcing you to actually feel everything? Or is it just having a dead person in your attic?" The Luka chatbot was launched in May 2016 and was met with mostly positive responses, though four of Kuyada's friends were disturbed by the project and one commented that she had "failed to learn the lesson of the Black Mirror episode". Another company, Eterni.me, also produces AI that is "remarkably similar" to the robot Ash in "Be Right Back"; cofounder Marius Ursache has commented that "we're trying to stay away from that idea" about "the concept that it's a way for grieving loved ones to stall moving on" and that the AI depicted in this episode is a "creepier version" of their ideas. Similar bots such as BINA48, made public in 2010 by Martine Rothblatt, have also been compared to the central conceit in this episode.
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