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Black Mirror’s second episode Playtest brings to mind the type of virtual reality stories (think The Matrix, Existenz and Sword Art Online) that made ‘video games’ alone a popular subgenre in mainstream science fiction. Wyatt Russell (who you might remember as the stoned out philosopher from Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!) headlines this entry of Black Mirror and showcases just enough constrained misery beneath his witty make-up to turn his performance from novel to tragic. The story of Playtest involves just that. Cooper (Russell) an American travelling to London is persuaded to partake in a playtest for a new video gaming console. There he intends to take photos of the unreleased prototype and sell them to media outlets. Of course, this being Black Mirror, things are never as simple as that. Cooper, who turns out is running away from a personal tragedy, finds that his playtest unleashes not only virtual simulations, but subconscious nightmares.
Unlike previous episodes, there isn’t anything terribly original covered in Playtest. White rooms, multi-reality fake-outs, and head-chips are all sci/fi iconographies culturally instilled into the genre. But if anything, Playtest reminds us of the potency they still generate, particularly when it touches on the frail borders between emotional and physical realities. Playtest feels like the Black Mirror episode most in-tune with the Halloween spirit, pitting Cooper into a virtual hell-house (fashioned as a Victorian-era mansion) where he’s to endure the horrors crawling from the darkest corners of his mind. Oversized arachnids and school bullies are the first two his simulation picks up on.
Cooper’s fears of physical threat, however, are temporarily assuaged under the stipulation that nothing in the playtest can harm him physically. Emotions, however, are a different story. The literal nightmare scenario depicted in Playtest comes from deeply ingrained fears of reality. Loved ones dying and suffering is what plagues Cooper’s thoughts. In the first few minutes of the episode Cooper reveals that he doesn’t answer his mother’s calls because he’s found it difficult to connect to her since the death of his father from Alzheimer’s. Playtest strikes a elegant, nuanced balance between how we respond to tragedies in the real world and how people have become better at escaping them. It’s no coincidence that Cooper becomes involved in an experiment involving one of the most interactive, reality depleting gaming consoles on the planet. His journey to London, in itself, was just another way for him to escape reality.
Black Mirror is never unnecessarily cruel, but once that ending hits in Playtest I almost had trouble finding my balance afterwards. Yet—despite the staggering final sequence—Playtest feels awkwardly crafted. Subplots are left unresolved, the side characters and corporate mischief-implications are undeveloped and—despite the solid thematic structuring—only a third of the episode seems truly devoted to actually exploring Cooper’s psyche. The other two seem more interested in playing with its concept using grade-school curiosity (again this is a problem with trying to stretch thirty-minute material to one-hour), instead of thoroughly examining the episode’s very obvious emotional dimensions and psychological overtones.