As the Season 3 premiere of “Black Mirror” opens, Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) jogs into frame, strawberry blonde ponytail swinging. Her pace is brisk, and her resting face is focused, intense: This is how she looks when she thinks nobody’s looking. Her features shift the instant others come into view, a carefully-rehearsed sunny smile bursting onto her face. The smile is a little thirsty, a little awkward, and clearly expertly deployed as she’s rewarded by five-star ratings by each of the others. Ever polite, she returns identical rankings to each of them. Ratings and smiles exchanged, once they’re out of sight, she drops the smile instantly and picks up her pace, serious again.
In “Nosedive,” this unnamed and universal app aggregates other people’s opinions of you on a simple — and slippery — five-star scale. But, as in the best episodes of “Black Mirror,” the ranking app is a MacGuffin, only slightly twisted from our current technology — a soft sci-fi metaphor for something so natural to us we don’t always make the connection.
Here it’s the rush of adrenaline at seeing a Like or a Mention or a Retweet, validation disguised as a text or an email, which is familiar to all of us, but certainly doesn’t feel insane. When social media influencers on the show benefit from real-life rewards, such as an express line at the car rental agency, it feels at worst only slightly futuristic: More than likely it’s already happening in Los Angeles.
But that’s not really the horror, because it never is: The horror here lies in Lacie’s smile. It signifies not merely acceptance of, but her commitment to gaming, this system. It’s in the contrast between her Pantone Rose Quartz wardrobe and the cutthroat nature she’s been taught to suppress; it’s in the commodification of everyday interactions; how her understanding of her emotions are as suppressed as the emotions themselves are. She’s filled with rage, justifiably, and doesn’t even realize it.
Lacie rehearses her laugh and smile at the mirror, readying for another day of judging and being judged, determined to achieve the Pavlovian high of gaining rank, watching her gameified number rise. Lacie, slightly above 4.2 in a five-star world, is not yet among the elite — just close enough that ascending higher feels tantalizingly possible.
In such a hierarchical world, one can only go up or down. Her aspirational goal is personified by childhood friend Naomi (Alice Eve), a 4.8, and her failure state by trucker Susan (Cherry Jones), a 1.4. Naomi is the Cool Girl of this realm, always Instagram-ready in a wardrobe of bikinis and yoga clothes, never not flaunting a friendship or an engagement, and of course always smiling — hers a toothy, all-inclusive-brochure-model insincere smile. (But look closely: As Lacie’s brother — a 3.5 played by an as-always incandescent James Norton — intuits, and her scarred wrists confirm, not even Naomi’s perfection act is flawless.)
Susan, conversely, offers the episode’s first true smile: Mostly wry, less happy than resigned. Her interaction with Lacie is possibly the latter’s first substantive conversation with anyone not wholly consumed by the system. When Lacie shares a story of being punished for her airport outburst, Susan’s response is to ask what it felt like — not losing the points, but yelling in public.
In Lacie’s world and ours, the only thing worse than getting a poor score is the appearance of striving for stars. Lacie has reached her 4.2 largely from pleasant interactions with peers and service staff, but she’s stalled out — there’s a point at which you plateau without the approval of those 4.5 and above. Lacie initially shoots for this with the same strategies that have worked in the past — signature smile, random croissants — but the try-hard in her is suddenly palpable — and notable, given the 3-star rating she earns. Trying is only rewarded when it is invisible: Only the results matter, not the intent. You have to smile, but you also have to mean it.
Unlike the pitiable AIs of “Westworld,” Lacie and Naomi have free will, mostly. Where that will takes them — as opposed to the trucker, or Lacie’s brother — is not just survival but triumph. It isn’t enough to exist, they want to win, and they’ve conditioned themselves to behave benevolently, always photo-ready, to respond to tension with a smile. But emotions, we come to learn, are as anathema to success in this world as her thirst.
“Don’t try too hard,” Lacie is advised. “Just be you!” But who is she, in a culture that rewards only politeness, and punishes any appearance of true emotion? The message comes through loud and clear, for men and women alike, and we start to see the seeds of her unmaking: She’s an Elsa-from-“Frozen” in the making, a Dolores-from-“Westworld,” edging and itching toward consciousness: In any story about a woman waking up, there is going to be some unpleasantness.
Like Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in “Election,” Lacie’s goals are only just out of sight, definitely attainable — but the work of getting there has left her isolated. She has a contentious relationship with her brother/roommate, hasn’t been in contact with Naomi in years, and her work relationships are always in danger of a misstep or demerit.
Things begin to shift when, during a visit to the Stepford-esque housing development Pelican Cove, she sees a hologram of herself with a loving partner. Howard’s always-emotive face sells this moment without words: She doesn’t just want the incentives of living in this neighborhood, she craves the intimacy of the relationship this house represents.
As she explains later to Susan, she wants something worth having, and playing the game is the only way she knows to get it. She’s learned to thrive in a community based on a myth — that anyone can ascend to the highest echelons of rank — and, of course, it’s her very belief in that system (as fair, or at least non-random) that brings about her titular downfall.
“Black Mirror” has a reputation for nihilist endings, which scares people off — partially this is because it demands a certain science-fictional literacy to avoid falling into the traps of reading these stories as flat “technology is bad” or flat “everyone is basically stupid/evil” tropes, both Generation X memes that have little to do with the modern world or its stories, and certainly relate to nothing here — and while this season’s sunny “San Junipero” is the most upbeat, “Nosedive” is by far the most satisfying.
The final ten minutes of the episode are the flipside of a rom-com climax, as Lacie rides a motorcycle to the wedding, covered in mud, staggers in more than a little drunk, mascara-smeared cheeks still uplifted in a beatific smile, and takes the stage.
In a romantic comedy, this is where Lacie would confess her love to the bride, or groom, as the music swells. Here, there’s no soundtrack — we’re simply witnessing Lacie’s speech unravel in truly spectacular manner — all the way up to waving a gigantic knife around — and the music only kicking in with her own final radical honesty, as she’s dragged out of the reception by security guards.
That’s when the music swells: As she screams “I love you!” to Naomi — then poses, unsmiling, for her mugshots.
Without context, it would be hard to see the hope in our heroine ending up alone, filthy, in a prison cell. This is further down than she could have ever imagined she’d fall, worse than her fears she’d wind up like Susan or a low-ranked colleague who was shut out of their office building. But as she cries, she smiles. Grinning, cut off from the tyranny of the system:
A smaller, more genuine smile, that only grows as she begins exchanging wildly inventive barbs with her cellmate (Sope Dirisu) — for a woman who began the episode not knowing, or really caring, who she really is — so good at the game she suppresses unease and discomfort and irritation and disgust without ever noticing them rise — the ability to scream “f*** you for Christmas!” at a total stranger in prison is the perfect happy ending.
Lacie Pound stands, laughing at us, cursing and filthy, at the end of a very long road of unlucky coincidences that eventually brought her back to the whole of herself: At the end of the nosedive, she burns. Brightly.
“Black Mirror,” Seasons 1-3, are currently available on Netflix US.