I mentioned in the previous review of ‘Nosedive’ that there wasn’t much evidence of a boost to the budget. With ‘Playtest’, we begin to see just where the extra money went. An episode like this simply wouldn’t have the same impact without all the bells and whistles that we get. Saying that though, ‘Spider-Pieters’ wasn’t the scary part of the episode. No, the trippy, scary, mindf*ck-ness was entirely down to some classic Charlie Brooker writing, and the same intimate directorial style that Dan Trachtenberg used so effectively in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
The basic premise of the episode is standard enough – American traveller with baggage (both emotional and physical) runs out of money and finds a job that’s too good to be true. It just so happens that the catch here isn’t that his boss pays below minimum wage, but a techno-nightmare that Elon Musk would most certainly approve of.
For an episode 10 minutes shorter than ‘Nosedive’, at 50 minutes, it does take a while to get going – it’s 20 minutes or so before Cooper (Wyatt Russell) gets to Saito Games HQ – and in the process of watching that felt like too long a setup. Yet once the episode is over, the structure appears far more appropriate, grounding the piece so much that when the kick happens, the effect is tenfold.
By that kick, I of course mean the moment Cooper’s reality starts to unravel, as Sonja becomes real but not there, and as layer after layer of simulation peels back. It was emotionally draining stuff, so much so that I myself was rather relieved when a housemate got back a few minutes after the end (the fact it was mostly set in Berkshire, as I write this from that same county, didn’t help either…).The story did turn unexpectedly however, even if it worked towards the outcome I had expected. The whole ‘Resident Evil’ pastiche was obvious, and studio boss Shou Saito was certainly more Shinji Mikami than Hideo Kojima (approximately 10% of readers will have any idea who I’m talking about there), meaning the horror, haunted house vibe wasn’t a big surprise. But first with the introduction of the technology to the episode, and then with Sonja’s reappearance, I thought we’d head towards that same questioning of reality, only with Cooper pitted against those previous testers who’d disappeared and, believing it just to be the game, having scant regard for their wellbeing until it was too late.
Good thing I’m not writing the show, then. I mentioned earlier of Elon Musk, and his (and others) belief that we are unlikely to be the base reality, but rather are simply one further layer of simulation, and this was something that certainly sprung to mind as the episode came to a close.
The poetic, sad nature of Cooper’s demise – that it was all down to him turning his phone back on – was classic Brooker and Black Mirror, where more often than not, it’s the protagonist who is responsible for their demise, and not the structures and people who enable them. Perhaps Cooper was slightly lower on the ‘dug their own grave’ scale of the show, yet he was far from a white knight.
He was also bloody annoying, and credit (for it was an integral part of the episode) goes to Wyatt Russell (yes, son of that Russell by the name of Kurt). His whole cool guy shtick might have been at times groan-inducing, but it did make him particularly endearing and human. The casting in general was spot on, with Wunmi Mosaku flitting between Cooper’s friend and jailer with such incredible and believable ease throughout.
‘Playtest’ is another great episode of Black Mirror’s new series. Part of me hopes I’ll have something to complain about sometime soon…