‘Black Mirror’s “USS Callister” Is a Searing and Surprising Indictment of Toxic Masculinity
Spoilers for the Black Mirror Season 4 episode “USS Callister” follow below.
If “San Junipero” was the Black Mirror Season 3 episode that everyone was talking about, its buzzworthy equivalent in Season 4 is certainly “USS Callister.” The installment already had high interest as it marked the first Black Mirror episode set in space, teasing some sort of Star Trek-esque homage led by Jesse Plemons. But in practice, “USS Callister” is much more than a Star Trek riff. It’s a wildly entertaining and surprisingly insightful sci-fi tale that also happens to be a searing indictment of toxic masculinity.
Plemons plays Robert Daly, the sheepish Chief Technical Officer and co-founder of Callister Inc., which is responsible for the massively multiplayer online game Infinity which uses a simulated reality to put players inside the game. Daly is introduced as a shy, quiet, and ignored/unseen character who stands in direct contrast to his partner, James Walton (Jimmi Simpson), a charismatic and aggressive flirt.
But Robert has a secret. The Star Trek-like visions we see are his own private version of Infinity, which he’s modeled after his favorite TV series Space Fleet. Inside he serves as the captain of the USS Callister, but his crew is made up of familiar faces from the office—the receptionist, the intern, and even James, all of whom offer only praise and adulation for their dear leader. But these aren’t mere simulations. Robert has stolen DNA from these individuals and created digital copies, which live inside his modded version of Infinity in perpetuity with no hope of escape for fear of enduring Robert’s wrath.
Robert steals the DNA of a new girl in the office, Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), who tells him she genuinely admires his work, but whom he overhears making explicitly clear she has no romantic feelings towards Robert. When Nanette’s digital copy wakes up inside his system, she decides she’s not going to take this lying down and sets out to find a way to put an end to Robert’s torture and free herself and her fellow digital folks.
What’s brilliant about “USS Callister” is how it serves up its headfake in the first act. We think we’re about to see a story of a mild mannered genius who gets no respect, and the episode uses our assumptions against us. We’ve seen that story time and again, where the quiet nice guy is the hero, but the story this episode tells is one that rings true to the world we live in today. “Toxic masculinity” is a topic that quite a few pieces of pop culture have tackled recently (including those regarding Star Wars: The Last Jedi), attempting to shine a light on how the striving towards what some believe are traditional male attributes leaves a trail of victims in its wake.
Robert is quite literally the bullied nerd who quietly logs every slight against him, seething with anger and jealousy at both his more “masculine” colleagues and the women who don’t treat him with respect. This Black Mirror episode basically serves as a reminder that not all gross dudes look like Jordan Belfort. When she arrives at the office, Nanette is warned about the sexcapades of James (the whisper network in full effect), but Robert is the kind of gross character we haven’t seen much of yet—although the Nacho Vigolando film Colossal chronicled the toxicity of this “Nice Guy” type quite well with Jason Sudeikis’ character.
“USS Callister” makes clear that Robert has not created this system to have sex with female colleagues, although he does force all the women to kiss him at the end of each “episode.” All of the digital copies are devoid of genitals because Space Fleet was a wholesome show. But writers Charlie Brooker and William Bridges and director Toby Haynes understand that a person doesn’t have to have sex with someone against their will to abuse them, and it’s when Nanette realizes that Robert literally stole her vagina that she spurs into decisive action, kicking this sci-fi riff into revenge territory.
That’s the second headfake. This isn’t Robert’s story, it’s Nanette’s, and the entire episode is so filled with workplace harassment/assault references you’d be forgiven for assuming it was written and shot after the Harvey Weinstein stories kicked off a Hollywood firestorm that’s hopefully turning into a house cleaning. After being taken advantage of by Robert, Nanette seeks to take ownership of her own body once more, going so far as to use her sexuality to lure Robert into a trap at one point. The episode kind of takes a turn from Star Trek to Death Proof, but whereas in that Quentin Tarantino film Kurt Russell’s hardened stunt driver reveals his true wimpy self when a group of women dares to chase him down, Black Mirror shows the ugliness of Robert is masked by a “Nice Guy” veneer.
“USS Callister” ends in triumph (a rarity for Black Mirror) and there’s been talk of a spinoff following the further adventures of Digital Nanette and Crew, but its portrayal of toxic masculinity still lingers long after the credits roll, and this feels like an episode that will sadly stay relevant for some time to come.
And in the legion of Black Mirror episodes, the show’s first foray into “space” territory is decidedly on brand and, refreshingly, doesn’t just rest its laurels on flashy visuals. “USS Callister” is one of the most ambitious Black Mirror episodes yet, but that it’s tackling an issue like toxic masculinity so forcefully and in depth proves the show is still interested in humanity first and foremost.
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