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Black Mirror's 'Beyond The Sea' Fails to Deconstruct Toxic Masculinity

Patriarchy, transferring consciousness, & isolation in space

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 8 months ago 9 min read
Photo by Cristian Palmer on Unsplash

The episode Beyond The Sea is probably one of the most disappointing ones in the entire sixth season of Black Mirror. Set in an alternate 1969, it's a story about two astronauts that have the ability to transfer their consciousnesses back down to Earth on their mission's downtime into artificial robots called replicas. This technological feat allows them to maintain their lives back home in a kind of inverse work-from-home situation.

What follows is a story fundamentally uninterested in both the science and the world it has created. The narrative doesn't go into the specifics of how this technology works or the many accompanying technologies that make the space station they work in possible (seriously, the ship has artificial gravity, and they never justify it).

Nor is Beyond The Sea interested in its greater world. A major plot point is that the astronaut David Ross's entire family is killed, and we are never shown grief counseling or any direction or lack thereof from mission command. The narrative is merely these two men and their families: a decision that makes everything almost too small.

Yet, rather than pick apart all the various plotholes, the subject we are going to talk about is how toxic the men are in this episode and if it succeeds or fails in deconstructing toxic masculinity.

Diving into toxic masculinity

It's not very clear that toxic masculinity was the focus of this episode. When scanning the commentary of writers, showrunners, and actors, it seems larger inspirations were the isolation of the COVID pandemic, the Sharon Tate murder by the Manson Family cult, and the early space race.

And so, why focus on toxic masculinity in this review if it's not the show's intention?

Well, regardless of what the showrunner and writer intended, it's an inescapable element of the show itself. When you have an episode focused on two middle-class white leads in 1960s America and how those men process their feelings in the wake of trauma, masculinity is an inescapable element. As Brynna Arens in Den of Geek notes about the show, and more specifically, it's ending: "[It's not] just a commentary on trauma and the vast loneliness of space, [but] also serves as an argument against toxic masculinity."

In the show, we are presented with two types of men: the "good" astronaut and the bad one. The astronaut, Cliff, is the more obvious example of toxic masculinity. He's a stern and emotionally stunted patriarch. He forces his son and wife to obey his orders and struggles to make basic emotional observations.

Cliff is unable to connect with the people in his life, especially David. When he provides access to his replica, he assumes naively that giving him an hour of time on Earth will be enough to process a recent trauma. "Well, it feels like that really worked," he tells his wife with all the emotional intelligence of a sea cucumber.

Meanwhile, the other astronaut David is depicted as initially being one of the "good ones". He has an emotionally stable support network or at least a stereotypical one for the 1960s (i.e. a wife and two kids). He handles situations with grace and humor, and everything in his life appears to be going okay (cue foreshadowing).

However, when "hippies" kill his family for his replica being unnatural (destroying his replica in the process), he is left isolated in the space station for the rest of his four-year term. Cliff then offers up his replica for an hour at a time to David. Cliff does this so that David can still go to Earth and not be as alone, an offer David unsurprisingly accepts. This setup leads to a series of events where David oversteps, which enrages the patriarch, Cliff, enough to have him cut David off from his replica.

David, the narrative seems to suggest, is supposed to be a quintessential "nice guy" — someone who feels entitled to the affections of others around him. He even tries to manipulate Cliff into giving him replica access under the pretext of accountability. After Cliff learns that David has made advances on his wife, he lectures about David's toxicity, saying: "You're a conman. The worst kind. The arrogant kind."

All of these narrative choices should lead us to a fulfilling discussion on toxic masculinity, and yet they sputter for several key reasons.

Why the narrative doesn't work

The first big reason this deconstruction fails is that the narrative's focus is more on the pain of the men in the show than the women and children it uses as props.

For example, Cliff isn't simply a stern man by 1960s standards but is patently abusive. He has moved his social butterfly wife to the countryside, isolating her from all her friends and contacts. He controls what his wife can read and who she can interact with and withholds physical contact. He may not hit her, but he does take a thoroughly possessive approach, telling David in the end that the man can no longer see Lana because she is "his."

His wife eventually confesses that she is unhappy. Yet it's not exactly clear what narratively the show is advancing with this confession because it's framed more as emotional miscommunication than the clear abuse we are seeing. Is this how she really feels, or is she couching her language toward her emotionally abusive husband?

The episode never resolves this tension or makes it plain that what we, as the audience, are witnessing is abuse. We largely don't care about this narrative thread after Lana's confession. There is a huge point made of how stunted the men around her are, Lana being the only figure David is able to cry in front of following his family's death, but narratively the show isn't much better in its treatment of its female characters.

In the end, Lana receives no closure in the episode. She is fridged (i.e. the act of killing off a female character for the development of your male characters) to make the show's ending more impactful for the two men: who both lose their families (her included) by its end. David murders Cliff's family to "level the playing field." As the camera zooms out to the coldness of space, both of them are left drifting through Earth's orbit, no longer tethered to the Earth, and we are meant to be haunted by their situation.

There were ways for this narrative to have been more satisfying, but it would have had to have focused on the reasons why these two men are awful. Perhaps if the show narrowed in on Cliff's abusiveness, finetuned David's nice-guyity, and not killed a bunch of children and women for emotional effect, we would have been left with a less convoluted story.

Instead, this entire message becomes undercut by the second major reason this episode doesn't work, which is that the central conceit of the show — i.e. the isolation David experiences following his family's death — undercuts anything meaningful this episode has to say about masculinity.

To reiterate there is no bereavement plan shown for David. No psychologist counseled him during this process. We, as the viewer, likewise never see any form of mission control at all to assist him. Not as a reflection of 1960s society but merely because it's not there in the narrative at all. We see nothing to help this traumatized man sort through this life event, which is unbelievable even for a high-stakes position like this in the 1960s. David is largely alone in the void of space, left to stew on his misery until he snaps and massacres Cliff's family.

When David starts obsessing over Cliff's family and wife, it's depicted as something we should find disgusting (and it is), but given the intense isolation we are seeing, is it truly such an unbelievable thing? There is a reason isolation has been classified by some as a form of torture, and the phrase cabin fever is part of the popular lexicon.

While men do feel more entitled to violence overall, no one knows how they personally would react in that sort of situation, and it makes this whole conversation dicey because we are left trying to find where the line is between David's toxic masculinity and his insanity.

A Jettisoned Conclusion

To me, when David kills Cliff's entire family, it narratively feels lazy. We are left with a shock ending for shock value in and of itself, and it makes the entire episode's message messier (note: this was a common problem throughout season 6th of Black Mirror, with many episodes ending in death and destruction).

It seemed like the show wanted to be this epic deconstruction of the effect of isolation on the human psyche, with the violence David enacts on Cliff being part of a cycle that men inflict upon each other. David loses his family, and then, unable to really communicate with anyone due to both circumstances and his own emotional stuntedness, breaks down, hurting those more vulnerable than him to get a man's attention. For the entire episode, one can argue that women and children are pawns men use to hurt each other.

Given that most mass shootings are committed by men, it's not an unbelievable ending for a man to take out his anger on women and children (see the news). But the show doesn't put in the necessary work to take this theme home. Many of these observations I am making are subtextual (i.e. the text doesn't spell them out). I am sure that this cyclical commentary on male violence is something a lot of viewers didn't pick up on, not because they are stupid, but because the show did a poor job highlighting this theme — if it intended to highlight it at all.

Worse, the show's central conceit (i.e. being isolated on a spaceship) doesn't help make these actions seem toxic but rather insane. Many people probably walked away with the idea that David killed Cliff's family not because of toxic masculinity but because he's crazy, and that points to the notion that the narrative was not as strong as it could have been.

From a birdseye view (or a spatial one), when you have a text where two men are being awful to each other, is it an epic deconstruction of toxic masculinity or merely an enactment of it?

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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