Black Mirror’s season 2 opener “Be Right Back” has a bittersweet ending that’s very fitting with the series’ vibe, and raises some questions about grief and online personas. Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror has been praised by critics and viewers for its examination of modern society and new technologies, and how these affect the lives of many people on much deeper levels than it seems.
Most Black Mirror episodes have a twist near the end and a dark, satirical tone, but some have been lighter, with a few even getting more positive endings than others. However, there are some that fall in between these two types – they are dark but there’s some light that can be found, depending on the viewer’s perspective. Season 2’s first episode, “Be Right Back”, falls into this category.
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“Be Right Back” follows Martha (Hayley Atwell) and her boyfriend Ash Starmer (Domhnall Gleeson), who have just moved to Ash’s remote family house in the countryside. Ash is killed in a car accident the following day, and as she mourns him, Martha learns of a new technology that allows her to communicate with an AI imitating Ash, which later turns into an android that looks (and acts) almost exactly like the real Ash. Of course, like with any other technology in the Black Mirror universe, this had some heavy implications.
Martha’s Realization & “Be Right Back” Time Jump
After spending a couple of days with android Ash and keeping him a secret, Martha is visited by her sister Naomi, who tells her she’s happy she’s moving on after seeing men’s clothes in the bathroom – Ash’s clothes. This is the moment where Martha realizes that what she has done is the opposite of moving on, and that this Ash, although he looks and sounds like him, is not the real one. In the course of the following days, Martha truly understands that no matter how much information android Ash has, he will never be like the real one.
One night, Martha tells him that if he’s going to pretend to be asleep he should at least pretend to breathe, too. Martha realizes she can’t sleep next to him knowing it’s not real and tells him to leave, which he immediately does, causing her to snap at him and tell him the real Ash wouldn’t just leave, and that he would argue about it, but android Ash is incapable of that. Martha then tells him to leave again and starts punching him, telling him to fight back, something he wouldn’t do as Ash doesn’t have a record of aggression. Martha finally demands that he leaves the house and he does.
The next morning, she finds him near the fence of the house, and he explains that he can’t stay farther than a certain distance from his “activation point” (in this case, the bathroom), unless his administrator (Martha) is with him. Martha later takes him on a hike and they walk to a cliff. She asks him to jump, which he is about to do after some confusion, with her breaking down and telling him the real Ash wouldn’t do it, and instead would be afraid and cry for his life. Android Ash does that and Martha tells him that’s not fair, and she screams before the screen cuts to black.
Right after that incident, “Be Right Back” jumps a few years into the future. Martha and her daughter are still living in the countryside, and it’s her daughter’s birthday. As they cut the cake, her daughter asks for another piece, and if she can take it to the attic. Martha says it’s “not the weekend” but her daughter asks her to make an exception for her birthday. She then takes the piece of cake to the attic, where Ash lives. She chats with him while Martha stands at the bottom of the attic stairs. Her daughter tells her to join them, and after some hesitation, she does.
What Happened To Android Ash
After Martha fully realizes that android Ash will never have the personality traits and memories that made Ash who he was, she leaves him in the attic, just like Ash’s mother did with the photos and memories of her husband and her other son, as explained by Ash at the beginning of the episode. The attic serves as the place to keep those who have left. It’s unclear if she did so before her daughter was born or after, and the girl doesn’t seem to know that Ash is her father (or a copy of him). Android Ash remains a secret from his family and Martha’s, with only her daughter knowing he exists, but she’s only allowed to see him on the weekends.
Although it’s common for people to use attics as storage rooms, there’s a deeper meaning to them. In literature and other forms of media, attics keep secrets, usually dark ones. In some cases, they are an equivalent of the psyche. Attics in dream interpretation often symbolize hidden memories that are being stored and how willing or ready the person is to let those secrets ultimately be revealed. Android Ash is Martha’s biggest secret (she didn’t even tell her sister, and she had a very close relationship with her), one that she’s not willing or ready to reveal, and she possibly will never be unless she finally works on her grief.
Martha’s Unresolved Grief
“Be Right Back” is all about grief. Surely, everyone deals with loss in different ways, but being a Black Mirror episode, this is about how technology influences the grieving process, and it’s not exactly for the better or to actually help. Martha is initially offended by the concept of an AI taking Ash’s information from the web and posing as him, but eventually gives in as she’s still mourning his loss. Problem is, she becomes dependent of it, even falling into a small crisis when she drops her phone and can’t talk to the AI anymore.
Martha never actually worked on her grief, which made her accept to pay a supposedly big price for the blank body that would become android Ash, and she didn’t address her grief either when she finally understood that there was no history to android Ash: he doesn’t have the memories of the real one and never will either. Although in the end she finally understands that the real Ash is gone, she doesn’t fully accept it – if she had, she would have gotten rid of android Ash, but she didn’t. The ending of “Be Right Back” shows that unresolved grief can last for years, even if the person has a seemingly normal life and appears to have moved on.
Online Personas vs Real People
The AI shown in “Be Right Back” takes all the information posted on the internet by the deceased person to build a copy of them. Because of this, android Ash will never be like the real one, not even physically. Martha points out that he looks like he did on his best days, and android Ash replies that people usually upload their most flattering pictures to their social media. As such, people also upload what they want the world to see about them, which is usually a screen to cover what they truly feel. Before Martha takes android Ash on a hike, he comments on the framed photo of him as a child saying it’s “funny” – at the beginning of the episode, he takes a photo of it and uploads it to his social media saying that people might find it funny, although there’s a sad story to it. Online personas are not the real people and will never be, no matter how honest the user is on social media, and it’s sometimes hard to separate one from the other, which is one of Martha’s many struggles, although she got it in the end.
Android Ash was an experimental phase from the AI program – another example of technology wanting to play God. It also resembles Victor Frankenstein’s efforts to create life, which led him to build the creature and realizing (too late) that it will never be human, no matter how much it’s capable of learning and understanding about the world. Android Ash can mimic the real Ash’s way of talking and some of his facial expressions, but he will never be able to actually feel and have real emotions and reactions towards all kinds of situations. As such, Android Ash doesn’t show any excitement or affection when Martha’s daughter visits him, even though it knows she’s Ash’s daughter.
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