Your Mom is worried about you. You should ALWAYS pick up when she calls.
Beware the Spoilers
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writer: Charlie Brooker
Stars: Wyatt Russell, Hanna John-Kamen, Wunmi Mosaku, Ken Yamamura
Cooper (Russell), unable to deal with the agonizing death of his Alzheimer-ridden father and the fractured relationship with his mother, sneaks out to travel the world and find himself. Along the way he perpetually ignores calls from his mom. During the last leg of his adventure in London, Cooper hooks up with a local, Sonja (Kamen). The two of them bond, swap stories, and she tells him about her life as a technology correspondent. The next morning as Cooper is attempting to make his way back State side, he finds his card has been cloned and his funds are depleted. Using an app he has used throughout his trip to fund it, Cooper (with the help of Sonja) applies to be a play-tester for a gaming corporation, SaitoGemu. If he can get a photo of what they are testing to her, that could be worth a hell of a lot of money.
The first half of the episode doesn’t fall into the typical Black Mirror lay out. With the exception of his phone, technology is not discussed at length until Cooper gets to the gaming facility. The beginning is spent getting to know our antagonist which of course plays out brilliantly in the latter half when the unnerving, disturbing twist ties everything together. The introduction actually played out more like the opening of a horror film. Makes sense given the directors career making film. Boy leaves his comfort zone to have fun, meets a girl, gets into trouble, turns to mysterious company for help.
SaitoGemu research leader, Katie (Mosaku), takes Cooper’s phone and turns it off as she has him sign an NDA for testing out what they call the “Mushroom,” a device they place in the base of his skull that will create “layers on top of reality.” When Katie leaves the room, Cooper finds his phone and turns it back on to take a photo for Sonja. But he forgets to turn it off as we find out when his mother calls (yet again) just as the Mushroom starts to upload into his brain.
The second half of the episode becomes a straight horror film (there is even the typical horror film music playing upon arrival to SaitoGemu) as Cooper is taken to a house to further test the gaming applications for the Mushroom. Arachnophobia sufferers (like myself) probably wished for a warning before the start. Trachtenberg, much like his previous film, uses the camera to push in on the horror (“He’s gonna be right behind this door when I close it, isn’t he?” GIANT SPIDER!), taking advantage of the claustrophobic like spaces inside the creepy house. Or zooming around with the scary noises, giving the scene a sense of movement.
As the test starts, the Mushroom only displays the surface things Cooper is afraid of (a spider, a childhood bully), then morphs the two together along with some phallic obsessed Freudian observations of horror films (a giant spider with the head of his bully and dicks in its mouth!) in an attempt to scare him more. As the Mushroom progresses, it taps into the deeper seeded fears Cooper possesses. Sonja set him up, he is being punished for violating the NDA, he is forgetting who he is just as his father did.
Then the gruesome twist. The Mushroom was giving him an explanation of his death in the .04 seconds before Cooper perishes. His experiences from the time his phone started to ring was his brain expelling the last of its neurons, trapping Cooper in the experience he anticipated from a company that makes horror games. The house he was used in the only game from SaitoGemu he has heard of. Cooper’s fear of spiders was brought to the forefront after seeing a spider on a man’s t-shirt. He had just talked about his childhood bully, the death of his father, and disconnect between him and his mother to Sonja. The spooky painting was the same thing his saw an animator working on before walking into the testing room.
In the end, his death was his own fault. Katie turned off his phone and he turned it back on to violate a contract. His last moments (calling out for his mother as she calls his phone) are coldly recorded for further research while Saito (Yamamura) himself just shrugs at the unexpected death. Just another part of play-testing.
“Playtest” had me utterly disturbed at the end, but Russell’s performance as Cooper was a true highlight as well as Trachtenberg’s adaptation of showrunner Booker’s script. A wonderfully alarming look as to the future of gaming that takes more than one viewing for the true scares to set in.
What did you think of “Playtest”? Were you troubled by the ending? Did you see the final layer upon reality coming? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.