There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
“The Entire History of You,” a season 1 episode of the science-fiction anthology series Black Mirror. The story is set in a near-future society where the hot technology is a skull implant that turns memories into first-person video clips, which people can either rewatch themselves or share with others. Toby Kebbell plays Liam Foxwell, a paranoid attorney who obsessively scrutinizes the interactions between his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) and her friend Jonas (Tom Cullen), determined to figure out whether they’re having an affair.
To date, “The Entire History of You” is the only Black Mirror episode without a writing credit for the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker. It’s the work of screenwriter Jesse Armstrong, a British screenwriter who was one of the major creative contributors to two of the 2000s’ sharpest TV sitcoms: Peep Show and The Thick of It. Armstrong recently won an Emmy for writing the HBO drama Succession, which he also created.
Why watch now?
Because Succession’s season 2 finale airs Sunday night on HBO.
Succession is the story of Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox), a ruthless right-wing billionaire media tycoon loosely modeled on Rupert Murdoch. In increasingly poor health, and increasingly beset by political, cultural, and business enemies, Logan has spent the show’s first two seasons wondering which of his children are best suited to take over his business. Will it be Kendall (Jeremy Strong), his doggedly committed but emotionally unstable right-hand man? How about Roman (Kieran Culkin), the impish brat torn between winning his father’s approval and treating his entire life as one big joke? Could it be Siobhan (Sarah Snook), the quick-thinking, well-connected rising star who seems to value social status over her nominally liberal ideals? It definitely won’t be Connor (Alan Ruck), a lifelong playboy who knows nothing about business or government — but still thinks he should be the next president of the United States.
HBO didn’t send this season’s finale to critics in advance, but if it’s anything like season 1, expect jaw-dropping plot twists aplenty. Part of what’s made Succession so addicting is that Armstrong isn’t afraid to pull the rug out from under the Roys on a regular basis. It’s how he toys with the audience’s sympathy: he makes these ultimately terrible characters just likable enough that when they’re knocked flat, viewers cheer for them to fight back. It’s an ingenious approach to a show about mega-wealth and privilege, illustrating how easy it is for ordinary people to develop a rooting interest in powerful folks whose lives and work make the world worse.
Armstrong has finessed this trick throughout his writing and producing career, exploring how even at their lousiest, human beings are more relatable than many may want to believe. That’s definitely one of the tactics he uses in “The Entire History of You,” which presents its hero Liam as cruel and destructive as he pursues his suspicions about his wife’s infidelity, but also shrewd in the way he uses his lawyerly intuition to unpack the layers of meaning in every casual gesture or offhand remark. Even when he’s wrong, Liam’s lack of trust mostly seems reasonable.
Another way “The Entire History of You” resembles Succession (as well as The Thick of It and HBO’s Veep, which Armstrong wrote for in season 1) is in its fascination with painfully awkward group interactions. This has become Succession’s primary organizing principle, sending the Roy clan to a new location or event in each episode, then watching them squirm through meet-and-greets. Similarly, in the opening third of “The Entire History of You,” Jonas makes a wince-inducing spectacle of himself at a dinner party, bloviating about sex and technology while Ffion giggles and Liam seethes.
Who it’s for
Fans of dystopian science fiction and biting social satire.
Like a lot of the best Black Mirror episodes, “The Entire History of You” considers big technological breakthroughs in microscopic detail, looking at how they might affect everyday life. If people could revisit their own memories with perfect recall, what would change? Armstrong imagines a world where airport security scans passengers’ brains to make sure they haven’t met with any terrorists, and where parents tap into their children’s memory chips to check on their babysitters. Rather than swapping pet-peeve anecdotes, friends instead show each other their videos, seeking validation for whatever slights they’ve perceived.
The most provocative element in “The Entire History of You,” though, has to do with the idea that recorded memories could prevent people from misremembering or misrepresenting their own experiences — thereby insuring that the news is more accurate, the justice system is more efficient, and marital arguments are more easily resolved. On the contrary, Armstrong shows Liam and Ffion both editing and shaping and reinterpreting their own memories, until even the happiest moments of their lives become instruments of torture.
Where to see it
Netflix. For more of Jesse Armstrong’s work, Veep and Succession are available on HBO Go and HBO Now; and Peep Show and The Thick of It are available on both Amazon Prime and Hulu.