The selves we present on our social media accounts — Instagram, Twitter, whatever — aren’t really, well, us. They’re the pretty versions of us, the happy versions, the ones whose lives are all magic, all the time. No one wants to see our sadness or our pain or a selfie we took at 4 a.m. when we were up sick with a stomach bug — so we don’t show them. We save that side of ourselves for real interactions, for our friends and family and partners. There, we can be judged, sure, but we’re not looking for hearts or likes. We’re just looking for connection. But what if the opportunity for that, too, was taken away? What if every single in-person encounter was up for consideration, a real-life Yelp-style rating that affects your reputation?
That’s the reality Black Mirror‘s “Nosedive,” an episode written by Parks and Recreation alums (and all-around comedy greats) Rashida Jones and Mike Schur, imagines. After each interaction, the participating parties rate the other person on a scale of 1 to 5. Those with scores 4 and higher are considered to be in a good spot, while those under 4 are looked down upon. Our episode’s heroine, Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), starts off as a 4.2 — a solid number, just not high enough to get her a deal on the luxury apartment she wants. So she sets off on a mission to raise it to a 4.5 in record time.
It’s not just the apartment she lusts after, though. When the realtor shows her the space, there are also holographic simulations of what Lacie’s life would look like is she lived there. In the kitchen, she wears a pink silk nightgown, her hair done up. She looks content, and then it gets better: A shirtless, gorgeous man enters and wraps his arms around her. This is the polar opposite of what her current living situation is — she bunks with her brother, who’s about to ditch her to move in with a friend — and would be an antidote to the insecurity and loneliness she so clearly feels. Now all she has to do is get some more stars, and she’ll be ready to start over.
At first, she tries to do this by going to a coach and getting some advice. He tells her it should take about 18 months to reach 4.5. She doesn’t have that sort of time — she needs that apartment now. So her only option to get rich fast is to cozy up to some “high 4s,” who will then boost her rating considerably more than, say, a 3.1 would. This is harder than it seems: She tries to give her uptight — and highly rated — elevator buddy a free croissant, but said elevator buddy sees right through the sucking up and punishes her with a lousy 3-star rating. “Be genuine!” her coach tells her afterward. Being genuine in a world where everyone is constantly evaluating you is a challenge in itself, he neglects to mention.
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This is something Lacie struggles with. From the very beginning of the episode, we see that she always has on a mask; even when she’s alone in her bathroom, she’s practicing her laugh in front of the mirror. Being her true self is so foreign to her at this point that the idea of projecting that true self to others is unnatural, barely even an option. Then she gets an idea: She’ll post a photo of Mr. Rags, a doll from her childhood. Everyone likes nostalgia posts, right?
NEXT: A rating boost is on the horizon [pagebreak]
“Everyone” includes Naomi, an old friend of Lacie’s who is, conveniently, a 4.8. She sees the photo, and calls Lacie to catch up — and to ask her to be the maid of honor at her upcoming wedding. It’s a weird request, given that they clearly haven’t kept in touch, but Lacie, too, loves nostalgia. She tears up as Naomi asks — is it because she knows that being a 4.8’s maid of honor will get her rating up, or because she’s genuinely touched that an old friend would ask to share this special day with her?
Probably both: As it turns out, Naomi is marrying up, and the guest list is full of high 4s. Lacie now has an opportunity to get evaluated by all these, as her coach would call them, “quality people” when she gives her speech at the reception, meaning this could be the trick to getting that coveted 4.5. But she’s also desperate for a connection, even one as superficial as hers with Naomi (who we soon find out screwed her over in the past and hasn’t exactly been the good friend Lacie makes her out to be).
So she gets to work on writing the most heartwarming, irresistible speech she can. She pours everything into it to an obsessive level, and ends up getting scolded by her brother — a measly 3-point-something — for spending all her time working on this performance of herself. Then she’s off to the airport for the wedding, where she discovers the flight is canceled and only those 4.2 and up qualify for standby. Too bad she pissed off multiple people on her way to the airport, bringing her down to 4.1. And too bad she reacts to this news by making a scene, causing security to come kick her out and drop her to a temporary 3.1. In real life, you’d throw a tantrum at the airport and piss off the people around you, who you’d (hopefully!) never have to see again. In this world, you throw a tantrum at the airport and it stays with you. There isn’t any room for mistakes here.
Now that Lacie’s banned from the airport, she has to nab a rental car — the cheapest one because of her newly diminished status. Because it’s the cheapest, the battery recharging station (this future’s version of a gas station) doesn’t have a cord that fits. Lacie’s left hitchhiking, which doesn’t work out so well because everyone driving past sees her score — now a 2.8 — and doesn’t want to affiliate with such an apparently crappy person. That is, until a truck driver named Susan (Cherry Jones), a 1.4 herself, stops.
Once upon a time, Susan was a 4.6. Then her life went to hell: Her husband, Tom, got cancer, so Susan five-starred every doctor, nurse, she could, hoping that this would be good karma and save Tom’s life. It didn’t. Tom, a 4.3, couldn’t get into an experimental trial because a 4.4 beat him to it, and he ended up dying. Afterward, Susan gave up on being a prim and proper 4.6. It didn’t save her husband, so what’s the point of it? Why not just be real?
Well, because people don’t like it. But Susan doesn’t give a s— about being liked. When Lacie asks if she wants to hear her maid of honor speech, Susan breezily responds, “No” with a smile on her face. She’s not kidding. Lacie herself starts to Get Real, admitting that she’s making herself play the ratings game until she finds contentment, whatever that might mean. To her, it makes sense that Susan has stopped caring about it: She already lost her husband, what Lacie seems to see as the end-all and be-all of happiness, so now she has nothing left to lose by having a bad reputation. But Lacie doesn’t have a husband, or friends, it appears, or a job she really likes, or anything that makes her happy. She wants to find that before she starts shedding her obsession with ratings.
NEXT: Lacie can’t catch a break [pagebreak]
Susan eventually drops off Lacie, who boards an RV with some festival-going young’uns before “borrowing” some guy’s four-wheeler and racing off to the wedding — which, by the way, she’s been uninvited to because of her lateness. Oh, and also, she’s drunk after chugging a thermos full of whiskey Susan gifted her with. Lacie’s going to get that rating boost though whether the bride likes it or not. Spoiler: The bride doesn’t like it. Another spoiler: She’s not going to get that rating boost.
A disheveled Lacie shows up to the reception, hijacks the microphone, and tries to give a messy version of her speech despite the crowd’s obvious skepticism. Once the groom gets up to stop her, she starts running around with the mic in hand, and then she starts straying from the script. She takes a cue from Susan, ripping Naomi for moving on from their friendship. It’s going bad — real bad — and when it seems like it can’t get worse, she grabs the cake knife and threatens to stick Mr. Rags’ head up her ass if everyone doesn’t stay back. Not exactly an effective threat, but a threat nonetheless.
Eventually, Lacie — who, by the end, is hysterically yelling about how “Naomi f—ed Greg” in a half-hilarious, half-heartbreaking performance — gets taken away to jail. There, she asks her cell neighbor what the f— he’s looking at. This inspires them to then hurl insults (and great ones, at that — examples include “Your entire head is just ridiculous to me!” and “You look like an alcoholic former weatherman!”) at each other until they’re both screaming “f—!” and smiling. They’re free… but in jail. F—, indeed.
This ending feels oddly anticlimatic and slightly unsatisfying — after so much buildup, all we get is Lacie yelling? But it’s also freeing, as a viewer, to see this happen, to watch Lacie finally let go. It’s still unnatural, sure. She stumbles through her insults, struggling to come up with her next one, so unaccustomed to being anything besides perky and nice.
Although the conclusion didn’t feel as impactful as I wanted, partly because of what I’ve come to expect from past Black Mirror episodes that end on darker shockers, the episode as a whole still feels strong, largely thanks to Howard’s sharp performance and the biting, funny script. Even when Lacie’s being as polite as can be, it still feels like she’s about to snap at any given moment. Her fakeness is overwhelmingly there, annoying and cloying and yet, devastatingly understandable. By the end, she even seems surprised by her own ability to shed that layer and be vile for a moment.
Another factor that adds to this hour’s power is that it’s, like few Black Mirror episodes, vaguely hopeful. Susan appears to be just fine spending her days cruising around with complete disregard for anyone else’s opinion, and she’s also, it seems, a decent person who knows there’s more to life than someone’s score. What it took for her to learn that is terrible, but she learned it — and now, Lacie’s in a similar spot. She can either leave jail, rebuild her score, and keep performing for everyone in hopes that one day it might secure her happiness, or she can scream obscenities with strangers and confront bad “friends” and feel that relief of honesty even if it doesn’t always get her the social advantages she desires. What would you choose?