Simulacra in “Be Right Back”

Black Mirror: Season 2 Episode 1 “Be Right Back,” (2013).  24 Jan. 2017 via Science of the Time

In thinking about the various questions raised by “Be Right Back,” I find my thoughts returning to a single issue, namely one concerning the reality of representation or artifice.

The problem first arises when Ash fixates on a childhood picture of himself and ignores Martha to post an ironic photo of the photo on social media. After much prodding, he puts down his phone and explains the history of the picture. With this particular representation of a representation, the term “simulacrum” comes to mind–a word that denotes an image or representation of someone or something, but often implies that representation to be a copy of a copy(or, at least, a copy of something not original, according to the work of French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard). Similar types of simulacra appear throughout the episode, ranging from the fake smile in the aforementioned photo to the imitation-Ash himself (itself?).

If we return to the conversation about the photo, we can see that Martha initially reacts positively to it, calling it “sweet” rather than darkly “funny.” Ash thinks otherwise, and even goes on to call it “fake,” while Martha implies that the photo’s authenticity didn’t matter, as his mother (who enjoyed keeping it around) had no idea it was “fake.”

With this kind of subject matter, I often conflate “real” with “true” and “fake” with “untrue.” But when a simulacrum bears no relationship with the original (as it is a representation of a representation) and makes little effort to do so, it can take on its own form of truth as it does in “Be Right Back.” At that point, the terms “real” and “fake” no longer seem to apply.  Baudrillard argues for the use of a different term to describe these simulacra–“hyperreal.”

The simulacra in “Be Right Back” all take on this aspect of hyperreallity, becoming temporarily more real than the real thing. The “fake” photo discussed above brought “real” comfort and happiness to Ash’s mom for a time. Likewise, the “fake” Ash did the same for Martha, even helping her move on from her all-consuming grief.