One way of reading the third episode of Black Mirror, "Crocodile," is that, like a number of the episodes in this and other seasons, it's about how new and invasive technologies are radically changing the human into something that's not so much post-human as it is anti-human. The former implies a positive continuation of the human beyond the conception of the fixed and eternal genes of early Richard Dawkins or current evolutionary psychology (or DNA as Plato's forms), to a more complicated conception of the human as a community in itself (one and one's wet-mates) and with other organisms (epigenetics or hyper-genetics).


Anti-humanism is Black Mirror's bread and butter. It is what's always on the other side of the evil mirror that humanism looks into. By humanism, I mean the subject or hero of the Western narrative: you first have the despot who is free; then you have some who are free; and finally you have a nation of free individuals. The final subject of this particular human story (with his/her sense of self as absolute body, as inner thoughts, as private property) looks into the black mirror and finds its anti-matter staring at it.

The uninteresting way to read "Crocodile" is as a humanist fable. (SPOILER!) What happens is this: A successful professional woman lives with her family in a frozen and rocky part of Northern UK. (The episode was shot in Iceland but is not set there.) While staying at a downtown hotel during a business trip, she receives a visit from an ex-boyfriend. The ex has some very bad news for her. He has decided to make their dark secret public. The eyes of the successful woman enlarge with fear. Fifteen years before, her ex accidentally hit and killed a cyclist while driving home from a nightclub, and to avoid dealing with the law (he was drunk), he, with her reluctant help, dumped the dead body and the bike into a lake. The ex now wants the secret to come out. The truth will set him free. That kind of thing.

The successful woman fears her career will be ruined by this revelation and begs him to consider her and her family. He will not. The truth must come out. She kills him. While closing the blinds on her window, she witnesses an accident on the street below (a man is hit by a self-driving pizza delivery vehicle). Later, when the ex's body is disposed of, the successful woman receives a visit from a person who is investigating an insurance claim made by the man hit by the self-driving pizza vehicle. The investigator knows that the successful woman witnessed the accident. The investigator has a device that will visualize and record her memory of the accident and send that information to the insurance company. The investigator gets the machine going and, of course, sees the murder. The successful woman kills the inspector. And, later, she kills the inspector's husband, and, eventually, their child. Bleak indeed. But not very interesting.

As Alissa Wilkinson at Vox makes clear:

Black Mirror episodes usually try to use a dystopian technological scenario to say something true about humans; “Crocodile” muses that there may be a reason humans’ memories aren’t accessible to others — that there’s something fundamental to our humanity, and to the smooth running of our societies, about being able to have private memories shaped by our emotions and sensations. This is well-trodden ground for science-fiction, and for that reason “Crocodile” doesn’t feel all that innovative.

But if we stuff the humanism and rocks into a bag and toss them into a lake, another interesting reading is possible. This one focuses on the occupation of the successful woman, whose name is Mia Nolan (Andrea Riseborough). She is white and has a very white family. She is a world-renowned architect, and runs a firm, Nolan Architecture, that promotes sustainability and affordability. Nolan gives lectures about the future of architecture, and is praised for not just designing buildings but creating "communities." But before we go into what all of this means, I must point out that Nolan's designs are starkly modernist.

She is Bauhaus and Mies van der Rohe down to the bone. And the home she and her family live in is much like the one that stars in Ferris Bueller's Day Off—particularly the glassy addition to A. James Speyer's Ben Rose House. (Speyer was "a student of Mies van der Rohe.") But whereas the Mies-like pavilion is in the middle of a forest, Nolan's glass, steel, concrete box is black and set on black and barren rocks. Nothing grows near the house. It looks like a coffin that's sliding into the deadest earth.

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Anyone with a basic knowledge of architectural representations in Hollywood cinema will instantly know that this kind of severe modernist design codes for stone-cold killer or villain. (For more on this line of criticism, watch Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself.)

So, Nolan is coded as a villain. But she is also an urbanist, which is why killing the biker at the opening of the episode is significant. She tosses the dead man's bike (the ultimate urbanist machine) into a lake. Nolan also tosses a body (her ex's) into a well on the construction site of one of her buildings, which, when completed, will be "affordable living for all." It's also eco-friendly and has renewable power. As if that were not enough, all but one of her victims (her ex) are people of color. What can we make of all this? It seems to be saying something more important and deeper than the dangers of anti-humanism.

My reading is this: Affordability, the urbanist ethos, and green building are empty (contentless) in the context of the market economy. These urban programs and principles should be propagated and supported by public means. Everyone knows that Nolan's apartment building will not be affordable. The working-class insurance inspector (played by a woman of color—Kiran Sonia Sawar) is broke and desperately needs the commission that comes with a fast resolve of a case. The inspector is exactly the type of person who would laugh at the idea that Nolan's apartment is affordable for all.


The insurance inspector talks about the need for money, whereas Nolan only talks about community and sustainability. How can the world of the inspector meet with that of Nolan? It can't be in the market. So, the former has to be killed in much the same way that the new eco-friendly, market-rate homes and apartments that are rising in, say, Columbia City, remove people of color and replace them with white professionals. The market adopted the ethos of urbanism happily (Seaside, Florida and beyond), but it wants nothing to do with urban problems rooted in class struggle. And the content of any housing crisis can only be class conflict. Nolan the urbanist becomes a serial killer.

I highly recommend that market-oriented planners and architects watch "Crocodile" with my reading in mind. If you apply the standard reading on its story, it's certainly the worst episode in the series. If you apply mine, it might just be the best and most relevant.