The following contains spoilers for The Premise S1E4, “The Commenter”
Four episodes in I find myself pondering a bit what The Premise is up to overall. There is a similarity between “The Commenter” and the previous episodes of the season that is actually a little difficult to pin down. Each story is playing with aspects of our contemporary, (post)modern life and aims to subvert expectations. Much like many episodes of Black Mirror, the stories have a way of feeling possible in present circumstances even if things seem a bit far-fetched. But unlike Black Mirror, The Premise doesn’t seem terribly interested in making a point. Rather there is a humor, and certainly a playfulness, in how each premise is explored, but without an apparent agenda.
This made “Social Justice Sex Tape” feel muddled to me—a mess without value—but I find myself now thinking about revisiting it to see if I was just watching it wrong, or if I could find the right way to enjoy it.
In many ways this is the episode I find S1E4 to bear the most resemblance to, because again here in “The Commenter” we get a scenario that could theoretically happen, but seems outside of the realm of plausibility: a woman whose life is changed for the better through an online troll.
It’s not as simple as that, of course, but one might almost worry that The Premise is feeding into the fantasies of those who enjoy leaving nasty comments on social media posts. Why are they doing this? In most instances I have to imagine it is for a certain kind of illicit thrill, with a good image of the troll being a middle-aged man rocking out to Boston as he makes keystrokes and laughs at the reactions he is able to inspire.
Are there those who do this in search of something like the truth? I somewhat doubt it, but The Premise makes interesing use of this starting point by having the comments left on Allegra’s (Lola Kirke) social media spur her to serious introspection. It’s possible, but not likely to happen, and “The Commenter” also makes clear it doesn’t intend to be an apologia for trolls in general, or even quite for this one in particular.
So the message is muddy, if there is one, but perhaps looking for a coherent point is simply the wrong way to watch The Premise. It’s in the very title of the show, in a way, that what we should be doing here is instead following along in an exploration of an idea to see where it leads.
Is it a happy ending when Allegra hears her inner voice? It’s kind of boring, as she hasn’t broken through to deep desires so much as shallow ones such as deciding to stop for fast food on her trip home. Of course she also decides to break up with Beth and quit her job, but it all remains a remarkably banal sort of moment of clarity.
The important thing is that she is hearing herself—listening to herself—finally, but it’s equally important that she discovers she doesn’t have anything interesting to say. And that’s OK.
Perhaps there is a pretty clear message in S1E4 after all, but it would lie in this and not in any position about whether it is OK to troll strangers online, or forgivable in the right circumstances. It’s rather something of a quirk that it took this for Allegra to see the issues she had with her life, and not really something you could expect to happen.
But it did need to be a stranger, for reasons “The Commenter” emphasizes. The whole thrust of the premise here is that Allegra’s friends are all so supportive that she never gets the truth. But there is also something that could be questioned about the whole idea of the message I referenced above—is Beth really a problem, for example?
I’m prone to believe that Beth (Soko) is being genuine when she breaks down crying two thirds of the way through S1E4 as Allegra expresses her appreciation for the commenter, and isn’t she also acting in an apparently justified way out of love when she gets the person who’s been harassing her girlfriend blocked? Isn’t the commenter’s behavior almost objectively bad? And Beth’s good?
What’s interesting is how The Premise questions all of that, but it’s ultimately ambiguous. One could argue that Allegra is being fundamentally ungrateful, and that to define herself in terms of her own desire need not mean rejecting or hurting those who love her.
Do they really love her? I tend to think so, or would suggest we at least don’t have good grounds in “The Commenter” to judge that they don’t. It’s all shallow, of course, but what isn’t? Are we so sure there is value in depth? And even if we are, Allegra doesn’t reach depth at the end of S1E4—she reaches a desire to eat at Sonic.
Thus on the one hand we might view “The Commenter” as the story of how Allegra came to escape external definition in order to define herself. We could invoke Jean-Paul Sartre and/or Simone de Beauvoir and claim there is in the final moments of the episode a seizing of existential freedom. Hell is other people—Allegra has become an agential subject finally engaged in a project of self-determination.
But on the other hand, one might argue that her concluding move is right in line with a kind of selfishness that runs throughout her story. If she was only working the job helping youth so people would think she was a good person and thus she’d feel good about herself, perhaps now she’s just found a way to feel good about herself for embracing what she thinks is authenticity but which is actually a kind of narcissism.
And the ambiguity is deepened by the fact that it’s not even clear that the Woman in the Bathroom, played by Sylvia Grace Crim, is The Commenter, who is voiced by Jia Tolentino (who also has a writing credit on the episode), and otherwise only seen through text. Is that voice even the voice of the person making comments, or one that Allegra made up? Is the commenter even really a woman, or is that a fantasy? Perhaps this stranger in the bathroom whom Allegra confronts at the end of the episode merely manages to play a structurally similar role to the anonymous person online. Maybe it’s an entirely different person.
And again, do we really think Allegra has broken through to some kind of authentic way of being as she walks through the parking lot, or is this all just another way for her to feel good about herself?
The value of The Premise lies in how it opens a question we can explore more than it does in landing on an answer. It’s clear the show puts forward something like the first interpretation I’ve offered above as it presents Allegra in the final scene of “The Commenter” in a way that feels celebratory.
But is this, perhaps, ironic?
Much like the mean comment left on a social media post, it’s not obvious if this is a joke or to be taken seriously. We’re left to explore the implications of the premise for ourselves.