‘Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’ Recap: ‘Real Life’ Blurs Lines Between The Actual And The Virtual
In what is probably the scariest, most Black Mirror-esque episode of Electric Dreams yet, Anna Paquin’s character gets lost between the real and virtual worlds, not knowing (and making it impossible for us to know until the end) which is the genuine article. Or should we say Terrence Howard’s character? Tough call.
The episode takes place in Chicago sometime in the nearish future. Paquin plays a cop dealing with PTSD that stems from a brutal massacre of her fellow officers. To give her tortured mind a break, she lets her girlfriend talk her into trying out a new VR device that allows you to take a vacation from your life. For a few hours, you can be someone else completely. Paquin’s character, Sarah, goes to sleep and wakes up in Howard’s body. For a little while, she gets to live his life as a wealthy tech company founder who is the inventor of a VR device similar to the one she’s using.
Though the device is supposed to give her a break from her own life, the one she’s borrowing via VR isn’t exactly stress-free. Howard’s character, George, has suffered his own share of violence and loss—it’s just not clear what that is yet (mostly because he’s suffering from amnesia). Back in her own life, Sarah has lunch with her partner who tells her that the bad guys behind the massacre that’s messed her up so badly have been caught on CCTV. But something feels off to Sarah—the lead is too easy, and her food tastes off.
When Sarah is attacked later that night, she blacks out and immediately slips into George’s world where she discovers that his wife has been murdered in a very public way—oh, and George’s wife is an identical copy of Sarah’s girlfriend. It’s here where the lines between the two lives Sarah has been inhabiting begin to slip away and she begins to feel unsure about which version is her “real” life.
The fact that Sarah’s life is going so well (she has a loving girlfriend, the bad guys have been caught, her partner swooped in to save her after she was attacked, and she’s safe in the hospital) tells her that this can’t be her actual life. Her sense of guilt and the PTSD she suffers from convinces her that actual life should be the one in which she’s lost her wife. Her girlfriend wants to reboot the VR tech and erase all traces of George, but before she can, Sarah uses it to return to his life. There, George’s amnesia suddenly clears and he remembers that he was responsible for his wife’s death—he wouldn’t give in to the blackmailer who’d kidnapped her, so they murdered her.
He invented the VR software he’s been using to avoid his own painful reality but with the return of his memories (and guilt) he decides he’s not worthy of that kind of escape. George smashes the device, which is when we discover for certain that it’s Sarah that lives in the real world. Or used to—her actions as George in the virtual world have left her braindead, her way of punishing herself for the terrible guilt she feels over the massacre she thinks she should have prevented. So. Dark.