I haven’t been able to stop thinking about “Safe and Sound” ever since I inhaled all of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams two weeks ago. It’s the best episode of the 10 in season one and the most worrisome, too, because the drama shows everything I don’t want to happen in America.
“Safe and Sound” happens in a United States that’s split in two. The episode opens by showing the divide between East America and West America, as main character Foster Lee and her mother Irene drive to an imposing border wall separating the two. From the very first scenes, we’re told that a blatant, pervasive satellite surveillance is a fact of life in this near-future world, and see armed guards tasked with stopping people from one part of America from getting into the other part of the country. This is just the foundation of this episode’s disturbing elements. Here are a few reasons why I hope the world my kid inherits is nothing like what we see in “Safe and Sound.”
These days, it feels like the fault lines that separate Americans across categories of race, socioeconomic status, gender, and sexuality are widening even deeper. Dividing lines play a big part in “Safe and Sound,” which takes place in a land where those tectonic fissures have broken and been filled in with concrete and steel. Foster has come east from a set of smaller, commune-like communities called bubbles and her new classmates think that people in the bubbles are all just domestic terrorists trying to kill their counterparts. Foster’s politician mom rants about the opt-in autocracy in East America and, while signs show there’s still a unified political system, it feels like the people on the ground see each other as lifelong enemies to be viewed with suspicion and distrust.
When we see Foster’s first day at her new school, it’s a scene that shows kids filing in through futuristic security screenings. However many years in the future, school shootings are seemingly part of the fabric of everyday life and kids check into buildings that can be remotely shuttered and sectioned off.
My daughter got a wearable activity tracker for Christmas. She likes keeping tabs on how many steps she’s taken and the coins she can earn. She initially wanted one because other kids have them. It’s a fact of parenting life that children’s peers will wield influence on their lives, but “Safe and Sound” takes that truism and braids it into an all-invasive surveillance state. After an extremely friendly customer service call—which makes her turns over all her life data to the consumer-tech company—the cool Dex wearable that Foster initially wanted for schoolwork turns her into a spy observing her mom and fellow teenagers. It’s a creepy ne plus ultra of unhealthy tech addiction, an unhealthy symbiosis between gadget and teen that triggers anxiety attacks and moral panic.
“Safe and Sound” climaxes with a paranoid triple-cross where the customer service tech convinces Foster to try and bomb her school to root out the “real” terrorists. She’s lost all sense of what’s right or wrong, true or false. A fake-news pretext gets invented that blames her mom, taking her opposition off the table. Most chillingly, Foster goes right along with the propaganda and shows no remorse or regret that her mom’s going to jail as a result of the plot she was complicit in. The near-tragedy clears the way for legislation that makes wearing a Dex mandatory, a nasty nod at real-world programs like PRISM which use private companies’ tech gadgets to harvest information for government use. It’s all a massive lie that fattens the coffers of Big Tech, erodes citizens’ rights, and fuels further distrust and paranoia to make the cycle perpetuate.
The scariest thing about “Safe and Sound” is how utterly plausible it all is. We already live in a world that trades in kompromat disinformation campaigns, always-listening speakers, and politically apathetic responses to gun violence. The only thing that needs to happen for “Safe and Sound” to become reality is for all of those things to continue apace, which makes for the most horrific kind of science fiction.