If there’s such a thing as a “typical Black Mirror protagonist,” it’s a morally-compromised character with whom the audience has no choice but to sympathize. This is uncomfortable enough when it comes to an obviously likable guy like Bing in “Fifteen Million Merits,” who makes a naïve gesture in order to impress the girl he likes, only to find himself unwittingly setting in motion a series of events that leads to the girl being forced–socially if not physically–to sell herself to a sleazy producer of reality-porn. The show follows that up with “The Entire History of You,” in which Liam is mad at his wife for cheating on him and lying about her relationship with the man she cheated with…none of which takes anything away from the fact that Liam is a verbally abusive an emotionally manipulative prick.
The final two episodes of this initial batch of six take that character archetype to two logical extremes, forcing the audience to confront the less savory aspects of western culture and the individual psyches of its citizens. If Douglas Adams was right, and the purpose of art is to hold a mirror to nature, then what we see reflected in Black Mirror is nature of an all-too-human variety. Let’s take a look…
“White Bear” (Series 2, episode 2; Feb. 18, 2013)
This week on Black Mirror: Victoria (Lenora Critchlow) wakes up in a deserted house with no memory of who she is save for occasional, vague flashes of memory. She soon discovers that a mysterious transmission has transformed most humanity into either “hunters” who attack and murder the unaffected few or zoned-out voyeurs who record the killings on their camera-phones. Victoria soon meets up with Jem (Tuppence Middleton) and Baxter (Michael Smiley), who are also immune to the effects of the transmission. Together they head to the White Bear broadcast transmitter, the source of the strange signal, to destroy it. But why does the name “White Bear” tug at the back of Victoria’s mind and fill her with dread?
A few years ago a trio of indie filmmakers produced The Signal, a very good mumblegore-ish horror flick about a television transmission that drives its victims to murderous psychosis–you know, one of those plague movies that’s kind of like a zombie movie. I spent much of “White Bear” assuming that the episode was going to be kind of like that, with added killers wearing animal masks, a conceit originated (I think) by The Strangers but transformed into a cliché in the wake of You’re Next.
And I could totally get behind that. One of Charlie Brooker’s previous projects was, and I think I’ve mentioned this in previous reviews, a miniseries entitled Dead Set. That series is basically “Dawn of the Dead meets Big Brother,” and it was pretty good, so I was pretty confident that Brooker could pull it off this time. The animal masks put me off a bit, but Brooker might have had a reason for doing that, or maybe it was a design decision that he didn’t make and went on to approve because it wasn’t all that important.
Anyway, yeah, no matter what it actually looks like, zombies are pretty much the last thing “White Bear” is about. Obviously there’s going to be a twist of some sort, because there’s no way an episode of Black Mirror could end up being as straightforward as that. But this is an amazing, devastating, crushing reveal that I could never have seen coming, even though Brooker arranges all the evidence just so.
It makes for the darkest and most disturbing episode of a series whose stock in trade is the dark and disturbing and if it doesn’t quite pack the emotional wallop of “Fifteen Million Merits” or “Be Right Back” it makes up for it in sheer gall, to be willing to–if I may return to the metaphor I used in the intro–hold that mirror up and record exactly what was found there, no matter how much it might frighten or disturb.
And it is scary, all right, in the way that some of the best Twilight Zones are scary (and this is the episode where the Twilight Zone comparison seems most apt), not because it makes you jump or shriek but because you know that if some former computer columnist-turned-satirist and occasional media personality could come up with shit as sick as this then you know it’s eventually a matter of time before someone with real power decides it’s a good idea. Hell, sometimes it seems like we’re halfway to this already.
“The Waldo Moment” (Series 2, episode 3; Feb. 25, 2013)
This week on Black Mirror: Comedian Jamie Salter (Daniel Rigby) can’t get his career off the ground and bides his time voicing Waldo, a foul-mouthed cartoon bear who appears as a sidekick on a late-night talk show. But a scathing mock-interview with an MP gives Waldo’s producer, Jack Napier (Jason Flemyng), an idea, and soon Waldo–and Jamie–find themselves involved in an emergency election held to replace a disgraced minister. At first it seems annoying but essentially harmless, but the bear’s popularity takes off, with disastrous consequences for all involved.
It speaks volumes that even a lesser episode of Black Mirror is as thought-provoking and queasily entertaining as the series’ highlights.
Charlie Brooker is angry again. He hasn’t been angry like this since “Fifteen Million Merits” and that’s a good thing. It’s not just a good thing; it’s beautiful, too, and if it’s flawed (and it is) we accept it as part of what makes it beautiful, because perfection is reserved for the gods.
His target this time around is the media. The media is actually a pretty easy target these days; it sucks, and we all know it sucks, but we just don’t seem to be able to do anything about it, can we? In this particular case, we have the media manipulating and mocking the electoral process for its own ends (read: $$$…actually, in this case I mean £££).
The inevitable side-effect of this is, of course, apathy and disengagement. Of course, I’m not saying that the political process should be treated with absolute reverence along with those who participate in it. What I am saying is that it seems to me there’s been a dumbing-down of the political dialogue to the point where facts and reason mean nothing to the discourse, only clever quips and “gotcha!” moments that look great on the 24-hour news cycle.
Waldo, I’d like to introduce you to some people…meet Rush Lumbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Alex Jones…I think you guys are all gonna get along fine. Just fine.
It’s a scathing, angry indictment that mostly works. It’s not perfect, nothing ever is. Jamie isn’t a particularly well-developed character, as if Brooker tried to paint him a bit vaguely and expected we would all see ourselves in him. I do, so it mostly worked for me, but it doesn’t look like it worked for everyone. The CIA subplot should fit in, but it really doesn’t; it’s a bit overcooked. Same thing with the epilogue, which just seems…silly.
No matter. The episode does its job, and I found it cathartic. If you’re anything like me, you will too. If you’ve ever had to restrain yourself from punching some smug, self-satisfied jerk in the face when he boasts that he doesn’t vote or pay attention to politics because “both parties are the same,” this is the episode for you.
Black Mirror episode ranking
(Due to the series’ shortened seasons and anthological format, I don’t break the episode ranking down by season.)