Sophie Gilbert and David Sims will be discussing the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, considering alternate episodes. The reviews contain spoilers; don’t read further than you’ve watched. See all of their coverage here.
David, I agree with you that the ending of “Playtest” fell flat. After so many twists (bullies! spiders! spider bullies! Terminator hookups!), the end didn’t evoke pathos so much as a sense of absurdity. In terms of focusing on the evils of technology, though, it seems to me that Black Mirror has always seen technology as something with the potential to enable and encourage human evil, rather than something that’s inherently evil by itself. It takes our worst instincts as people, as societies, and magnifies them.
Hence episodes like “Shut Up and Dance,” seemingly set in the present like “The National Anthem” and “White Bear” and “The Waldo Moment,” all of which imagined scenarios so plausible that two of them have apparently come true. It’s that familiarity that makes them so disturbing, and “Shut Up and Dance” upset me more than any other Black Mirror episode to date. In Mirror-land, the most nightmarish situations seem to occur when all the people involved are devoid of empathy: when Jon Hamm’s character breaks a woman in “White Christmas” by leaving her alone in a white box for six months, or when Victoria Killane in “White Bear” is tortured every day for mass entertainment by being forced to relive a crime she doesn’t remember committing.
Black Mirror’s ‘Playtest’ Brings Fear to Life
“Shut Up and Dance,” for obvious reasons, feels like something of a redux of “White Bear,” but let’s focus on the twist later. Structurally, it was also similar, with a protagonist being plagued by unknown enemies for reasons impossible to discern. In the first scene, an anxious-looking woman is seen leaving a car in an underground garage, looking around nervously, and then fleeing. After that, the episode focuses on Kenny (Alex Lawther), a sweet and shy teenager who works in a restaurant kitchen. After his sister freezes his computer trying to watch illegal movies, Kenny downloads a free malware program called Shrive, which, unbeknownst to him, activates his laptop camera and begins filming him.
In the privacy of his room one night, Kenny goes to his computer and is seen unzipping his trousers and reaching for tissues. Minutes later, he gets an email from an anonymous account, which reads, “WE SAW WHAT YOU DID.” Then another: “REPLY WITH YOUR PHONE NUMBER OR WE POST THE VIDEO TO EVERYONE IN YOUR CONTACTS.” Kenny does, which sparks a series of texts ordering him to fulfill various bizarre tasks: Meet a guy on a rooftop, deliver a cake to a man in a hotel room who’s being similarly manipulated, join forces with that man (Jerome Flynn) to pick up a car, rob a bank, drive to an isolated location in the woods and go alone to a drop-off point, where yet another victim of the unseen overlords is waiting.
“Shut Up and Dance” is written by Brooker and William Bridges, and directed by James Watkins, whose previous work in psychological horror includes the 2007 backpacker thriller Gone and the 2012 supernatural horror The Woman in Black. Watkins does an excellent job maintaining tension throughout the episode, although it lags a bit once Kenny joins up with Jerome Flynn’s Hector. (The interlude in the petrol station where Hector’s PTA-mom friend badgers them into giving her a ride is an unnecessary distraction, but it contains some of Black Mirror’s darkest humor—I also laughed when Hector asked Kenny what kind of cake he was carrying, and Kenny replied, “I dunno, it’s a sponge?”)
Ultimately, though, the episode felt like too much of an endurance test, with no clear message or moment of redemption to take away from it. “White Bear” was basically the same kind of grueling experience, forcing viewers to live through a terrifying escape from gun-wielding masked terrorists and bizarre pedestrian bystanders doing nothing to intervene, then revealing (spoiler) that the woman we’ve sympathized with throughout the whole episode helped commit the horrific murder of a child and is now being punished for it in a perpetual loop. There’s no hope involved, or even a clear moral takeaway. The villain isn’t technology—it’s everyone who’s ever gawked over the details of a grisly crime then had revenge fantasies about how the perpetrator should be punished. It’s all of us.
“Shut Up and Dance” seemed to share the same sense of nihilism, implicating the audience in the final reveal (spoiler very much ahead) that Kenny hadn’t just been watching regular porn on the internet while he was masturbating—he’d been looking at pictures of children. “How young were they?” asks the man in the woods whom he was ordered to “FIGHT TO THE DEATH.” “How young? Yeah. Me too.” After Kenny somehow emerges from the woods, bloodied and shuffling, he gets a phone call from his horrified mother, who’s apparently seen the video Kenny’s been working all day to keep private, along with everyone else he knows. “Kids!,” she cries. “You’ve been looking at kids.”
“Shrive,” the name of the anti-malware program Kenny downloads, is an archaic term that means to either confess your sins to a priest or to be absolved of them.
The reveal throws everything else in the episode into confusion, from the scene in the beginning of the episode where Kenny is nice to a little girl in the restaurant to the sympathy we’ve been encouraged to feel for Kenny throughout his ordeal. Alex Lawther, best-known for playing the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, makes Kenny a totally endearing character through his shyness, his breakdown in the face of what’s happening to him, and his vulnerability, so the question for viewers at the end is, can we still sympathize with him? Should we?
In addition to “White Bear,” this episode reminded me of “Paedogeddon,” an episode of the satirical British fake news show Brass Eye, which you wrote about, David, and which Charlie Brooker co-wrote. “Paedogeddon” lampooned the kind of moral panic and mob fury that’s unleashed whenever the subject of child abuse is up for debate. Brooker seems to be offering up more of the same in “Shut Up and Dance”: a condemnation of those who refuse to empathize with people who have terrible impulses, or who’ve done terrible things.
“Shrive,” the name of the anti-malware program Kenny downloads, is an archaic term that means to either confess your sins to a priest or to be absolved of them. In that sense, the gauntlet Kenny, Hector, and others are forced to run throughout the episode seems to be a kind of punishment for their sins, but at the end, none of them are forgiven. The invisible torturers text them all a troll face and then leak all the blackmail material anyway. The woman from the beginning of the episode is outed for racist comments she made. Hector’s attempts to solicit prostitutes are sent to his wife. In the most punitive and grisly sentence, Kenny and the other viewer of child porn are forced to fight until one of them dies, and then Kenny’s video is released to all his contacts, and he’s arrested for everything he’s done: the pictures, robbing a bank, killing a man. And the overarching mystery of the episode—the question of who exactly is running this horrible show—is as unclear as it ever was.
I didn’t take anything away from this episode other than a sense of doom, and an urge to cover up every camera I own. Brooker’s already made the point that moral panic is a bad thing, and to relish in the degradation of criminals makes us as bad as them. So what was the point of this episode? To understand that good people can have awful urges? To be very afraid of downloading anything? To realize how awful it would be if everyone’s private internet activity was made public? To be horribly depressed? David, what did you make of it? You might have to tell me by letter because I’m fighting the urge to go offline forever.