You Mad, Bro? Black Mirror, “Shut Up and Dance”

There’s something to be said for the fact that the most affecting Black Mirror episodes seem to be the ones that force me to turn off the TV after watching. Some, like “Nosedive,” I can breeze through and allow Netflix to usher me to the next installment. But after “Shut Up and Dance,” I had to physically step away from the black mirror of my television set and pace the room; when I sat back down, I had to pull up an episode of Younger as a much-needed palate cleanser, and even then I still felt my skin crawling. Other reviewers have considered “Shut Up and Dance” alongside season 2’s “White Bear” as a sort of double feature; but while they are annoyed to see seemingly the same story play out again, I found these two episodes to be companion pieces rather than copies.

Spoilers for Black Mirror 3×03 “Shut Up and Dance.”

As the premise unfolded in the first few minutes, I was oddly chuffed to find that I had correctly guessed that this episode was about sextortion, in which strangers use photos/videos of a sexual nature to blackmail their victims into sending more explicit content. Well, I was half right: Poor teenager Kenny (Alex Lawther) is devastated to discover that some shadowy group of tech-savvy strangers have hacked his webcam and now possess a video of him masturbating (WE SAW WHAT YOU DID is the new I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER), which they threaten to leak unless he does what they want. Their demands are a series of baffling errands: bike out to a remote meeting point; accept a cake from someone who is similarly being blackmailed; deliver the cake to a hotel room. You gotta give the blackmailers credit—they’ve hit upon a pretty great business model that bypasses the pesky costs of TaskRabbit or other services.

But instead of being let off the hook, as the other stranger apparently was after the cake handover, Kenny must continue on, now accompanied by Hector (Jerome Flynn, a.k.a. Bronn from Game of Thrones). Hector fears losing his wife and family if his attempted affair with a prostitute gets revealed; it doesn’t matter that the hackers impersonated “Mindy” the callgirl, because they’ve taken hold of his entire hard drive, filled with explicit photos and messages. Yet he takes Kenny under his wing when he sees that the kid is on the verge of hysteria at the thought of his video getting leaked. He never outright says it, but you can intuit from his building panic; his friends will drop him, his bullies will have incredible ammunition against him, his mother won’t trust him. And so Hector and Kenny must follow their chirping text messages to a car conveniently left for them—by another victim, a woman, we glimpse in the episode’s opening—and a route entered into their phones’ GPS systems.

Black Mirror season 3 "Shut Up and Dance" television review

Again, it’s almost lighthearted, the idea of these two strangers having a bizarre male bonding experience… until they open the cake and discover that there is a rudimentary disguise and a handgun. YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES TO CHOOSE, their captors text. WHICH ONE IS ROBBER AND WHICH IS DRIVER. At this point I was barking out laughter, as bright-eyed, lip-trembling Kenny had to put on the hat and sunglasses and step into a bank with the loaded gun. It’s the worst comedy of errors, the kind of nested misfortunes you might see on Curb Your Enthusiasm or South Park. You figure, here’s an admittedly extreme lesson for Kenny to learn to always cover his webcam before he decides to jerk it. You half expect that everyone are actors and in on a village-wide morality play, like in “White Bear.”

Black Mirror season 3 "Shut Up and Dance" television review

Then Hector and Kenny are separated, with the former disposing of the car on his way home to his family while Kenny must deliver the money. In the woods, he meets another man, who asks if that’s the “prize money”—for their fight to the death. As this stranger activates the drone according to his instructions, the full weight of Kenny’s situation settles on him: He’s not getting out of this alive unless he really wants to. This is far beyond a practical joke, this is fighting to hold on to whatever shreds of his life are left. Suddenly, an embarrassing video getting leaked isn’t as dire as facing down the man twice his age and twice his size, with the crazed eyes of a desperate man. Because for this stranger, it’s not an affair or (as we learn from other victims) a racist rant; he asks Kenny what evidence they have against him, and while Kenny protests that he just looked at some photos, the stranger gives him a look of sad recognition and asks, “How young were they?”

At this point, I still didn’t believe the twist. I thought that Kenny’s denial and stuttering fear were authentic, that he wasn’t in the same boat as his opponent. The fact that the other man leaps at him (after Kenny tries to shoot himself and the gun is revealed to be empty) aided that misdirection, as you’re too caught up in wondering how Kenny could possibly survive to process the actual conversation. Then we cut to a relieved Hector, coming home to his wife—who stares him down with resolve behind her tears. She knows about Mindy, which is confirmed by the final chirping text: a trollface, as if to say U MAD, BRO?

It was all for naught, as each of the victims watches helplessly as their secrets are revealed: Hector’s affair; a CEO’s (the car owner) racist rant; something indeterminate for the man who delivered the cake; and Kenny’s mother, calling him as he leaves the woods covered in blood and carrying the bag of stolen money. Her anguished screams about “What have you done, Kenny?” and “They’re kids!” mingle with the blue lights of police cars, ready to take Kenny in.

Oof. Like I said, I needed some brain bleach for this one.

Black Mirror season 3 "Shut Up and Dance" television review

I should have known there’d be a bleak twist, because most sextortion stories concern young women worried about naked photos and videos being released. Kenny’s panic seemed off, but I wrote it off as related to his sexuality and his masculinity; the hackers had caught him in a private, vulnerable moment. I was willing to let him off the hook because I wanted to think that his “crime” was only as bad as Hector’s—thinking with his dick, doing something repugnant but not morally reprehensible. Hector fills in the blanks for Kenny, allowing him to follow that narrative because the alternative—especially for a father of young children, like Hector—is unfathomable. It’s also a comfort for Hector, I think, to know that he’s not the only one who got caught with his pants down; not only are they stuck in a car together, but they’re reduced to the same level. And there’s his goodbye to Kenny: “I’m an alright bloke, I swear I am. When stuff’s normal.”

Some of the complaints I’ve seen about this episode is that it relies on the same narrative trick as “White Bear”: It introduces you to the “protagonist” in a state of need, so that you sympathize with his or her plight. In “White Bear,” we run with Victoria Skillane as she flees the masked men with guns and begs for help from the strangely unresponsive people documenting her terror on their smartphones. She assumes—as do we—that the little girl she glimpses is her daughter; every person she meets, she begs for information regarding her daughter, playing the maternal figure convincingly because that’s the most logical conclusion her mind has made from the jumble of information. Similarly, we meet Kenny as a caretaker, tasked with watching his younger sister while their harried mother is running to a date or to work. Instead, both are revealed to be predators—Victoria helping her boyfriend Iain kidnap a schoolgirl, Jemima, and documenting the process of him torturing and killing her, and Kenny looking at those photos. In a reversal of Victoria waking up with no memory and having to piece together what happened, we have a very clear understanding of the consequences of Kenny’s predicament… or we think we do, as the puzzle is nearly assembled except for that one vital piece. Our fear—and I’m going to bet this one is pretty universal—of having a private moment recorded forever blinds us to ever question what actually happened in that moment.

Black Mirror season 3 "Shut Up and Dance" television review

His punishment does not fit the crime, as hers does, in part because that would reveal the twist too quickly, but also because their tormenters have different aims for them. The White Bear Justice Park and its daily performances force Victoria to relive Jemima’s terror over and over and over, ad infinitum or until her brain short-circuits from the daily memory wipes. Kenny’s torture is just one day, as he must answer the age-old question of how far will someone go to save himself? And in the end, that answer doesn’t even matter, because it was all futile from the start.

Other Reflections

  • The use of trollface at the end was a bit of a letdown for me, at least on first viewing. Though it is in stark contrast to with the mysterious White Bear symbol, which became universal as the country searched for Jemima’s killers; one was adopted by the government to create an emotional anchor for an open case, while the other reminds us that the blackmailers are vigilantes doing it for the lulz as much as for justice.
  • I love Black Mirror‘s optimism that there’s a female CEO, and that her secret isn’t a sex scandal.
  • Good eye (ear?) from Vulture for identifying Hector’s odd ringtone: a clown’s bicycle horn.
  • It’s cool to start seeing the tech that resurfaces in various episodes—here, a drone, which also appears in “Men Against Fire” and “Hated in the Nation,” albeit in drastically different forms.

Read the rest of of our Black Mirror coverage: “Nosedive” | “Playtest” | “San Junipero” | “Men Against Fire” | “Hated in the Nation

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