As The Atlantic pointed out in its review, part of the fun of Black Mirror season 3 has been in the narrative freedom of going outside of our homes or even outside of London. To wit, “Men Against Fire” might be the most wide-ranging—in terms of physical location, anyway—story, taking place on the battlefield in the aftermath of some future war. You might have been surprised, as I was, to learn that the war wasn’t caused by the singularity or some other classic Black Mirror dystopic technology; we actually don’t learn much of the background, so that we know about as much as the soldiers we follow through refugee villages as they hunt monsters called “roaches.” Rather, this is a story about the military tech that aids these brave troops: MASS, or optical and aural implants that allow them to visualize blueprints and diagrams while out in the field, and which connect them to drones for better spotting of roaches.
Spoilers for Black Mirror 3×05 “Men Against Fire.”
We follow a squad of soldiers as they help keep the peace a decade after the outcome of this war. Responding to a distress call from a village of refugees, they discover that the roaches have raided the food supply; while they didn’t take everything, whatever they left is considered contaminated and must be replaced. Based on intel from the refugees—and one’s prayers and pleas that they eliminate the roaches—the squad heads to an abandoned manor, where they arrest a roach sympathizer and rid the house of its “infestation.” Koinange, a.k.a. “Stripe” (Roots‘ Malachi Kirby), is a relative newbie to the field who manages to kill two roaches—screeching humanoid mutants with Nosferatu-looking faces—on this mission, his first time out. However, he also discovers a strange, sonic screwdriver-looking device, that flashes at him and gives him a headache before he returns to headquarters.
“You’re gonna sleep real well,” his platoon mate Raiman/”Ray” (Madeline Brewer) teases him about his kills—and indeed, Stripe has the sweetest of dreams, of a house and a girl in lingerie enticing him to bed. The MASS implants appear to reward soldiers with sexual fantasies and other keys to a good night’s sleep as a reward for wiping out the roaches; we see the entire platoon asleep, their fingers twitching as they manipulate their digitally enhanced dreams.
However, Stripe is lagging the next day not because of sleep lost to fantasies, but because his MASS seems to be glitching. His dreams are getting interrupted with disturbing images of blood; he’s having trouble doing his pushups (while his commander chants “strong and pure,” which should be your first red flag); and his reflexes feel off. Yet when he brings it up, first with the military’s doctor and then the psychologist Arquette (Michael Kelly), they brush off his concerns. He’s physically fine to go back into the field, so what does it matter if he’s a little off after his first kills?
Staking out another roach compound, Stripe’s glitches get worse: He can’t visually sync up with the drone like Ray and their commander Medina (Sarah Snook) can, so distracted is he by the sudden smell of grass. His distraction is what saves his life, as a sniper takes out Medina and sends him and Ray scurrying for cover. But as Ray dashes into the house, and Stripe lags after her, he becomes aware of the horrifying fact that he doesn’t see roaches anymore—he sees helpless humans, screaming and begging for their lives. But Ray still sees gnashing teeth and hears inhuman screeches, and Stripe’s protests piss her off more than anything else. He has to hit her with the butt of his rifle to stop her from killing anyone else, but as she falls, she accidentally shoots him.
Stripe escapes with the roaches, a woman and a child, but passes out partway through driving them into the woods. They take him to a makeshift shelter underground, where the woman explains what you’ve already guessed: The MASS implants make the roaches look and sound like mutated creatures—all the easier to shoot them. “My name was Caterina,” she explains, “but now I am just ‘roach.'”
Before Stripe can fully grasp the impact of what the military has done, and what he’s done, a murderous Ray drops in and guns down Caterina and her son. Stripe awakens in a cell with Arquette, who gives it to him straight: During World War II, 75% of soldiers were unable to fire their weapons, or, when forced to, would fire over the enemy’s heads. The MASS takes away that guilt and the possibility of PTSD by adding on the filters that dehumanize the enemies. But what did they do? Stripe demands to know. Arquette’s answers are chilling: They’re genetically inferior; they have higher rates of heart disease, and every other racist and prejudiced excuse you’ve heard before.
This was the point where I mostly checked out of the episode. I fear I might have been predisposed toward not liking “Men Against Fire” because I’m not really one for wartime narratives. Though I did really enjoy both Zero Dark Thirty and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Tina Fey as a wartime correspondent), so perhaps my way in is through badass women in these scenarios. What I’m looking for in this kind of story is for something that surprises me—and in Black Mirror‘s case, the episode’s big “twist” didn’t surprise me. Not that I necessarily guessed about the MASS’ true purpose, but I just sadly accepted it, like Yeah, I could see that happening. Humans are prejudiced, war is hell, of course we would turn one another into monsters to make ourselves better able to sleep at night.
Now, see, that was the part of the story I wanted to delve more into—the positive reinforcement through soldiers’ dreams, which kills two birds with one stone by keeping them in line on the battlefield and less likely to be plagued by PTSD if they make it home. I would have rather watched an entire episode about training these soldiers, about the hierarchies that are created (not unlike the five-star rating system in “Nosedive”) when the best soldiers are consistently rewarded with the sleep of babies. You have to imagine that it becomes a positive (and, alternately, negative) cycle: The better or worse your sleep is, the better or worse you perform on the battlefield, earning more or fewer rewards. And could hacking soldiers’ dreams be a more effective means of punishment than latrine duty or other mind games? Ray, who got reduced to a crazy-eyed killer, possessed hints to a more nuanced character: She’s clearly itching for a kill not just because she hates roaches, but because she needs that good night of sleep. We all know how crazy we get after prolonged insomnia.
There’s also the reveal that these soldiers are mind-wiped when they enlist. Arquette shows Stripe a video of himself when he was Koinange—a bored youth who swipes his signature without reading the fine print. It’s a markedly different person from the quiet, focused Stripe we’ve ridden alongside for the past forty minutes. It also seems as if we’ll never see this version of Koinange again, because Stripe has two options: get his MASS reinstalled and his memory erased, or be put in jail, with the video of him killing the roaches—but as humans—playing on a loop until he goes insane.
Here’s where I think I missed a step. The episode cuts to Stripe, in his dress uniform, coming home. Have we jumped ahead in time and he’s been honorably discharged after serving for however many months or years? The final shot is classic Black Mirror bleakness: He arrives at the home from his dreams, but whereas we (and he) initially see the waving curtains and seductive girlfriend/wife, in reality it’s a dilapidated building with no one home. It’s a striking visual, to be sure, reminiscent of the end of “The Entire History of You,” but it doesn’t feel earned like in the latter’s case. We have to intuit that Stripe agreed to undergo the memory wipe so as to spare himself the pain and guilt, but we don’t know how many times this happened. Was the plot of “Men Against Fire” even his first time out, or has he had a half-dozen mind-wipes by now?
I’d say this was my least favorite Black Mirror episode of season 3, and pretty low overall (occupying the bottom of the list alongside “The Waldo Moment” and others). Key worldbuilding details would have made a fascinating story on their own, but instead they were just the background to a story that didn’t have the fresh twist it needed.
- I did appreciate Medina being a woman, though it’s too bad she was roach target practice.
- While Ray is taunting the roach sympathizer in the beginning, she sings “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” from “Fifteen Million Merits” and “White Christmas.” This may be the creepiest rendition of it yet.
Read the rest of our Black Mirror coverage: “Nosedive” | “Playtest” | “Shut Up and Dance” | “San Junipero” | “Hated in the Nation“