Reflections on Black Mirror: S03E03 – “Shut Up and Dance”

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A very believable breach of privacy gives way to a meditation on punishment in one of Black Mirror’s most gruelling episodes

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS

Remember when the director of the FBI recently advised people to cover up their webcams? That’s where teenager Kenny’s problems begin in “Shut Up and Dance”, played by remarkable 21 year old Alex Lawther. After his laptop becomes infected with malware, online voyeurs record him masturbating and threaten to leak the video to everyone he knows if he doesn’t comply. Along he way the comes across several other individuals who are also being blackmailed, most notably Hector (Game of Throne’s Jerome Flynn aka Bronn). The two are forced to work together to try prevent their lives from imploding.

Initially this is most reminiscent of pilot episode “The National Anthem” in that it’s completely grounded in reality, relatively speaking. Everything that happens here could easily and almost certainly already has happened to someone to some extent. It’s an unsettling invasion of privacy in a time where more and more of our lives are shared online and a single breach can spell utter disaster. It’s a tense hour that culminates in the type of gut punch ending the series is known for and is really the first of its kind this season.

“Nosedive” was a slow and inevitable downward spiral that ended on a mildly cheerful note. “Playtest” certainty closed out in a grimmer fashion but I felt the rather convoluted last few minutes largely robbed the moment of the emotion impact it should have had. There’s no such issue here, with a rapid escalation in stakes and a powerful closing montage appropriately accompanied by Radiohead’s Exit Music (For a Film).  

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There’s a late reveal that throws all of what came earlier into a different context. With that in mind, it’s difficult to extract an exact meaning from this gauntlet of torture Kenny is forced to run. Should we empathise with those whose impulses get the better of them? Did he deserve all that he endured? Will the relationships which will now irrevocably be destroyed serve as a just punishment? Did the invisible mob do society a service or are they just as bad, or worse?

Maybe none of these things are what writer Brooker had in mind or maybe it’s all of them and I’m not completely sure if the episode’s lack of a definite stance on matters is necessarily a good or bad thing. I’m inclined to land on the side that sees the episode as structured in such a way so as to criticise the black and white approach we tend to apply to certain criminals and those who operate outside of acceptable societal boundaries. All throughout the ordeal, Kenny is a completely sympathetic character; he’s kind, caring, and seems like an upstanding person next to some of the other people in his life but when his fatal flaw is revealed, does that undo all of the rest of his personality and good actions and make him irredeemable?

Regardless, this is the type of traumatic episode that’s hard to imagine ever watching again and one that sticks with you. It’s unashamedly nihilistic, totally despairing, and the kind of roller coaster ride not seen since Season 2’s excellent “White Bear”. And it might just be the most truly terrifying instalment of the series yet because what happens in it could happen to any of us right now.

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