Cover up your webcams and get nostalgic for OK Computer, it’s time for episode 3 of Black Mirror: Shut Up and Dance.
WHAT’S THE IDEA HERE?
Mob justice doesn’t become justifiable just because you’re not showing your face.
Kenny (Alex Lawther) is a young man who lives with his family and works at a fast food joint. One day, hackers get into his laptop and take video of him masturbating. They threaten to leak it onto the internet unless he follows every instruction that he’s given.
This takes him through a series of difficult situations as he leaves work and teams up with another one of their victims, Hector (Jerome Flynn) who is under their control because they have evidence of him cheating on his wife with a prostitute, to complete the tasks and keep their misdeeds from leaking out.
Spoiler alert: It does not go well.
SPOILERS. I’VE BEEN TRYING TO AVOID THEM, BUT YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT THIS ONE WITHOUT IT.
HOW’S THE IDEA WORK?
If you’ve noticed, I don’t really like talking about the endings in these reviews, but this one sort of requires it, as it reframes the whole story we’re seeing.
The final task that Kenny is asked to do is to deliver cash to a man who he is then told he must fight to the death. The other man is told the same thing, as he is also a victim of the hackers. The other man asks what evidence they have on Kenny. Kenny says all he did was look at some pictures.
“How young were they?”
Yes, our dear Kenny is a pedophile, a fact that is revealed to the world anyway when the hackers release everyone’s darkest secrets.
It’s one of the darker throughlines this show has ever had, and one of its tougher episodes to confront. Brooker has tackled the subject of mob justice and the way we deem some crimes worthy of that justice before before in an episode of Brass Eye AND an episode of Black Mirror, his feelings are known. Brooker fundamentally distrusts the masses, and he believes that public outrage and mob justice is the most unjust way to deal with the criminal and the sick.
This episode is that argument again in minature, stringing us along before dropping the ton of bricks at the end. But is that dark reveal necessarily enough to carry along a well-worn enough subject, one that Black Mirror itself already did ?
Largely, no. Unlike “White Bear”, the twistiness doesn’t work as well, nor is there a feeling of unexpected engagement. “White Bear” was so impeccable in its craft that its final reveal was all the more crushing. This take “poor sap deals with unknown forces they don’t deserve” plot is one that’s bog standard in anthology story-telling and this one doesn’t necessarily do anything new. Everyone reacts the same way and acts the way one might be expected. If the point was how conventional it appears up until its ending, then the unfortunate thing might be that the ending doesn’t reconfigure its story enough. There’s no strong sense of craft or innovation, just a lot of awkward things that keep the story moving.
Understand that its conventionality doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptional things to be found. Alex Lawther is giving a hell of a show here, wearing this bizarre, sad, difficult human in every fiber of his being. He plays sympathy so well and he wears the darkness so heavy at the end. This whole thing doesn’t work without Kenny being as sympathetic as he is and without forcing us to question if someone this kind of uncomfortable in his own skin can be the monster. He’s the protagonist because we need to question our sympathies at the end.
There’s also, as much convention as it is, a certain brilliant venom at its core. The show is attacking the human instinct for mob justice and it saves it for the anonymous hackers, portrayed as cowards thirsty for blood and just as desperate to get their satisfaction. The cameras, the voyeurism, the drone at the end. There’s a certain high-tech perversion to how the hackers operate, a condemnation of their sickness and asking why they’re any more justified to do what they do.
It is also one of the few works of audience condemnation that feels effective. “Shut Up and Dance” is so good at getting us on Kenny’s side and it knows how quick we’ll turn on him when we find out. It’s about asking those questions, about questioning why we’re so vicious. Questioning what makes us better than the anonymous hackers.
It’s a shame that it’s couched in such a conventional “twisty” narrative. “Shut Up and Dance” feels more like an effective screening for a college ethics class than a particularly compelling episode of Black Mirror. A flourish here, a crushing montage to “Exit Music (for a Film)” there, but I find myself spending more time asking questions than necessarily engaging with the work itself.
This is a difficult episode, I must admit. One that handles its difficulty with more thought than anyone might reasonably expect, one that feels thought-provoking rather than just edgy. If it wasn’t for such a ruthlessly conventional episode that it’s couched in, and for treading territory that has already been much better walked over, we might have really had something here.
- Fifteen Million Merits – A+
- Be Right Back – A
- White Bear – A
- The Entire History of You – A
- White Christmas – A-
- The National Anthem – A-
- Nosedive – B+
- Playtest – B+
- Shut Up and Dance – B-
- The Waldo Moment – C