Sociopathy, Justice, and the Mob: Black Mirror Cracks Us Open

Channel 4

It’s fitting that an anthology TV series about addiction to technology has us glued to Netflix in hours-long stretches. We’re not much different from the people depicted in Black Mirror’s stand-alone mini-movies: checking social media feeds, substituting reality for swipe-right alternatives, and posting the most intensely felt moments of our lives in search of others’ validation. Binge-watching Black Mirror on a computer feels like a metanarrative—I’m hooked on this show about people hooked, sometimes literally, to their tech.

It’s therefore equally fitting that Black Mirror is one of the few shows that has ever jolted me out of passive media consumption, unable to deal with what I just watched and, perhaps more importantly, unable to numb myself by watching anything else. That’s what “White Bear,” the second episode of the second season of the series, accomplishes. (If you haven’t watched “White Bear,” I recommend doing so before reading on.)

Shall we relive the pain together? A woman wakes up in front of a TV displaying a mysterious symbol. She has no memory of who she is or whose house she’s in. She experiences painful flashbacks of herself in better days, along with a little girl and a man. She stumbles outside into a sparse suburban backyard and spots people lurking in other houses and across the street.  They don’t respond to her questions—instead, they hold up their cell phones and record her confusion. Enter a handful of masked psychopaths wielding shotguns and turkey carvers. They begin hunting our terrified protagonist while the phone-cam wielding bystanders document the chase. The woman eventually runs into a couple of other seemingly “normal” people, who claim that a mind-altering transmission signal is the cause of the mass bystander effect.

“White Bear” hits the predictable beats of a slasher/zombie mash-up: There are masked murderers whose only motivation appears to be the thrill of blood, and the bystanders slow-running after our protagonist may as well be the walking dead, mindlessly seeking out terror to record on their phones. Our protagonist and her fellow survivors must evade both the spectators and the killers who follow their footsteps. There’s an escape from a torturer with a cordless drill and a playground deep in the forest complete with corpses crucified to the trees. There’s a mission by nightfall to reach and destroy a transmitter, White Bear—our protagonist has a vague memory of this being a bad place, although she’s not sure why she knows that.

Inside the transmission facility, in another scuffle with hunters, our protagonist wrestles a shotgun from one of them and fires it. The gun releases confetti and breaks the fourth wall—the room inside the facility opens up onto a stage, where the drill-wielding hunter awaits. Except now he’s the master of ceremonies, raising his hands to audience applause, from some of the town “zombies” seated before him. The other hunters and survivors shackle our protagonist into a chair and take a bow.

Press pause. If this were a straight narrative, I’d read the story so far as a savvy take on media consumption. It’s witty—technology eats our brains, so we make ourselves feel better by feeding on entertainment through tech. If we pull back and consider “White Bear” in the context of Black Mirror at large, each story is a self-contained take on this idea and I, the end consumer, mirror the gawkers on screen—we’re all watching people watching other people to feel alive.

Rewind back to the moment when I started marathon-watching Black Mirror. In series opener “The National Anthem,” the British prime minister is blackmailed into a lewd and live-streamed sex act, which the world watches agape on the 4 p.m. news. The second episode, “Fifteen Million Credits,” takes me into a reality TV industrial complex where people toil on exercise bikes while watching their peers participate in degrading shows, from competitive shame-eating to pornography. Exhibit three, “The Entire History of You,” follows a bickering couple as their marriage falls apart—because they’ve recorded every moment of their lives from the intimate to the mundane, and can now replay it to each other to prove points about their fidelity. The second season opens with another domestic tragedy in “Be Right Back,” where a young, pregnant widow uploads her dead husband’s prolific social media output into an android in the hopes of resurrecting some part of their former life.

Whether the quiet story of a grieving woman or the bawdy scandal of an entire nation, part of Black Mirror’s success has to do with how effectively it spins the premise of record/playback to tell twisted, cyberpunkish fairy tales about feeling dead inside, and about how we cope. We suck the marrow out of a reality TV contestant because we’re insatiable for schadenfreude. We live through our protagonists’ highs and lows because we’re too dulled in the senses to live through our own. We laugh. We grimace. We empathize—because the show holds up a dark mirror to the record/playback loops of our own lives, reflecting how we read the news, retweet viral videos about political gaffes, take selfies, or share opinions online about that new science fiction series we love. And “White Bear” takes the nesting-doll, theater-within-a-theater of our observations to the next level: I, the binge-watcher, watch a captivated audience watch our captive, amnesiac protagonist watch her former life replayed in news snippets.

Except, things take a sudden turn for the worse.

According to Black Mirror’s creator, Charlie Brooker, the narrative twist at the end of “White Bear” was a last-minute epiphany. The drill hunter-turned-MC narrates over news clips that our amnesiac is Victoria Skillane, accessory to kidnapping, torture, and murder of the little girl she sees in her seizure-like flashbacks. The man in her broken memories was her fiancé—she recorded him killing the child. After his suicide in prison, the public demanded a harsher sentence for his partner, which is why Victoria remains trapped in the open-air prison theater of White Bear Justice Park.  

“You were an enthusiastic spectator to Jemima’s suffering,” pronounced the judge at Victoria’s trial. “You actively reveled in her anguish.” Which begs the question—are her punishers much different? They parade Victoria through a baying mob back to the house she woke up in, where her memory is painfully erased and the house and surrounding “town” restaged. In the morning, new park attendees are reminded of their roles as passive witnesses to Victoria’s punishment. They’re encouraged to take pictures and, above all, to have fun. The “hunters” who operate the park take grim satisfaction in running the woman through her ordeal. According to a calendar in her prison-house, Victoria has been mind-wiped, terrorized, and pilloried for weeks already, with no end in sight. In the world of “White Bear,” justice is served by puppeteers and a peanut gallery in a theater of revenge whose victim has no memory of either her sins or her atonement.

Stop the tape before it loops again. What the hell did I just watch?

Despite being an enormous fan of the series, after the credits rolled on this episode, I couldn’t watch Black Mirror again for several months, by which time a third season had been released. I remain shook up about the story partly because I’m given no choice but to empathize with Victoria. That’s the power of the camera at work. It takes me up close, a third-person perspective that hovers near enough to hear her ragged breath. I wake up with her, tabula rasa, and must piece together the story as she does. When the curtain quite literally lifts on the mystery, I’m just as thrown off as she is. I’m then carried backstage, to witness Victoria’s excruciating re-erasure. This is done while she’s made to watch the very video she shot of the little girl she helped kill. On the page, it reads like poetic justice. Watching it happen is another story.

Let’s leave alone for the moment what Victoria might have felt while making her video of the little girl. What I wonder about is the audience the episode’s camera leaves behind—the operators and attendees of the park. I have more information than they do about the cost of retributive justice because I’m the one the camera takes behind the scenes. I hear Victoria screaming, I see her writhing. I’m bifurcated now. A part of me contends with Victoria, the criminal, but the other lingers with the shell of Victoria who wakes up over and over knowing nothing of her past. I do not want to take sides with someone characterized as “a uniquely wicked and poisonous individual,” but I also refuse to let go of basic human instinct—I cannot watch another person in pain because I am not a zombie and, damn it, this is wrong.

Gut reaction aside, as much as I hate how “White Bear” ended, I have to admire what it accomplished. This is good storytelling, I think, but more than that, this is really good science fiction. It may be about mind-altering technology, apathetic phone media consumption, and elaborate forms of surveillance and torture, but science fiction has always had humans at its heart. Pitchforks or cameras, it’s always been about the mob.

“White Bear” is not the only episode to tackle the idea of mob justice, in its many variations. In season two’s prescient finale, “The Waldo Moment,” a reactionary public fed up with politics as usual elects a literal crass, bullying cartoon mascot to the country’s highest office—and, yes, satire hurts in 2017. In season three’s “Shut Up and Dance,” an anonymous internet group blackmails transgressors with a series of increasingly criminal demands. In the third season finale, a Twitter-like community votes daily to kill off the most “Hated in the Nation,” making equal fodder of politicians, crass tourists, and bullies caught on video. I could point to the influence of hive minds and society’s id in any one of Black Mirror’s twisted fables, but the common thread remains the same—justice isn’t blind in this world. It’s recording live and ready to retweet.

So let’s talk, at last, about the monsters in the room. It’s telling that both Victoria Skillane and the protagonist of “Shut Up and Dance,” are guilty of crimes against children—it erases the grey area of their right or wrong down to a fundamental offense against human decency. It’s a storytelling shortcut that some might argue is a cheap method of eliciting an easy response, “Of course, they deserve the justice they get, let’s carry on with our lives.”

It’s a relatable sentiment. Who among us hasn’t read the story of some sociopath inflicting harm upon the innocent and hasn’t wished a special level of hell reserved just for them? We make these feelings manifest in blog posts and Twitter comments and muttered asides to close friends, and we may not be “serious,” until we are, and then what happens? Science fiction doesn’t ask what technology can do for you, but what you will do, aided and augmented by tech. Forget the future for a moment. Here and now, do we think punishment should reflect the nature of the wrong? And if it’s reflective, at what point in punishing sociopathy are we enacting it ourselves?

The anonymous blackmailers in “Shut Up and Dance” text troll-face memes to their victims to really rub it in—we enjoyed watching you fight for your life, we enjoyed your debasement. The genre trappings of Victoria Skillane’s imprisonment are also on point for a reason—they’re the nod to the attending audience that this is fiction, horror-fantasy. It’s supposed to teach us about evil, but from a safe remove. We may figure out what a psychopath looks like pretty quickly, but what about that ineffable atmosphere of festering resentment? What about our inner demons? What do we feed them? “White Bear” pulls the curtain up on a mob lusty for blood. They even bring their children along—it is a teachable moment. The episode presents the world as a stage and, while most of us are pretty sure we’re not Victoria Skillane, antagonist, the options we have left are monsters of a different sort. I think that’s why the camera doesn’t linger with the crowd. It forces us backstage, to reckon with our imaginations, to consider what happens to us when we turn humans into objects.

We learn about the world by telling stories. That’s why our news features underdogs and superpowers. That’s why we gossip about our neighbors. That’s why Black Mirror speculates about our future, and also meta-narrates our present. Disruptive as it may be to be confronted with your inner demons in the midst of a binge-watching fugue, it’s apropos for a show about techno-zombies to remind you that you’re not dead inside, that you can reject the narrative, shut the browser tab, walk away, and confront some real demons. But you can’t walk away from reflections. “White Bear” broke me because even though I know it is fiction, I recognize the part of it that remains true, the part of it I cannot escape because it’s real life. I know the thoughts I’ve had about the people I thought deserved it. I know I’m not the only one. None of us has the power to fix what we do with such thoughts without help from others, but the moment we involve others, we risk becoming the mob. How’s that for an ending? How messed up is that?