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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Black Mirror ends its season with a solid but unremarkable thriller

Illustration for article titled Black Mirror ends its season with a solid but unremarkable thriller
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And with that, we come to the end of Black Mirror’s third season. So much has changed! I look back at the start, and I marvel at how far we’ve come. Our kids are in college now, inventing new ways to make us obsolete. Our jobs have become irrelevant, and the things we once thought were cool have become decidedly uncool, and new, scary things have come to take their place. Also, I’m really into belaboring the hell out of this joke, but “Hated In The Nation” is a double-long episode, so we have the time.

All in all, I’d say this was a solid season. There are a couple episodes here I would rank among the series’ best, with one being, for me at least, a clear contender for the first-prize slot. And while the collection of six had its share of weaker moments, none of them (not even the deeply unpleasant “Shut Up And Dance”) were outright duds. Doubling the season size give the show more room to play, and if the results aren’t perfect, I’d still argue that the experiment was a success. Anthology series need decent-sized runs because they are invariably hit-or-miss, and it’s hard to know what’s going to be a hit when you’re neck deep in the act of creation. At the very least, season three didn’t seem to end just as it was getting started.

As to whether or not it wore out its welcome before it left, well… “Hated In The Nation” isn’t the strongest entry in the season, which, considering its length, is kind of a problem. But it’s also not the worst (I can’t decide between “Playtest” which was fun but hollow, or “Shut Up And Dance,” which was off-putting but at least tried to make a point), and the extra running time never becomes as tedious as it could’ve been. I’m not sure this one needed to be movie length, but at least the story has enough complications that it never felt empty. Underdeveloped in some places, overdeveloped in others, sure, but not empty, which is the bane of double-length TV episodes everywhere.

The premise is—while I hesitate to use the phrase “vintage Black Mirror”—pretty much vintage Black Mirror. Targets of social media start dying under mysterious (and grotesque) circumstances, and also, the United Kingdom is filled with electronic bees. So that’s probably not good. It’s easy to start putting together the clues. The victims do something that makes them easy targets for the self-righteous (i.e. most of us): Jo Powers writes an op-ed criticizing a woman who committed suicide, Tusk mocks a kid for imitating his act, and the third victim, who dies in the episode’s best set-piece, posted a photo of herself acting like she was pissing on a war monument. Twitter explodes with rage, and then those mysterious deaths. The bees are initially unconnected, and yet they’re such an obvious oddity that it comes as no surprise when we discover they’re the murder weapon.

That’s the curious thing, actually. Premise aside, “Hated In The Nation” plays out more or less like a standard police procedural. One that’s more science-fiction heavy than most, to be sure, but it’s still not something that would’ve been completely out of place on, say, an episode of Fringe. (Man, I miss Fringe.) In fact, I spent half the episode wondering if this wasn’t the show’s first attempt at a spin-off. I doubt that’s the case, but the further adventures of DCI Karin Parke (Kelly MacDonald) and Blue Colson (Faye Marsay) wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

More than that, though, it’s the conventionality of the structure that surprised me. The show doesn’t always try and re-invent the wheel, but this follows the standard beats of the cop series practically to the letter. Each of the victims gets a few minutes to introduce themselves before dying horribly, Karin and Blue question suspects and follow leads, there’s some back and forth about what’s possible and what’s likely—there’s even the fake-out when you think everything’s going to work out okay, right before it falls horribly apart. That last bit isn’t in every procedural, of course, but the push and pull between the heroes and the unseen villain feels simplistic even for a show that regularly trades in not-all-that-subtle allegory.


The familiarity is both a strength and a weakness. There’s a reason this is such well-worn approach, and that’s because it more or less works, patiently stringing us along with clues while likable (if world-weary) protagonists mope their way from one crime scene to the next is a time-tested way to maintain viewer interest. There’s a reason Law & Order marathons are addictive, and it’s not just the subliminal power of that damn gavel sound. Nothing in “Hated In The Nation” precisely surprises, but the script always manages to hold a few points of interest out of our reach, maintaining a slight but steady pressure throughout. At 90 minutes, it needs to make sure it never drags, and while there are a few questionable inclusions—I’m not sure we needed the scenes of Chancellor Pickering swearing at his staff, although it does explain Shaun Li’s (Benedict Wong) eagerness to get things over with later—it’s essentially solid.

The weakness is that solidity doesn’t necessarily lead to greatness. While there’s nothing outright tedious in this episode, there’s nothing so stunning as to really justify the time invested. Yes, there’s enough story here so things don’t drag, but just because the volume is right doesn’t mean the quality is. The obvious point—that people online are willing to vent their rage at a stranger even when it means that person could die, solely because it’s anonymous and they think they’ll never have to suffer any consequences themselves—isn’t exactly a new one. The twist at the end when we learn the real target was all those online rage venters does make things more complicated, if only because it suggests some sympathy for the short-sighted. But there’s nothing truly memorable about any of it, apart from the cleverness of those swarms of robot bees.


As for the villain, he’s a bit of a nothing. That’s probably intentional; given how much the episode stresses the power of anonymity (not only over others but over ourselves), it would make sense that the man behind all the death barely registers as an individual, outside of a quick reference from a former roommate. But even if this is thematically appropriate, it upsets the balance of the model the episode is aping. Black Mirror rarely has villains—usually the bad stuff that happens comes from the unthinking pressures of society at large rather than a single asshole—and having the whole problem of social-media hate narrowed down to this one douchebag who’s apparently a computer super genius takes a lot of sting out of the premise.

Yes, the eagerness with which people online participated in the “#DeathTo” hashtag even after they knew it was fatal is both depressing and not all that implausible. But the episode shifts gears so quickly from “it’s easy to rage against people online” to “this one brilliant dude has planned out everything!” that any sense of morality or culpability is lost. You shouldn’t post death threats online because it fucks up someone’s day and it’s just a dick move, not because there’s a chance a crazy mastermind is going to use bee drones to murder your brain. Which isn’t to say the episode needed to teach us lessons about being better people. It’s just, without that sense of personal involvement, there’s none of that uneasy complicity the show manages to generate in its best dark visions. Of our heroes, only one of them uses the hashtag, and he’s not all that interesting. (And it’s even arguable that did it for the right reasons.)


Then there’s the ending, which manages to work in an unexpected note of optimism—one that’s almost, but not quite, earned. The framing story has Karin delivering testimony about her involvement in the cast that ended with the deaths of 387,000 people; at the end, she claims that her partner, Blue, committed suicide after the incident because she blamed herself for what happened. But it turns out this was a clever ruse to allow Blue to go undercover and track down the bad guy who cause the whole mess. The last thing we see is her following him down a street—whether to arrest him or shoot him in the back of the head is not entirely clear.

And that’s cool, especially since Blue killing herself didn’t make a whole lot of sense. But it feels a bit tacked on. It’s hard to be relieved that the creep is going to pay for what he did when what he did is so monstrous. There’s something here about how no one is as anonymous as they think they are, and that justice will, presumably, find a way, but it’s a hollow note after everything else, even if it is satisfying to see Blue and Karin (who, given her reaction to Blue’s text, is in on the whole thing) get their man in the end. Worse, the episode doesn’t seem to recognize that hollowness. It downplays the massive deaths, and pretend that “crime doesn’t pay” is sufficient resolution for a horrific act of smug mass murder.


So, “Hated In The Nation” is far from perfect, and its flaws, disappointingly enough, stem from a lack of ambition rather than the opposite. And yet I still rather liked the episode, to the point where I feel comfortable rating it higher than some of the more conceptually challenging entries. Again, it’s the lure of that easy-to-grasp structure that pulls me in, but there’s also a certain lack of judgement that fits in with this season as a whole. We only meet one person who sent a “#DeathTo” tweet, and she seems more or less okay. While there’s some head shaking about our rush to shame people we think deserve it, there’s no sense that the shamers deserved their deaths, or that any of this is anything but a catastrophe. Maybe I enjoyed this one because buried deep in its core is just enough optimism to get by on. Awful things happen every day, but none of the people trying to stop those awful things (not even the overeager Shaun) are bad, or cruel. It’s rare to see an episode of Black Mirror that judges an individual rather than a system, but “Hated In The Nation” mostly just comes down harshly on psychotic programmers who get upset because they can’t sleep with their roommates. Hard not to get behind that.

Stray observations

  • Always glad to see Kelly MacDonald in something.
  • I kind of feel like Tusk railing against that kid’s dance moves would’ve made him as many fans as it did enemies.
  • I can’t be the only person screaming at the TV “COVER HER EARS” when they were trying to help the last social-media victim escape.
  • “Okay! The government’s a cunt. We knew that already.”—Karin
  • Karin figures out the killer’s identity after she interviews his former roommate; the roommate got targeted on social media when she angrily posted a photo of a mentally handicapped man thinking he was accosting her. Didn’t something very similar to this happen recently? Oh no—do we have robot bees now?
  • “Lunatic with production values, that’s the worst kind.”