“White Bear” is, by a significant margin, the most disturbing episode Black Mirror has produced. That’s quite an achievement on this show! There’s not a single episode of Black Mirror that won’t leave you with troubling thoughts and lead to potentially strange dreams if you watch it before bed. “White Bear” is also easily the most Twilight Zone-y episode of the show yet. It throws us into a weird, disorienting world, establishes the rules for us as we go along, then pulls the rug out with 15 minutes to go with one of the most devastating and mind-boggling twists imaginable.
We open on Victoria (Lenora Circhlow, of Being Human), coming to in a house where she seems to be recovering from a suicide attempt. Pictures and fragmented memories suggest she has a husband and daughter, but the world in which she’s awakened is terrifying: Most people have been rendered numb by some nationwide broadcast signal and walk around filming everything blankly on their phones. Of the 10 percent who were unaffected, some don scary masks and run around wreaking violent mayhem, accessing a monstrous side that, it’s suggested, they always possessed. Everyone else, including Jem (the wonderfully-named Tuppence Middleton, whom I predict great things from) is scrambling to survive.
It’s a brutal, merciless world, filled with horrifying imagery, from the weird animal masks the “hunters” wear to the killing ground a captured Victoria and Jem are led to by Baxter, a sneaky hunter who presents himself as a friend but turns on our heroes. Baxter is played by Michael Smiley, whom I know best as the lovely bike courier Tyres in Spaced, and it was horrible to see him in such a role. (He did a good job though.) The whole world of “White Bear” is a little sparse, and the plot moves incredibly quickly, but neither of those things seemed completely out of the ordinary for Black Mirror. Until it looked like the story was wrapping up with a big chunk of time left to go, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a big twist. But! Spoilers follow.
So it turns out that Victoria was the accomplice in the notorious (fictional) murder of a child, and that she accompanied and filmed her imagined husband in killing her imagined daughter, actually just a girl they abducted. With her accomplice dead by suicide, Victoria is tortured every day before a paying audience, playing through the “White Bear” scenario time and time again, always (we assume) pushed to the brink of murder, firing a shotgun at a hunter, which triggers the final revelation, the reveal of the audience, and the torturous memory-wiping process that ends the night.
Victoria’s crime is obviously inspired by the Moors murders, perpetrated by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the 1960s. They abducted children whom Brady would then murder—Hindley taped him torturing one of their victims, similar to Victoria’s cellphone taping of this murder, which is reflected back at her with the impassive crowds that film her staged ordeal. The Moors murders were a crucial “loss of innocence” moment for the U.K., and Myra Hindley in particular became an totem of hatred and evil for many in the country, her mugshot taking on a weirdly iconic status as the years went on and she languished in prison before dying in 2002. Brady (who’s still alive), truly a psychopath, was the instigator and mastermind of the murders, but in many ways, the country’s focus fell on Hindley, perhaps because it was considered more shocking that a woman could be capable of such cruelty.
Hindley was not the last such target of singular hatred in the country; with every abhorrent crime and conviction comes a new, lurid media frenzy. Brooker is examining and heightening that trend with “White Bear,” but boy, is it a tough needle to thread. The depiction of the torture Victoria suffers, and the indifference of her captors and spectators, is brutally tough to watch. As we see the cycle repeat and suffer her tormented screams as her memory is wiped each time, we can’t help but sympathize. At the same time, we’re being asked to sympathize with someone whose crime was unforgivable, and we’re given very little context into her mental state, since her mind has been erased so many times that the crime is barely a memory.
The power of “White Bear” is undeniable. I’m giving it a lower grade than the other episodes because its focus is so blunt and singular that eventually, I felt I was being beaten around the head by its point a little bit. The twist is a smart one, brilliantly concealed and smartly revealed, but once the point is made, it is made over and over again. The audaciousness of Brooker’s argument, and the great parallels between Victoria’s own torture and the crime she committed, are undeniable. At the same time, this is an episode of television I’m sure I’ll never watch again.
- I really did like Tuppence Middleton. I’m sure she has a bright future.
- Next week is the last episode! I think the status of a third season is unclear, so for now, this is all we have.