The secret hook to most every horror story is pretty simple: most of the time, the protagonist deserves what they get. Oh, there are exceptions, but a show in which horrible things happened to perfectly nice people every week is not a show that would hold people’s interest for very long. At the very least, it would be one without the thin veneer of morality that gives so many anthology series their texture. The Twilight Zone did it, Tales From The Crypt did it, and Black Mirror is no exception to the rule.
Invariably the punishment outweighs the initial transgression, often to a ludicrous degree. (Crypt got a big charge out of this, even as it made every effort to assure us that its “heroes” were creeps, losers, sociopaths, and douchebags.) We’re encouraged to have at least a little sympathy for the poor sap, even if there’s always that “better us than them” distance. But there’s a curious streak of Old Testament in so many of these narratives, an implication that a capricious god is ready and waiting for even the slightest infraction to come down on some idiot mortal with both feet. In a way, it’s another twist of the knife; the bad thing is bad, but it’s even worse when if you know you’re partly responsible for it.
The best anthology shows are the ones that manage to question whether or not this “sin/DOOM” dynamic is a wholly positive one—the shows that don’t simply pull the rug out from under some hapless schemer and snicker as they fall face first into a floor full of knives. Black Mirror has managed this in the past, to an arguably unprecedented degree. In the second-season episode “White Bear,” we watch a woman struggle through a nightmare only to discover the nightmare has been devised as a punishment for her own horrific actions; but the glee with which that punishment is delivered throws the whole enterprise into question.
The tormentors stay more or less invisible in “Shut Up And Dance,” which questions the nature of anonymous internet “justice” by putting a group of guilt-ridden dupes through an increasingly dangerous real life game. The technology here is minimal, something that could be managed today without too much trouble; just a bit of luck, some hacking genius, and a willingness to stalk strangers until they sin in a way you can hold against them. The resulting hour isn’t Black Mirror at its most inventive (where “White Bear” had novelty to distract us until it revealed its true purpose, “Shut Up And Dance” relies on suspense and cringe comedy, to significantly lesser impact), but it does end on the sort of sucker punch that has you questioning your assumptions—and then questioning those questions.
For most of its running time, the episode is straightforward enough, at least on the morality scale. We meet Kenny (Alex Lawther), a socially awkward young man who works at a fast food restaurant and lives at home with his mother and sister. He seems like a perfectly normal kid, if a bit on the shy side, until one day some creeps hack his laptop camera and record him jerking off. They threaten to send the video to his entire contacts list unless he follows their instructions. It’s a good hook, exploiting one of the most pervasive nightmares of the modern age: What if someone’s watching you at your most vulnerable? And what if they have it all on video tape?
From there things follow a predictable line, with Kenny receiving texts that first send him to a parking garage, where he picks up a cake from another blackmail victim, then to a hotel, where he meets Hector (Jerome Flynn). Hector is trying to keep an attempted affair secret from his wife, so he and Kenny have a sort of team-up. It’s kind of wacky at first, until the blackmailers order them to rob a bank. Actually, that’s pretty funny too, apart from Kenny’s suffering—it only gets really dark when Kenny comes to the end of the line and discovers a fight to the death.
As far as the narrative goes, it’s more intriguing than gripping. The script does its best to wring as much tension as it can out of Kenny and Hector trying to follow instructions, but while there are nervy moments, they’re nearly always more about how Kenny will react to the situation than they are about whether or not he’ll succeed. Given that no one’s actual life is on the line, it’s possible to feel sympathy for the guy who’s in way over his head but difficult to put yourself in his shoes for very long. There’s something off about him, and for a while, it seemed as though the actual suspense would be in seeing the anonymous string-pullers push him one step too far.
Then the fight to the death happens, and you realize the string-pullers don’t really give a shit—this isn’t some harmless game they’re playing, and Kenny doesn’t end up as the one patsy who won’t go down as easy as they’d planned. No, the real twist happens so quickly that it’s almost possible to miss it. Almost. In the end, no matter how well they followed instructions, each of the blackmail victims has their horrible secret revealed to the world, with predictably disastrous results. Each one gets a text with that grinning 4chan troll face, just in case the snickering cruelty wasn’t clear enough. And not only is Kenny’s shame broadcast, we learn that it was never just a simple matter of masturbation. As his opponent in the death match suggested, Kenny was jerking off to pictures of children.
Which makes it all clearcut after all, right? Kenny wasn’t an innocent; he’s a monster worse than Hector. I mean, remember that scene at the beginning where he gives the little girl back her toy? Seemed nice at the time, a real horrorshow in retrospect. The horrified voice of Kenny’s mother on the phone (as the police pull up beside him) lets us all off the hook. Everyone is awful. The end.
That’s one way of reading it. But I don’t think it’s the correct reading; or at least, that’s not what I took from it. Without that last discovery, “Shut Up And Dance” is run-of-the-mill stuff, but the while Kenny’s horrible secret doesn’t elevate this to the same level as the similarly morally challenging “White Bear,” it does at the very least force us to question the danger of unsupervised vigilantism even when the victims arguably deserve what’s coming to them. It’s easy to get worked up when the assholes of the internet dox someone for having the temerity to be a woman who says things, because that’s clearly and undeniably evil. It’s harder to come to, say, a pedophile’s defense, partly because no one wants to get tarred with that particular brush, and partly because we all kind of want to have people we can legitimately hate, just so we get to enjoy punishing them.
But Kenny is still sympathetic, I think; disturbed and troubled and in need of some serious counseling (and maybe to be put away for a bit, depending on how far his sexual proclivities have taken him)—but not deserving of the hell the trolls put him through. “Shut Up And Dance” forces us to to reckon with the actual consequences of total surveillance without offering the easy-to-agree-with sop of “Oh, everyone has something to hide.” We do, but most of us probably don’t have secrets this dark. But does that mean the people who do deserve whatever they get? If Kenny was our identification figure for most of the hour, the discovery that he was going along with instructions not just because he was socially inept, but because he really did have something that awful to hide—how does that change things?
Okay, I’m starting to sound like I’m writing discussion group questions, but those ideas are the most compelling element of a decent but otherwise banal hour. With no new concept to help the medicine go down, and with characters behaving pretty much as you’d expect in unpleasant circumstances, this is never boring, but it’s not all that engaging, either. That last reveal (and the montage leading into it, with its pitch perfect use of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film)”) is powerful, but not quite powerful enough to make up for everything that came before it. Still, it’s great to see the show’s willingness to force moral questions that make everyone feel awful is still in full effect.
- The song “Shut Up And Dance” never gets played, so far as I can tell. Which is a relief, frankly, because I like that song, and I don’t think it would really fit here.
- Kenny pisses himself during the bank robbery; this is maybe the first time I’ve seen that particularly effect where it seemed completely justified. (It’s necessary to show how miserably and tormented he is, to encourage our pity, and then force us to reckon with that pity when we discover the truth.)
- That kid Hector and Kenny pass at the hotel is definitely in on it.
- Not really a showcase for Jerome Flynn, but he does a fine job. Lawther’s the real stand-out, though.
- The use of a drone to record the fight to the death is a nice, nasty satirical touch. Really, the episode saves it’s most vicious condemnation for the people we never actually see (outside that kid in the hotel): The string-pullers who use the venality of others to get their own rocks off, consequence-free. It falls back to one of the core themes of the show, that idea that the real danger of technology is that it increases the distance between us and our actions under the guise of convenience.
- “I’m an alright bloke, I swear I am. When stuff’s normal.”—Hector (I made a snide comment about Kenny giving the little girl back her toy, but it still seems like an innocent moment. Maybe the episode is suggesting that no one is entirely defined by their worst moments; and that the ruthless, blind, and cruel justice we seem to crave only serves to dehumanize us all.)