Black Mirrothon Part 10: ‘Shut Up and Dance’
I’ll put this on the table from the get-go…this episode rubs me up the right way in both concept and narrative structure. But can it crack the top spot? Is this an obvious clickbait?
Title: ‘Shut Up and Dance’
Director: James Watkins
Writer: Charlie Brooker, William Bridges
Cast: Alex Lawther, Jerome Flynn, Susannah Doyle, Hannah Steele, Natasha Little, Camilla Power
Premise: A young man, Kenny, gets blackmailed by an anonymous online entity who sends him a series of increasingly dangerous tasks to complete. Kenny soon finds that he’s not alone, whoever is pulling the strings have a network of people under their control.
Review: This episode was well received and yet the ending received a mixed reception, many claiming that it was a cheap shock, a cop out and even laughable. I personally LOVE the ending, finding it to be one of the sharpest kicks in the gut the show delivers. We’ll come back to it.
We begin with Kenny, who hasn’t been dealt the best hand in life. We can see (mostly from Lawther’s brilliant performance) from the get-go that he’s riddled with insecurities, has a terrible job in a fast food restaurant and gets no respect from his co-workers or sister. This is in conflict to what we see on screen: Kenny is kind to costumers, having a nice moment with a young child in the restaurant and one co-worker appears to have some affection for him even if Kenny seems too anxious to respond to it. It’s these small details that really change meaning on a repeat viewing because these interactions, Kenny’s protection of his computer and his nervousness around others take on a very, very dark meaning once of the story wraps up.
The story happens like this…Kenny comes home to find his computer missing and being used by his sister, which greatly upsets him. She’s installed a video player that caused the computer to crash and Kenny sets up a malware removing to deal with it. This is a good moment as it doesn’t specifically tell us what has brought this fate upon him, but we do learn that someone has intruded on his computer and use his camera to record what he’s doing (given the number of times this happens I am surprised to see people who don’t cover those damn things up). We don’t know exactly why Kenny is so scared of this until later, but for now Kenny it faced with following instructions or be exposed.
Initially he is tasked with being at a specific place at a specific time, where he meets an equally scared individual who give him a cake for delivery. He’s then sent to motel to deliver the cake to Hector (Flynn), another victim of the unseen online foe. Together they are directed to collect a car from the lot and rob a bank before Hector has to leave Kenny in the middle of nowhere. Upon arrival at the new designated meeting point he finds another victim setting up a drone camera, who informs him that they must fight to the death.
The simple structure of this story and its mystery is the strongest element of this story. The invisible blackmailer is a common horror story in the era of the internet and it’s used to good effect here. The escalation of the episode is masterful, building on the initially simple premise to show us Kenny’s and Hector’s gradual acceptance of their position as victims in this game. The monkey decal on Kenny’s laptop is an initial suggestion of what’s going on – they’re just here to entertain whoever is behind this.
Kenny’s predicament is going to strike a chord of fear in almost any audience member. It’s safe to say that most people are going to have something they’ve looked up on the internet, or some kind of interaction that they’d rather not have made public. In spite of this we live in a world where data intrusion is surprisingly common and laws that allow government agencies to spy on us go largely unchallenged. It becomes less a matter of how this could happen, and more how far you would go to protect your secrets.
Now the big twist at the end of the episode is that Kenny has been looking up child pornography on the internet and the blackmailer has evidence of this to share with the world. Remember what we said about Kenny’s early interactions having a changed meaning after the finale? That interaction with a child, and his co-workers dislike of him, looks to be rooted in something very real and very sinister. On my initial viewing I actually found this reveal to be anti-climatic as I’d assumed that it was something to do with his sister, as they’d put a focus on her using his computer early in the episode. Either way, he’s clearly a scumbag.
Of course, as will all good Black Mirror episodes, there’s more to it than a predictable twist reveal. At the end of it all Kenny has killed another pedophile to save himself and is left wandering the countryside covered in blood. It’s then that he and all the other victims receive a ‘Troll Face’ meme image in on their phone along with the realisation that their awful secrets have been spilled regardless of their willingness to ‘dance’ for their blackmailers. As mentioned earlier, some viewers found this to be a silly ending, but I’m not sure they appreciated what this image fully represents. It means that the people who were controlling things are not doing it for the money, or the justice – they’re doing it for fun. It’s all just a big laugh to them, forcing people to jump through hoops and perform horrifying acts simply because they have the capability to do so. Regardless of what they did to save themselves, all of them were doomed from the start.
They also use ‘End Music For a Film’ by Radiohead (so titled because it was composed as the finale score for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet), which is a track that managed to sink its teeth into my heart whenever I hear it. To say that it emphasises the impact of the finale is heightened is understatement.
This episode has some similarities to the previous ‘White Bear’ with society has a whole coming together to punish a confused and desperate individual who has committed an unspeakable act, but it’s the potential reality of the situation that makes this story hit harder than the previous. The idea that someone can intrude into your digital space and take advantage of it is shockingly real and it’s very easy to develop a paranoid complex if you go looking into the ways it can be achieved.
That Moment When You Feel Your Stomach Drop: For may viewers it’s the reveal that our hero is guilty of unspeakable crimes, but we anticipated if not that then something equally horrid. Instead for us it’s the reveal that all these people’s lives were destroyed simply for fun.
Links to Other Episodes: Well, it looks like Prime Minister Callow (‘The National Anthem’) is getting a divorce. This can be seen on a computer screen towards the end when one of the victims, the woman who left the car, has been exposed. Below this news story is one about Victoria Skillane from ‘White Bear’, whilst the advertisement above referenced ‘Once Smart Cookie’, the technology from ‘White Christmas’. On the news ticker is a reference to a talent show called ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, which is odd as that’s the name of the episode, not the show in the episode.
Ranking Black Mirror: There’s something about this episode that really spooks me. The fact is that having your secrets exposed publicly is a nightmare of some degree for everyone, and after reading Jon Ronson’s ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ I’ve developed a fear of becoming that random member of the public who gets crucified for a badly worded public post. This episode rates highly for me.
- ‘Fifteen Million Merits’
- ‘White Christmas’
- ‘Shut Up and Dance’
- ‘Be Right Back’
- ‘White Bear’
- ‘The National Anthem’
- ‘The Waldo Moment’
- ‘The Entire History of You’