One of the joys of Black Mirror is that as an anthology series it switches its setting, characters and theme each episode, leaving you never quite sure what to expect from the next instalment. After the bittersweet romance of Be Right Back, here we had the disorientating horror of White Bear, an extraordinary nail-biting hour of television with a bravura twist that lingers long in the mind.
The first half of the episode follows Victoria (Lenora Crichlow), as she awakens in forsaken surroundings to find she has no recollection of her previous life. An outsider ignorant of how the world around her has horribly changed, it's the standard opening for an apocalyptic science-fiction story harking back to John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids.
But rather than carnivorous plants overrunning the planet, it appears the majority of the population have been turned into brainless voyeurs only capable of filming on their phones what's going on around them. The social commentary is worn heavily here, with the notion that the way in which we are spoon-fed an almost constant stream of information through technology has turned us into passive consumers, used previously in Charlie Brooker's zombie horror series Dead Set.
Whilst Be Right Back explored how technology could be utilised and abused by our feelings of love, here it examines how it could be exploited to achieve power. The weird world Victoria finds herself in turns hostile when a car pulls up nearby, a masked men wielding a shotgun gets out, and promptly begins to hunt her. Just like Victoria, for us the viewers no explanation is given as to what's going on, leaving us just as perplexed and petrified as she is.
All we can gather is that similar to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this apocalyptic scenario has brought the worst out of those unaffected, turning them into ruthless killers deciding to prey on the weak just because they can. The relative lack of dialogue, along with disorientating handheld camerawork, all add to portray Victoria's bewildered state of mind as she struggles to comprehend the world around her.
Whilst stylistically the episode is breath-taking; the intense action a million miles away from the subdued drama of last week, the themes come across as particularly flat. Whilst the premise is certainly interesting, it's hardly original, and by the time Victoria and her new-found comrade Jem (Tuppence Middleton) made it to the White Bear facility, I was wondering how the plot could be stretched out.
But then came the twist, and what a remarkable twist it was, as we discover that the entire series of events that has happened to Victoria have all been staged as part of a sadistic future interactive experience that forms part of a punishment for her past crimes.
Once again the idea of having what the viewers are led to believe as reality exposed as a sham is hardly original, with Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods the most recent example of inverting the horror genre. What's more interesting here is the steps that are taken throughout the final 20 minutes to examine the process involved in subjecting her to this habitual nightmare.
The big reveal is that all those blurry flashbacks that Victoria was suffering from are actually recollections of her terrible past, where under the orders of her husband, they abudcted and killed a child. After being with an imperilled and frightened Victoria from the start, and with the lack of information given over her full role in the child's death, there's never a danger of our sympathies switching away from her.
Victoria's major crime appears to be that whilst her husband committed such an evil act she stood by and did nothing, being so passive as to film the child's last moments on her phone. The construction of the White Bear centre becomes apparent now, as a real-life karmic experience for the general public who wish to see biblical retribution.
Through seeing Victoria subjected to such scorn, Brooker venomously attacks our current culture which seems to have an immeasurable capacity for dressing up the humiliation of others in the name of entertainment. As seen in the scene where Victoria is made to travel in an open-windowed car whilst people line up alongside the road to hurl abuse and tomatoes, the argument is that in the media notorious criminals must be demonised to appease the public's insatiable appetite to see that 'justice' is served.
Behind the Scenes
The cleverest aspect of such a critique is not the sentiment itself (which is pretty transparent), but the way in which us as viewers are implicated. The behind-the-scenes filming of how the centre is set-up, the meticulous details such as the murdered child's picture placed in the photo-frame, the actors conversing over a coffee before they make their entrance, all add to highlight the mundane process in which such spectacle is created.
Part of this is clearly a comment on the method involved in creating the routine illusion, shockingly suggesting Victoria has been made to run the daily gauntlet many times previously. But also by starting with her perspective and ending up with that of the visitors at the centre, the viewer is implicated as an observant of such torture.
Going in the opposite direction of the usual horror film (particularly the slasher film) trajectory, here we start from the hero's perspective and end up with the villain's. With now unlimited access to the events at the White Bear centre, the statement being made at us the viewer is that we're the ones with the smartphones, passively absorbing abuses to human rights and decency, and yet revelling in the image from the safety of the screen. Charlie Brooker might not have quite "raped the viewer into independence" like in the films of Michael Haneke, but by using the medium of television itself to implicate the viewer into the media they consume, he has crafted an hour of television more bold and daring than I've seen in a long time.