So far on this series of Black Mirror we’ve had two episodes that were familiar, but near future in terms of technology and/or society. ‘Shut up and Dance’, however, was set in a world that was completely and utterly our own, both reminding us of issues surrounding technology that pervade society already, and that, regardless of what tools are used, whether they be real or sci-fi, it’s the people who are ultimately responsible.
The episode follows Kenny (Alex Lawther), a typical, working teenager who, spying a moment of privacy, masturbates over ‘pictures’ online (we’ll come to the significance of what those pictures were further on). Yet with his laptop camera being hacked to record the whole act, Kenny is forced into a series of escalating ordeals, under the threat of the video being leaked online to everyone he knows. It was only ever going to end one way.
It’s rare that a piece is improved by predictability, but that was certainly the case here. From the moment Kenny was sent the threat, it was obvious that whatever he did, the leak would happen. While it wasn’t an absolute necessity for the story to work, it just fit the manner in which the blackmail had unfolded perfectly. It was never about the money, or some arbitrary prize. It was, to paraphrase The Dark Knight, just about watching the world burn.
But as I said, that just made the episode so much more resonant. You knew watching that there wasn’t anything at stake, not really – Kenny, Jerome Flynn’s Hector and the other ‘participants’ had already lost. And, to some extent, you could tell that they knew it too, but there was just that little spark of hope left that they might just find a way out of the hole. That, cruelly, was what the tension came from, seeing how long it was before that spark was extinguished, and what would happen when it was.The one part I didn’t quite expect was how quickly the tasks escalated. With the Chekov’s Gun of Kenny’s friendly female boss, and the cake reading ‘I Love You’, it seemed as though humiliation, not devastation, was going to be the theme. That would have certainly made the story more focused on the relationship between teenagers, sexuality, technology, and reputation, but the wider scope certainly made it more interesting, and the morality more questionable. Which brings us back to the pictures.
When the scene first occurs, you’d naturally assume Kenny was viewing ‘standard’ porn – there would be no reason to assume otherwise. It’s only when his mum rings him, despondent about him ‘looking at kids’ (after what seems like a ‘misunderstanding’ with the self-confessed paedophile), that Kenny is revealed to have ostensibly been viewing child pornography. Now, of the 5 victims we see, only Hector and the paedophile definitively state what it is the hacker has on them. The point here is that it’s unclear by the end whether Kenny was simply, as Hector puts it (in what’s more typical Jerome Flynn/Bronn on Game of Thrones territory), ‘jacking off’, and the child pornography charge is a matter of perception engineered by the hacker, or whether that charge is fundamentally correct, and all the hacker did was release the proof. As far as the narrative goes, it’s a small point that changes nothing, but it has interesting ramifications for the morality of the episode, retroactively playing with our idea of Kenny purely as the victim. That’s not to say he deserved his ordeal (no-one would deserve that), but rather that it serves to add another layer to a story that could’ve just been, as I said, ‘teenager humiliated to avoid masturbation video’.
Alex Lawther’s performance as Kenny (and unsurprisingly the writing of the character) are integral to the story. He’s not the ‘cool’ kid, he cooks fast-food for a living, and his relationship with his mum seems basically to extend to him being his sister’s babysitter. And it shows. He never gains the sort of acceptance characters in these sort of stories often get through poor acting or writing, but instead is consistently on the verge of breaking, until by the end, he has.
With this episode, we’re (chronologically, not accounting for people undoubtedly watching in some random order) 3 episodes into the 6 on offer. So far, the standard has been incredibly high – three exceptional and diverse pieces. But then, with the first 2 season’s being 3 episodes, the same could almost be said of both of them (let’s not mention ‘The Waldo Moment’, shall we?). So here’s hoping episode 4 keeps the run going.