Well, it had to happen eventually, right? ‘Men Against Fire’ was by no means an objectively bad hour of television. Quite the opposite. But compared to the previous 4 entries of this series of Black Mirror, there were noticeable issues.
The episode is set in a near-future warzone, as US soldiers stationed in what seems to be Europe battle against an enemy force only referred to as the ‘roaches’, who prey on the nearby villagers. Yet while fighting roaches (who have a weird, mutated appearance), Koinchange, aka. Stripe (Malachi Kirby) has a light shone on him by a roach. Soon after, he starts experiencing malfunctions with his technology, before ‘it all becomes clear’.
And from about 20 minutes in, it’s a straightforward enough guess as to what ‘it’ is. The roaches aren’t mutants, or even violent. That’s just what the ‘MASS implants’ the soldiers have has been programmed to make them see. The only thing ‘wrong’ with them is that they’re genetically ‘inferior’ – more susceptible to cancer, sexual deviance, crime and so on. Now, as a twist in general, the idea of technology that desensitises the soldiers, and that demonises the enemy, is a chilling and relevant concept about the military culture of us v them.
The problem with how that was used is twofold. Firstly, while there were clues from the start, unlike ‘San Junipero’, ‘Men Against Fire’ was far more tell than show. So when the aforementioned reveal did come, it was equally blunt, but was also probably necessary to drive the nuances of the twist. Secondly, the layers on top of that twist were equally heavy-handed. Extermination of an enemy seen as ‘genetically inferior’. Villagers who hate that enemy all the same simply due to bigotry and propaganda. A ruling class utterly set on the necessity and validity of their acts. Sound familiar? Add to that the Eastern European accents, and 1940s war style civilian clothing, and the Holocaust allusions became slightly too much.The episode was, however, far more effective when exploring the effects that MASS had on the soldiers themselves. From the erotic fantasies the soldiers were put into while sleeping, to the delusion of the ending, it was clear just how detached they had become from reality. Yet it was also made clear just how much better they were at their job because of it. Most of the time, the show is preaching to the converted with me thematically, and, as a staunch anti-war pacifist, this wasn’t really any different. Yet I’d like to think that idea of the correlation between effectiveness at war and desensitisation was driven home throughout the episode.
While the episode was overall weaker than previous episodes, the ending was certainly on par. The impact of MASS upon the military had already been established, but seeing Stripe return home, it became clear that it didn’t end there, and that even domestic life was under the illusion. It’s the sort of ending that leaves room for a sequel (and given there were plans for a ‘White Bear’ follow-up, before the set was demolished, it’s not out of the question), exploring just what kind of society can exist when everyone is living in that kind of lie.
So, like I said, not a bad episode. Just not quite perfect. With a feature length final episode for the year (6 more episodes are happily due next year), hopefully the series can end by getting back to the standard set until now.