Review – Black Mirror – Shut Up and Dance/San Junipero

The third and fourth episodes of the third season of Black Mirror kick things up with two hauntingly brilliant instalments in which everything is not what it initially seems…

If the first two episodes of Black Mirror‘s third season left room for doubt as to whether the series had any tricks left to play, these next two episodes absolutely put those fears to bed.

‘Shut Up and Dance’ is an intense thriller with a twist that flips the whole episode entirely on its head. It’s a careful combination of ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘White Bear’, initially seeming to be a reprise of the former out of the public eye, but by the end re-visiting the same themes of justice and perception that defined the latter. The last few minutes in particular deliver a series of gut punches that will no doubt make this one of the hardest re-watches of the show so far.

‘San Junipero’ is by contrast the previous episode’s polar opposite – it’s meditative and dangerless, setting it apart from everything that Black Mirror has done before. ‘San Junipero’ a story about romance and about death, putting an optimistic spin on the computer-based afterlife explored by ‘Be Right Back’. It casts almost every theme we’ve seen before in a new light, throwing back not just to previous seasons but the first three episodes of this as well – it’s an instant classic in the Black Mirror canon.

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Together, these two episodes form a striking pair. While ‘San Junipero’ is pre-occupied with themes of romance throughout its duration, ‘Shut Up and Dance’ initially foregrounds sexuality, drifts away from the topic and then abruptly smashes back to it in the final moments.  The episode introduces young and awkward protagonist Kenny (Alex Lawther), who is unknowingly filmed masturbating on camera by an anonymous internet user and blackmailed into committing armed robbery and fighting a man to the death.

Certain questions are thrown up very early on – why doesn’t Kenny just tell his Mum or call the police? What is the connection between sexualisation and internet humiliation? Why is Kenny so emotionally unstable? And as with all good twists the answer is right in front of us but too horrible to admit – Kenny was filmed masturbating to child pornography. The humiliation represents a form of anonymous internet justice against a paedophile.

Suddenly ‘Shut Up and Dance’ stops resembling ‘The National Anthem’ and looks far more like ‘White Bear’ – this is a protagonist who has done something indisputably wrong and deserves what’s coming to them, right? All the sympathy that’s been built up over the course of the episode was misplaced now we know what really happened, right? It’s nowhere near that simple. Because Brooker’s writing and Lawther’s performance have done something incredibly daring – they’ve created a sympathetic portrayal of a young man capable of doing something unspeakable.

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‘White Bear’ and ‘Shut Up and Dance’ don’t rely on any radical techniques to build sympathy. By placing their protagonists in a position where they are underdogs being taken advantage of, they’re utilising narrative tools thousands of years old. Even the archetype of the shady secret or dark mysterious past is cliched and familiar – how often do we learn that our protagonists have done something horrible after spending hours seeing them in a heroic light? Many will be familiar with the ‘redemption arc’, a story line that turns villain into hero.

In fact, despite being a striking and thought-provoking episode, ‘White Bear’ cheated on its character development – protagonist Victoria is unable to remember the child she and her boyfriend abducted and killed, so she cannot appreciate her own punishment. She’s forced to re-live the experience of her self-perception being twisted from hero to villain in every single performance of the hell she is trapped in. Kenny isn’t like Victoria. He knows exactly what he’s done. The heartbreaking element of ‘Shut Up and Dance’ is that his self-perception is totally intact.

Every scene of this episode plays a subtle and crucial part in creating ambiguities in this portrayal, and defying the viewer to draw a meaningful message. As in ‘White Bear’, the episode seems to condemn the gravity of the punishment, a metaphor for the media circus following real-world exposures such as this one, but it never denies that a punishment should occur. We see all the pieces in place for Kenny’s inability to cope with his sexuality, signs of his fear of being discovered,  and in one particularly disturbing retrospective recall his returning of a child’s toy sends shivers down the spine.

But I think if there’s one thing to take away, it’s that it’s a mistake to vilify Kenny based on what we learn in the episode’s final few minutes. Let me cast two conflicting interpretations of ‘Shut Up and Dance’ – the first sees Kenny as a sympathetic protagonist who does something horrible as a result of mental disorder, the second sees Kenny as an unrelenting monster, whose murder of a man PROVES that the punishment was justified all along. The first is heartbreaking and challenging. The second is far easier to swallow. Both exist in ‘Shut Up and Dance’.

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I could write an incredible amount on either of these two episodes, but I have to move on to ‘San Junipero’, one steeped in so many series references that it’s only possible to glance over them. The forbidden romance of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, the implications of a technological afterlife from ‘Be Right Back’, the eternal imprisonment of ‘White Christmas’. But for once in Black Mirror, everything aligns correctly.

Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) was 21 years old when she came out to her parents and was incapacitated in a car accident, and has been comatose for over forty years since. Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a bisexual woman who was married to her husband for forty-nine years, now alone after losing her daughter and husband. Each faces a choice – they can remain in the nostalgic heaven of San Junipero forever after they die, or simply let their death be the end. Both are given a trial portion of San Junipero to help make their decision.

And they find a reason to live in each other. Yorkie is able to experience romance and sex for the first time, no longer confined by her real-world body. Kelly is torn between loyalty to her husband and daughter and the new life she is being offered, deciding to remain in San Junipero after all. It’s a happy and optimistic ending that defies what the series has delivered before, but as ever with Black Mirror there is more occurring than meets the eye.

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If there was ever evidence that this series should be watched in release order to fully appreciate what Brooker is up to, these two episodes embody that. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ relies on familiarity with ‘The National Anthem’ to pull off its narrative deception and play itself off against ‘White Bear’. And when we view ‘San Junipero’ alongside its own hints and the wider implications of ‘Be Right Back’ and ‘White Christmas’, or even ‘Nosedive’ and ‘Playtest’, its world is put to test.

San Junipero isn’t heaven despite how much it wants to be. It’s a world of the dead and broken, all the dancing and nostalgia hiding a series of painful backstories. Kelly punches a mirror and seconds later it’s been fixed. Yorkie can’t die from jumping off the roof because her pain levels are at zero. Lost souls assemble at the fetishistic Quagmire club to help them cope with the pain of eternity. It’s a godless and anti-religious place, worshipping instead at the shrine of 80s/90s fashion. And it’s glorious in all these flaws.

Because what ‘San Junipero’ is saying is that all the problems with eternity in ‘White Christmas’ and meditations on existence in ‘Be Right Back’ still exist. They’re not magically gone – they’re still there. There are still real human problems but that doesn’t mean goodness and romance can’t be there as well. Yorkie and Kelly’s romance might be s snapshot in time, a moment of passing over rather than the end-all, but it’s about discovering and committing to the possibilities that San Junipero brings, despite the reservations.

Black Mirror‘s versatility is astounding. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ and ‘San Junipero’ scarcely seem to be from the same era, let alone the same writer. Two episodes to go.

Verdict: ‘Shut Up and Dance’ and ‘San Junipero’ are simply some of the most thought-provoking, striking and engaging episodes of the year. The former is bold and upsetting, the latter calm and uplifting.

Written by Tom Besley

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