Review – Black Mirror – Men Against Fire/Hated in the Nation

The final two episodes of the third season of Black Mirror bring the season’s themes of public perception, shame and game playing to the fore as government conspiracies and anonymous hackers collide…

One of the year’s best shows comes to an end with two excellent final episodes.

‘Men Against Fire’ is a war story in which futuristic soldiers use elite technology to track and exterminate ‘roaches’. It may take the series to an unfamiliar battlefield setting, but it uses plot beats that will no doubt be extremely familiar to fans of conspiracy films of the 70s.  What makes this episode great is a combination of its execution and a series of subtle callbacks to ‘White Bear’ and ‘Playtest’ that explore wider themes of game playing.

‘Hated in the Nation’ is a supersize finale that jumps from police procedural to horror film reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, as a series of friendly robotic bees are re-purposed by hackers to murder the least popular figures in the public eye. The episode ties together pretty much every theme of this season brilliantly, once again throwing new light back on ‘Nosedive’, ‘Playtest’ and ‘Shut Up and Dance’.

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If ‘San Junipero’ taught us anything, it’s that with the right attitude and a defiant spirit, technology doesn’t have to be this big bad corrupting thing that it’s so often depicted as on Black Mirror. One of Brooker’s big tenets is that technology isn’t the real villain, but rather the humans who abuse it.

And that’s exactly what happens in these two episodes. ‘Men Against Fire’ capitalises on the virtual reality threads we’ve seen at work in ‘Playtest’ and ‘San Junipero’ to depict the same programs now being used by the military. An ominous and invisible American government represented here by psychologist Arquette (Michael Kelly) manipulate and control the people. The victim in this case is “Stripe” (Malachi Kirby), one of many soldiers trained to kill vampiric ‘roaches’ with the assistance of the implanted MASS system.

The twist is that the roaches are ordinary human beings with undesirable genetic traits and that Stripe only sees them as monsters because the MASS system makes them appear that way. Arquette justifies the deception through the belief that the system is protecting the soldiers – it’s easier for them to carry out the work where they are unaware of what they are doing. The manipulation here is a beautiful parallel to ‘Playtest’ – in both examples implants deceive the user into seeing something they are most afraid of. Better to let the soldiers believe they are playing a game and face invented fears than the terrifying reality.

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‘Hated in the Nation’ jumps across the globe to London in a near future setting. Karin (Kelly MacDonald) is teamed up with forensic expert Blue (Faye Marsay) to investigate the death of unpopular reporter Jo Powers (Elizabeth Berrington). The case is a classic locked room scenario, and an autopsy reveals that the culprit is in fact a robotic bee being remotely controlled to fly into its victim’s brain.

The drone bees are part of a new government-sponsored initiative by technology company Granular to replace the now extinct organic bees. The detectives soon discover that the hacking is part of an elaborate online game, in which internet users vote using the #DeathTo to select a candidate to be murdered by the end of the day. Jo Powers is the first of these victims, and the police are unable to protect the second and third from the swarms of robotic insects.

Karin and Blue’s search for the culprit leads them to the flatmate of a suicidal employee of Granular, a man named Garrett Scholes. With the assistance of NCA agent Shaun (Benedict Wong), the group retrieve Scholes’ hard drive but when attempting to use it to deactivate the bees, Shaun inadvertently activates the final stage of Scholes’ plan. Scholes’ real targets are not the figures of shame but those who participated in the online voting, an act of vengeance for the mistreatment of his flatmate.

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The drones murder over 387,000 people who have voted, but the spiral of revenge does not end there. As an angry public rise up to blame the government for insisting the bees be fitted out with surveillance technology crucial to Scholes’ plan, Blue tracks Scholes down to a remote village and vanishes after him through the streets, sending a single anonymous text to Karin saying that she has ‘got him’.

‘Hated in the Nation’ is essentially a great thriller film, and the story is so enjoyable that even without analysis it stands up. The episode draws from so many different ideas and themes in the series that it’s difficult to know where to begin – the detached popularity contests of ‘Nosedive’, the use of gameplay to generate deception and manipulate of ‘Playtest’ and ‘Men Against Fire’, and most prominently the internet justice of ‘Shut Up and Dance’.

Scholes takes revenge not just for his flatmate, but for Lacie and Kenny and all the other victims in ‘Shut Up and Dance’. A cake shows up at Jo Powers’ house declaring that she’s a ‘fucking bitch’. The cake containing Kenny’s gun simply says ‘I Love You’. It’s ironic that the least harmful cake should turn out to be the former, full of bluster and hate rather than action. The ‘fucking bitch’ cake has been crowdfunded online by a group of mothers disgusted by Jo Powers’ actions, and it IS totally harmless. It’s a delicious cake. It’s a wonderful symbol of the conflict at the heart of ‘Hated in the Nation’.

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Because where ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ and ‘White Bear’ and ‘White Christmas’ had real horrible villains and fates worse than death, this third season of Black Mirror has shown a subtle shift in sympathy. When I reviewed ‘Nosedive’ a few days ago, I was critical of how explicit its agenda seemed to be, and while the same criticisms could definitely be levelled at the government plot of ‘Men Against Fire’ the other episodes of the season have defied to take a stance.

It’s what’s made them so good. ‘San Junipero’ could have played out like an advert for its glorious vision of a computerised afterlife, but it’s aware of the consequences of such a world, and what Kelly has to sacrifice in order to commit to Yorkie. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ could have made Kenny into a simple reprise of ‘White Bear”s Victoria, but it’s happy this time to let us form our own opinions on Kenny and his punishment.

And ‘Hated in the Nation’ follows that punishment to its logical conclusion – to challenge both those who believe in social justice, and those who are against it. The victims of the trollface and the 387,000 both learn the same lesson – we are always accountable for our actions. Black Mirror condemns both sides.

And this is true throughout this season – in a world in which everything can be controlled, do we embrace this technology or opt out? It’s a multi-faceted double-edged sword. Every character makes their own mistakes, and are held accountable in vast and various ways. And as the positivity of ‘San Junipero’ shows, this is as ever a show as much about humanity, as about the technology that we interact with.

And there’s never a single correct answer.

Verdict: Black Mirror‘s third season explores a series of difficult themes related to control and perception, and in doing so delivers one of the most challenging and consistently enjoyable seasons of the year. The future is here and humanity isn’t equipped to handle it.

Written by Tom Besley

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