I wasn’t sure what to make of “White Bear” when it started. Last week’s episode was, if you ask me, one of the strongest hours of television to air in years on either side of the pond. So the bar was set rather high going in to this week’s episode of Charlie Brooker‘s science fiction anthology series, Black Mirror. Opening to discover that Lenora Crichlow was the protagonist was a little off-putting.
If you’re disturbed by spoilers, just stop now. This is going to be spoiler-riffic.
Whenever I see her in a show or a film, all I can see is Annie from Being Human. That’s not her fault, but I so associate her with that role that I immediately came to the story with a set of assumptions about her character. And that’s a stupid thing for any reviewer to do. But I’m not sure whether or not Brooker intended that to happen.
Annie– I mean Toni– wakes up in an empty room in an empty house, having digitized flashes of memory while a mysterious signal plays on the TV in front of her. All evidence points to her having tried to commit suicide. She staggers to her feet, stumbles downstairs, and finds pictures of her significant other and a child. We immediately are sympathetic and concerned.
It’s an opening that echoes Resident Evil, and the emptiness of the city she wanders out into recalls any number of zombie apocalypse dramas, including Brooker’s own Dead Set at times. Once Toni realizes that people are watching her from the other houses, all mysteriously filming or photographing her with their phones but refusing to speak or interact with her, I had a flash of another zombie/plague film or two; most notably, The Signal-– which you should take a look at if you like this sort of thing.
As is the case in The Signal, this image on the TV has apparently warped people’s minds.
Toni has no memory. She doesn’t know who she is, what’s happening, or even if the little girl in the picture she clings to is her daughter. Then, without warning, a strange masked man drives up, gets a shotgun out of his car, and begins to chase her. As she runs, screaming for help, the onlookers swarm out of their homes, continuing to film and photograph her as she begs for help and runs away. It’s a nightmarish scenario and quite disturbing.
So obviously this is Brooker’s wry take on our obsession with cellphone technology, recording life rather than engaging with others, we’re all zombies, yada yada yada. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed with the idea despite excellent execution. Last season’s finale, “The Entire History of You” hit those points so well that I was a bit amazed that we were rehashing a similar idea here.
Then Toni is rescued by a woman named Jem, played by Tuppence Middleton (who should get an award for the most British name I’ve ever heard, just behind Benedict Cumberbatch), and they are consequently rescued from more roving murderers by Michael Smiley. If you’ve read any of my other reviews over the last few months, you may have noticed that I love Michael Smiley. Anytime he shows up in a work, it is automatically made better. Kind of like Joe Don Baker.
Of course his character can’t be trusted and tries to murder them, too. At this point, I was ready to just write the episode off as a stumble. It really wasn’t saying anything new or interesting, and while the scenario was extremely disturbing and the strange flashes of memory Toni was having were intriguing, I really didn’t think they would pay off.
Well, I was wrong.
The final act of this episode completely changes everything, pulling the rug out from under our previous expectations. We knew that Toni had probably experienced this all before, so I was theorizing that maybe she was in a video game or something equally tired, however, once Toni and Jem get to the mysterious “White Bear” station and attempt to sabotage the mind-controlling signal, Michael Smiley walks back out (after having been shot dead earlier) and he and Jem strap Toni to a chair. The lights come up and there is a studio audience watching and cheering.
Now, this is a lot of plot summary, I know, but there’s a reason for that. The devil is in the details.
What Brooker is actually doing here is a bit more subtle and layered than anything I was expecting. The people transfixed by their phones are actually volunteers – visitors to the White Bear Justice Park. They are taking part in what is essentially a combination of Community Theater and the penal system. Toni is the surviving half of a sociopathic couple who kidnapped, tortured, and burned a little girl alive. While Toni asserted that her boyfriend was the one responsible and she was “under his spell”, she recorded the entire process on her phone and is pretty clearly guilty.
This is her punishment.
Every day she wakes up, is put through this “punishment” until she reaches the climax, and is then driven through the streets in a “Pope-mobile” so people can jeer and throw tomatoes. They return her to the house where the day began, reset the stage, and painfully wipe her memory with a nifty little device. Every day, people – couples, individuals, and entire families – come to the Justice Park to joyfully take part in her punishment, recording her torment and refusing to help.
There’s a disturbing element to the fact that this psychological torture is treated like family entertainment, but at the same time, her crimes were heinous and it is made very clear that she deserved some sort of punishment. In the absence of capital punishment, this is an intriguing fictional replacement. I actually like the fact that the punishment is taken on by the community and while the sheer enjoyment the people take can be seen as problematic, I’m not sure I can condemn it, given the crime involved.
“White Bear” is kind of brilliant in the way it pushes the viewers first to sympathize with Toni, but then to abruptly find ourselves on the other side, wanting to see her punished. Brooker maintains a detachment that allows the viewers to really engage emotionally with all sides in the argument. The satire here, what there is, is limited almost to just making fun of the pervasiveness of zombies (and the like) in the public consciousness. The meat of the program lies in shining a light on the damaged psychologies of thrill killers and how detached from reality they can become when looking through the eye of the camera. The observers are clearly not detached. They are playing a specific role as the psychodrama plays out around them.
That ends up being Toni’s punishment, after all. Being objectified and terrified while others just watch and enjoy it. An eye for an eye.
In the end, I couldn’t really see that the Justice Park idea was one to be critical of. And I’m not sure Brooker was suggesting it as a satirical exaggeration of a negative idea. It’s exaggerated, yes. And the constant day in and day out nature of it was more and more horrifying as the credits rolled and we see it happening again and again, but she was a child murderer. By setting the story with a protagonist who is so fundamentally flawed, someone who may just be so damaged psychologically as to be considered Evil, Brooker gives us no easy answers.
He simply presents a situation where a person who did horrible, unforgivable things, is tormented to the point of madness by a community as a whole. Everyone’s hands are dirty with the punishment, which to my mind is far more healthy than shunting our monsters off to be hidden away or disposed of by a faceless State.
Black Mirror airs Monday nights at 10:00 on Channel 4.