Warning: Black Mirror: Season 3 spoilers ahead.
How do you measure greatness in science fiction television? Quantitative measures such as the number of positive critical reviews or the “star” ratings by viewers can set a series or individual episodes apart, but a fan can also measure quality with his or her memory. What image or scene sticks in your mind long after you’ve switched to another show? Is it the broken eyeglasses in the Twilight Zone’s “Time Enough to Last?” Is it the god-like voice of the time machine in Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever?”
Does Black Mirror have such an image or scene? The Charlie Brooker-produced series has already achieved acclaim on par with Outer Limits, Battlestar Gallactica, and others, but for a series to have historical legs, something has to stick in the collective memory. It’s a shot, a bit of dialog, a premise, or a twist ending that’s talked about twenty years later, or that writers borrow or imitate for another generation of viewers, or that makes you wake up in a cold sweat.
Season 3 of Black Mirror, available on Netflix, has several of these moments. As someone who pays attention to sound effects, the dribbling pitch of the protagonist’s falling rating in “Nosedive” is comic and heartbreaking. The benign, and ultimately murderous robot bees in “Hated in the Nation” bring to mind the moral and practical costs of environmental loss.
However, one image will not let me go. That’s the final scene of “Shut Up and Dance,” which shows the protagonist Kenny, who has just survived a fight to the death, learning that his life is essentially over despite his victory. While few viewers may be guilty of Kenny’s horrific crime, you will be tempted to shut off your laptop’s webcam to avoid his doom. In a further twist of the knife, the story manipulates the viewer into sympathy for Kenny, who deserves a harsh punishment, but did he deserve the one he got?
“Shut Up and Dance” is better classified as horror, not only because of what happens to Kenny, but for the fate of the victims he exploits. The punchline—and it truly punches you in the gut—is closely tied to “Hated in the Nation’s” question: How do we hold ordinary “good” people accountable for bad behavior in a virtual world that winks at anonymous irresponsibility?
It’s too soon to tell if my personal favorite Black Mirror moment will stand the test of time, but I know I’ll be thinking of Kenny’s anguished face and his mother’s accusation for a long time to come. I’m looking forward to seeing what other memories future episodes of Black Mirror creates.
What’s your favorite episode of Black Mirror Season 3?