Black Mirror: Shut Up and Dance
I always find that Black Mirror is most effective when it’s set in the present. Forget the flying cars, the wearable technology and the Orwellian social orders – episodes set in the reality we inhabit are the scariest of all. We can relate to the conventional characters and their everyday mundanities in a way that we can’t with robots from the planet Zog. They speak to us in our language and do the same things we do, so when it all turns upside down for them – we have no choice other than to empathise. In Shut Up and Dance, Charlie Brooker finds what might be his darkest subject yet.
Alex Lawther plays Kenny, a teenage boy like any other. He spends his days working in a fast-food restaurant with staff that show little kindness to him, and his evenings in the home he shares with his mother and sister. On one such evening, we see him browsing the internet and masturbating to images that we don’t see. Immediately after, he receives an email from an unknown address warning that he’d been secretly recorded through the webcam on his laptop. He is blackmailed into completing menial activities with other victims of the hacker such as the receiving and delivering of packages. A chain of events introduces Kenny to Hector (Jerome Flynn), a married man being blackmailed for his involvement with prostitutes. They are both coerced via text message into robbing a local bank (an extremely difficult to watch scene). Kenny is then instructed to take the money to an ominous woodland area where he is encouraged to fight another blackmail victim on camera – the stolen money is the prize fund. It is here that we learn of Kenny’s real secret – the images he’d been looking at in the beginning of the episode were of children.
It was one of those rare TV moments where, upon its ending, the viewer has to sit and consider everything they’d just seen. I was stunned by the episode. Not only was it visually overwhelming with thanks to director James Watkins, it was extremely disturbing in terms of subject matter too. I expect the story owes a lot to rumours based around Theresa May’s snoopers charter – voyeurism seems to be a collective fear of the nation’s, especially in this age of phone hacking, CCTV and cyber-terrorism. The ending of the episode truly upholds Black Mirror’s reputation as the darkest show on television, leaving a sense of anonymous trepidation in the air. By the time the episode had finished, I felt as though I was being watched.
Alex Lawther is beyond incredible. He performs with genuine truth and vulnerability that provokes nothing other than sympathy, making his exposure at the end all the more horrific. I immediately recognised Lawther from The Imitation Game in which he gave a highly promising performance, but in Shut Up and Dance, his full potential is realised. He has that uncommon gift among actors that allows him to say everything without saying anything at all. His torturous scenes are by far the sick highlights of the episode because we can see the one true motivation behind all of his actions – fear. Jerome Flynn balances sleaze and terror perfectly in his supporting performance; he gives it his all without stealing the spotlight from Lawther. They both deserve awards.
To say that this is the best episode of the season would be an insult to Black Mirror’s diverse offerings, but I would be very tempted to. It lives up to the overarching theme of the anthology in the simplest yet most terrifying way. I think that each episode of the season should be viewed as miniature feature films, all unique in their own right. But if Black Mirror was the Cannes Film Festival, I wouldn’t hesitate to give Shut Up and Dance the Palme d’Or.
The entire third season of Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix now.