The first few minutes charting the unmapped territory of Black Mirror executive producer Charlie Brooker’s mind are always unnerving. But the military setting of “Men Against Fire”—and its hunt for seemingly evil, alien-like creatures—feels somewhat out of the ordinary for the series. Once you recognize the direction it’s headed in, however, the impact of the story might make you want to discard “the news” forever, because you’ve realized once again you’re not just watching a show. You’re already living it.
“The media,” writ large, contains multitudes, including those genuinely reporting news and those who use their mighty pens (or keyboards) for no other purpose than to spew hate and xenophobia. Unfortunately, with the increasing number of online outlets and social media platforms, there’s no escaping the latter. To use the past year as an example, just think of the many things certain filthy rags have led the sheep of this world to believe: Refugees who’ve fled from war-torn countries have entered yours to steal away your jobs, rape your wives and children and plan terrorist attacks; African-American men selling CDs on street corners are disguised hoodlums out to shoot you in the back; your neighborhood’s Pakistani community is made up of ISIS members looking to recruit new followers.
By combining these kinds of headlines with fear-inducing images, certain outlets have succeeded in taking their cunning plan to the next level: Once mass panic and hysteria settle in, all people are left with is hate—so much of it, in fact, that even the image of a young Syrian boy’s lifeless body washed up on the shore seems unable to generate much grief. Instead, the impact of this heartbreaking image and the story it tells is downplayed with plenty of “buts”: So sad about that little Syrian boy, but I still wouldn’t want his family in my country.
In “Men Against Fire,” Brooker channels this hatred and paranoia toward the unfamiliar, into a dystopian military unit and its MASS implants. These are designed to alter soldiers’ primary senses, allowing them to fight without being incapacitated by emotional trauma. By camouflaging innocent citizens of this futuristic world as “roaches”—vile, vampire-like creatures whose screeches echo like the cry of a banshee—the MASS implants succeed in getting soldiers to operate with one purpose: Shoot to kill.
We begin to fear the roaches before we’ve even met them. Without much backstory to support my concerns, I began to develop my own theories. Perhaps they’re zombies, innocent people who’ve fallen victim to a virus fit to wipe out mankind? Let’s assume they are zombies. Do we feel any sympathy towards them? It probably wouldn’t be most people’s immediate response, no. But if you think back to the Walking Dead’s Governor and his daughter, you might start singing a different tune. It’s a melody the military troop on “Men Against Fire” has long forgotten. Everyone, that is, except Stripe.
On his first operation with the troop, Stripe finds a bunch of roaches huddled behind a curtain in an old farmhouse. As he points his gun at them, one of the roaches points a beeping device with a green light at Stripe’s face. The roach manages to tackle Stripe to the floor, but Stripe quickly takes control of the situation and ends up stabbing the creature repeatedly, until its blood is splattered all over his face. He examines the device that fell to the floor during the struggle; the green light pierces his eyes and emits a high-pitched sound—the kind that makes your brain hurt; my dog was far from impressed by this episode. He’s puzzled by it, but ends up discarding it. When the high-pitched noise continues to plague him days later, Stripe is sent to a psychiatrist (Michael Kelly) who is concerned about Stripe referring to the roaches with gendered pronouns. Stripe repeatedly corrects himself, though begrudgingly so.
Heading back out on a mission, he realizes he can smell the grass beneath him for the first time in what seems like forever. Before he can ponder this further, a roach opens fire from one of the building’s windows, killing Stripe’s commander instantly. Stripe and his comrade, Raiman (Madeline Brewer), cover different areas of the building, but to his surprise he doesn’t come across any roaches—only frightened people who’ve taken shelter here. Upon entering a room, he finds a young woman and her son cowering behind a sofa, desperately trying to avoid getting shot. At this point, we see something click in Stripe’s eyes. When Raiman enters the room, ready to fire at a mother and child, Stripe makes a rash decision and knocks her out, getting shot in the abdomen in the process. He ushers the woman and the boy out of the building and drives into the woods until he loses consciousness.
He wakes up in an underground fort, where the woman is cautiously tending to his wounds. She smiles at him. “You see me as I am,” she says. “You don’t see roach.” Of course he sees her. She’s not a roach; roaches don’t speak. “You just can’t hear us,” she says. She goes onto explain that the MASS system inside his brain not only makes him see her and her people as roaches, it also wipes out important senses in order to help him fight them. The device her friend Lucas pointed at Stripe’s face was designed to interfere with his implants, and it’s obviously worked. Stripe is not entirely dismissive of her explanation, but there’s one thing he doesn’t understand: How is it that the other civilians see her and her people as roaches too? They’re not military, and they don’t have implants, so why would they have turned against them? In light of our current political climate, her response rings devastatingly true to me:
Everybody hates us. [They see] what you see now. They hate all the same because it’s what they’ve been told. Ten years ago, it began. First war. First the screening programs, the DNA checks, then the register, the emergency measures, and soon everyone calls us creatures. Filthy creatures. Every voice—the TV, the computer—say we have sickness in us, we have weakness. It’s in our blood. They say that our blood cannot go on, that we cannot go on. My name was Katharina. He was Alec. Now we’re just roach.
“Men Against Fire” kept me occupied for days. The exchange between Stripe and Katharina feels so jarringly real, so incredibly fucking relevant for our time, that it’s absolutely gutting. In a manner only Brooker is capable of, it sums up both our reality and the gruesome future we’re headed toward. Empathy seems to have made way for the desensitization of humanity; we’ve discarded our desire, our need, for unity in favor of a system that receives comparisons with fascism. It’s become increasingly difficult to ignore the propaganda readily available from “every voice.” If you haven’t yet come to understand the path we’re on, let Brooker be your guide, and let Stripe be your conscience.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.