In a recent interview with Paul Heath of The Hollywood News, Black Mirror executive producer Charlie Brooker compared the series’ third season to a “full meal.” Whether Netflix viewers would decide to binge, he reckoned, would depend on their appetite—whether, as he put it, “you are a glutton for punishment” or not. After seeing “Shut Up and Dance,” I understand the sentiment. I can’t even begin to imagine how anyone who watched the entire season this weekend must be feeling right now. Nauseated, I suspect. “Shut Up and Dance” is an hour-long panic attack, an exhausting reminder of human malice and naiveté, and I honestly worry about anyone who was able to watch another episode right away.
The episode follows Kenny (Alex Lawther), a shy teen who works at a fast food joint. He gets a lot of stick from his male co-workers for being a bit of a loner, but he seems to get on by ignoring them and keeping his head down until it’s time to clock out. One night, his sister uses Kenny’s computer to access a dodgy website, leaving it infected with a virus. After downloading the malware software Shrive, Kenny assumes he’s gotten rid of the bug and settles in for a quiet night. A cheeky peak at raunchy pictures and a little fiddle with his diddle later, he receives an email from an unknown sender. “We Know What You Did,” it reads. Below, the thumbnail of a video link displays Kenny’s room. From the angle of the video it’s clear it was shot from his laptop’s webcam. As for the contents of the video, I’m sure you can figure it out. “Reply with your number,” the message threatens, “or we post the video to everyone in your contacts.”
He sends his number and receives the first of many messages on his phone: “Keep locations and services on. Keep phone on and charged. When time comes you will be activated. Tell no one. We are watching.” He sits on his bed, eyes wide and bewildered, his body bathed in cold sweat. He knows he’s in this alone and it’s a huge burden to carry. Arriving at work the next day, he receives the next message: “You have been activated. Obey or we leak video.” What ensues is a “treasure hunt” of the warped variety, and he’s not the only pawn in this psychotic game. He is instructed to team up with Hector (Jerome Flynn), a middle-aged man who got caught cheating on his wife with a prostitute named Mindy.
At first, it seems the game is run by modern-day vigilantes like Anonymous, on a mission to uncover the secret lives we live online. But Kenny doesn’t quite fit into this theory; if masturbating over porn was punishable, surely “they” would have a lot of work to do in a day. Of course, this ignores one very important factor here: We never actually see what exactly Kenny was looking at as he unzipped his trousers. It was screenwriters Brooker and William Bridges’ very intention to distract us with our growing sympathy for Kenny, one that was easy to establish thanks to Lawther’s enthralling performance. However, in the final grueling moments, after Kenny has been instructed to fight someone to the death, his crime is revealed despite all he’s done to keep it from going public. Flashing blue lights illuminate his bloodied face as he stands numbed by the sound of the sirens and his mother’s sobbing: “You were looking at kids.”
The crimes of Hector, Kenny, and all the other hostages, whether minor or horrific, have all been revealed, and they’re all rewarded with the same final message: a picture of a Trollface. For the entirety of the episode, we’re made to pity its protagonists; despite what they may have done, surely this form of psychological terror pushes the boundaries of appropriate punishment. But as was the case with Season One’s “White Bear; we’re left to question our moral principles and our thirst for poetic justice.
Was it senseless cruelty with no purpose other than someone’s twisted idea of personal entertainment? Perhaps it was South Park resident Gerald Brovlosfki (a.k.a. Skankhunt42), a regular old guy who gets off on stirring shit up, or simply needs an outlet for his daily frustrations. It seems too intricate for someone merely trying to have “fun,” and the careful selection of the game’s targets too obvious to be written off as standard online trolling. The message, however, is clear. Regardless of the game’s purpose, “Shut Up and Dance” grippingly demonstrates how dangerous our tendency to use the Internet as an extension of ourselves has become, and how easily it can be used to manipulate us—and further stimulate our perversions—in the most despicable ways. Ultimately, the joke is on us: We are the villains in our own online stories and games.
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.