Black Mirror: 303 “Shut Up and Dance” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Have you ever looked at your webcam and thought that, just maybe, someone was watching you? At some point we’ve all had the lingering fear of a snooper staring back at you through the lens, taking privy to your personal and private business. Of course, usually this is just paranoia…until it isn’t. And in this murky premise, where your most intimate dealings are captured on video ready to share for all to see, is where the third episode of Black Mirror season 3 resides.
Shut Up and Dance is an altogether more lowkey and dialled down affair than the first two episodes of the series, despite the breathless pace it establishes. The intro brings us in with a woman looking extremely on-edge, acting highly strange in a car park, establishing a great sense of foreboding and intrigue instantly. We’re then introduced to 19-year-old Kenny, played by Alex Lawther (who is most notable for playing young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game), whose sister accidentally infects his laptop with malware. After installing a program to remove the malware, and having a session of “private time” in front of his laptop, he soon receives an email with just one sentence- “WE SAW WHAT YOU DID”. From there, Kenny’s tormentors order him to follow a series of increasingly difficult orders, all on a timer and with his location being continuously tracked via GPS. Eventually being forced to team up with Jerome “Bronn-son and Jerome” Flynn’s Hector, the two are forced to work together in what becomes the most difficult hour of television you’ll likely see in a long time.
The episode flows at a breakneck pace almost from the word go, with director James Watkins (of Eden Lake and Daniel Radcliffe’s Woman in Black fame) keeping us in the story always, with plenty of high-tension camera movements and action dialled up to 11 as at first Kenny and then Kenny and Hector race around London on bike and in car in such fashion that you’ll be having to consistently wipe sweat from your brow at the pace the story establishes. Co-written by Charlie Brooker and Will Bridges, Shut Up and Dance is a departure from the first two episodes of the new series, being a lot closer to home (at least in the English feel that is) than the vast scope established in Nosedive and Playtest. Indeed, maybe that’s why events that transpire here are just so frightening, especially given it’s the first episode of the show since the first very one to take place in the recognisable present day we live in now with technology that we use. By bringing it closer to home the cuts are much deeper.
Alex Lawther is nothing short of phenomenal, with his performance as Kenny being a pure showcase of nightmare-inducing fear and anguish. He may be responsible for his own actions, but he is still a frightened boy, and watching him wet himself during the bank robbery is brutal to watch, such is his unsure terror at what he is doing. You never feel less than a great sense of pity the whole way through and that is key to our sympathies come the end reveal of the episode, with the escalation of events and progression of his character being shocking and visceral in a way that always elevates the emotional stakes. Kenny is forced to rob a bank and kill someone (not before trying to commit suicide himself), all coming from a simple video that some online bogeyman/men may release, even if the contents of the video are anything but simple, such is the control these online “trolls” have. The set-up of the episode is so extremely plausible that Kenny never feels like a heightened or over the top characterisation- he seems like a completely normal teenager and it makes the ending twist land with more force than a large earthquake. Jerome Flynn isn’t overshadowed at all, with his Hector clearly having a more positive side beneath all the shady bluster (“I’m an alright bloke, I swear I am. When stuff’s normal.” The two work together well and their rapport is quite warm and funny at times, and the longer you spend with them on screen you grow to thoroughly root for them, and when the final judgement arrives its gutting on another level entirely, the fact that these people, who are still very clearly just people like, are being treated like monsters.
Oh, the ending, the ending. Providing us with possibly one of the heaviest gut-punches of anything I’ve ever seen, Radiohead’s Exit Music (For a Film), slowly builds up and then loudly, horrifyingly crashes down as the crescendo peaks and the police arrest Kenny as his mum shrieks down the phone to him (“They’re saying it’s kids!”), with his blank expression and resigned stagger with his back turned to his inevitable arrest as he understands his now forever-ruined life providing us with an unforgettable visual. It’s stomach-churningly awful, sick, and it’s just effortlessly brilliant. Outed with having a paedophilic perversion, having robbed a bank and having taken a human life, this is Kenny’s final punchline- it’s crushing and quite psychologically scarring stuff.
At its core, the themes of Shut Up and Dance are like those of White Bear, with Charlie Brooker deeply challenging our feelings towards justice, and more forewarningly the idea that once somebody does something horrible they lose their humanity and are then free to be tortured as long as possible, like with Victoria Skillane in the series 2 episode. Also like White Bear we are shown the punishment before the crime is revealed, which forces us into handing over our sympathies to these folks who have done terrible things, which points the finger directly at us accusingly and makes us question our moral standpoints. It’s an inspired way of gaining empathy for the characters, as if we were shown the story beats in the opposite direction they’d be marked as unsympathetic straight away, but spending time with them and being right in the thick of their predicaments make you remember that they are still have their humanity even if they have done terrible things. Shut Up and Dance points the finger directly at us, and asks us to question whether the treatment of Kenny is at all right. Kenny may have been a paedophile, but does that automatically grant him the justice of a witch hunt, like Victoria Skillane? Little hints of his perversion are scattered through the episode, but even the early moment where Kenny hands a little girl back her toy may not be as laced with foreshadowing as we may at first think when reflecting after all is said and done- it could still be a perfectly innocent action. Do we deserve to be defined by our worst moments?
It seems like the ultimate bit of irony that the anti-malware program Kenny downloads is from shrive.com, the definition of the word being “to impose penance on a sinner”. The implication of those who may be behind the torment we see is all the scarier for not seeing the perpetrator(s)- it could be a network of people or maybe just even one teenager, just like Kenny, who thinks he’s the balancing power to destroy multiple people’s lives who they think deserve it. It’s powerful because it’s already happening, whether that be cyber-bullying or hacking of private pictures. The sense of justice can easily be skewed by those who have the power to do so, even when hiding behind a computer screen. In the end though, the overwhelming question lingering over this episode lies with our sympathies towards Kenny and the others, our moral compasses put to the test. For my view, Kenny is highly sympathetic- a possibly disturbed and troubled individual certainly, but a human and not a monster, one who needed real help and counselling to divert him from his perversion. Instead, he was subjected to mob rule where broken people just get more damage done to them rather than a proper approach of treatment and rehabilitation. Questions and moral quandaries abound- does one heinous act warrant a lifetime of suffering? Just who has the right to deal justice in such fashion? Can we even be trusted to pass judgement? The episode accuses us all.
Shut Up and Dance is a terrifically low-key feeling but emotionally gigantic piece of television, and can easily reside with Black Mirror’s best. The ending is one that may well stick with you forever. I know for a fact I’m sticking some paper over my webcam out of fear from now on!