Monday, September 13, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: Men Against Fire

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Herein lies #10!

The Talent:
Charlie Brooker pens the script and puts the direction in the hands of TV veteran Jakob Verbruggen. The cast is led by the Roots remake's Malachi Kirby, with supporting turns from Dawn of the Dead's Michael Kelly and the glorious perfection that is Madeline Brewer.

The Setup: 
Stripe is a young soldier deployed somewhere off American soil, stationed in a small village where the goal is to eliminate "roaches" - I Am Legend-ish creatures who could do serious harm to the human race. While making his first kill, a roach zaps Stripe with some kind of device that messes with his military-issued brain implant.

On the next hunt, Stripe sees the roaches not as sharp-toothed monsters but regular old fashioned humans.

Turns out, we're not so different from our enemies after all.

The Ending:
Stripe learns the truth about the implant: it's there to block and alter human senses, making it easier for soldiers to commit acts of violence without remorse. The creatures he'd been hunting are part of an ethnic group that's been targeted by different governmental bodies for extinction. Stripe watches playback of his military exploits, realizing how he's simply been slaughtering innocents.

He's left with a choice Odysseus wouldn't envy: remove the implant for good and head to military prison, where he'll get to watch his past on loop, or have the program reset and return to his role as a dutiful soldier. Not unreasonably, Stripe goes for the latter choice. Upon his final deployment, he returns to the home of his dreams, only for the non-implant blocked audience to see it's an empty dump.

The Theme:
War is hell, as the old saying goes, and to be good at it, you have to surrender some of your soul.

The Verdict:
Men Against Fire was one of the first Black Mirror episodes I ever watched, which likely explains why my initial ranking was so high. I did, and still somewhat do appreciate the inherent Twilight Zone-iness of its premise and execution. It's a simple (and in hindsight, fairly obvious) twist that does its job.

That being said, on second watch, Men Against Fire's shortcomings are a bit more obvious. There's a heavy "tell don't show" element at play, particularly in the therapy sessions where Stripe's doctor just lays on piles of exposition explaining the history of PTSD. Malachi Kirby is a striking presence as Stripe, but his character is shortchanged. We don't need huge set pieces in Black Mirror, but there's something particularly cheap-feeling about the visuals here, as if this was the last episode filmed with whatever budget was leftover following

Technology Tip:
Begging for no vaccine/Microsoft jokes here, but I think it's fair to say that no thinking human being should willingly accept a sensory-altering IMPLANT being inserted inside your brain.

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 
8/10; Nobody wins here
Quality Scale:
6/10; The ideas are better than the execution
Enjoyment Scale:
6/10; Once you know the twist, the episode just feels a bit of a downer.

Up Next (Month): It's back to the beginning for Black Mirror's series premiere, The National Anthem


  1. I totally agree with you on this one. This was maybe the third or fourth BM episode I saw, and while there are elements I like (like the unhappy ending, of course) everything about this episode was just too ham-fisted and obvious. "Whoah, they're normal people -- just like us! And the government is EVIL!" I think Men Against Fire actually feels like it belongs on one of the B-rate Black Mirror impersonator shows, like Electric Dreams. It's not like it's terrible but in comparison to most other BM episodes from seasons 1-3, I thought it was one of the worst.