Monday, April 11, 2022

Black Mirror Revisit: White Bear

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. We've reached the pewter medal position with my original #4, the fun-for-the-whole-family White Bear!

The Talent:
Charlie Brooker did his usual writing duties, though he apparently had to scramble to revise his script in just two days after other episodes went over budget and he finally saw his shooting location. British television director Carl Tibbetts takes the helm, returning the next season for the equally dark White Christmas. Also on hand is Michael Smiley in a small part, and as anyone who's ever watched a Ben Wheatley film knows, one should never trust Michael Smiley. 

The Setup:
A woman wakes up disheveled, with no memory of who or where she is. She's in a dank suburban neighborhood, surrounded by strangers who keep their distance but record her every move on their cell phones, particularly when masked Purge-like aggressors start chasing her armed with anything from a rifle to electric knife.

Turns out, a mysterious electrical signal has set the world on fire, turning a good chunk of the population into homicidal maniacs. Our unnamed lead quickly teams up with the resourceful Jem (the incredibly British named Tuppence Middleton), a rebel trying to shut down the transmitter in the hopes of restoring sanity to the world. 

The Ending: 
Of course, there's no need to bust down any radio towers because, in one of the more extreme Black Mirror twists, there is no signal: the entire situation we've watched unfold is an elaborate prison sentence for our anonymous protagonist, now revealed to be the most infamous living criminal in England. Victoria Skillane helped her late fiance kidnap and murder a little girl. Every day, she awakens to the same horror show. Citizens get to participate and watch as she runs for her life in a waking nightmare, only to discover (every day!) the horrible crime she committed. Talk about a life sentence.

The Theme:
Fitting to its chaotic nature, White Bear has a few things to shout powerfully but a bit incoherently. It's obviously interested in the public's appetite and how easily it can be steered down the darkest of paths. Victoria's crime is as bad an act as a human being can commit, but her punishment is more about transferring domain over her to those who think they deserve it rather than actually forcing any kind of penance upon the guilty. There's no arc to Victoria's plight: every day, she spends a few hours running for her life in total fear, only to have another hour of being reminded of what she did to merit it. Then it happens again, with her learning nothing.

And yet, the people -- even children -- who show up to The Victoria Skillane Spectacular get their catharsis. They gleefully watch a stranger they think they know be put on an elaborate trial, reveling in her terror, participating wherever they can. They leave remembering everything and feeling better for it. 

It's a horror show not because of what Victoria goes through, but how enthusiastically the volunteers take part. 

The Verdict:
Is White Bear the most thoughtful, mind-opening episode of the Charlie Brooker universe? Of course not. Is it the closest the series comes to an all-out horror movie? Heck yes, and a manic, enjoyable, admittedly derivative one at that. 

Technology Tip:
It's the rare Black Mirror episode where technology plays a surprisingly small part in the conflict, so I'd say the most useful tidbit is surprisingly mechanical: check your weapons. Always, just check your weapons

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
9/10; Yes, Victoria's crimes merit the most severe of human punishments, but BOY does White Bear find a harsh way to make her pay, and by involving the general public, it takes society as a whole down a dark, dark path. 

Quality Scale:
6/10; Look, I kind of love White Bear, but I also can fully concede that this episode does indeed feel like it was written in a rush and filmed on a sale. There's an unrefined quality to it that kind of works for the grittier, visceral horror show it's going for. But, you know, it also isn't necessarily the highest quality 42 minutes of television. 

Enjoyment Scale:
7/10; As anyone who's read my decade-plus years of horror coverage knows, I don't need perfection to be happy. I just want to be entertained, and White Bear accomplishes that. 

Up Next (Month): 
It's horror of a different sort with the terrifying technology presented in The Entire History of You.

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