Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Rinse and repeat

Say what you like about Black Mirror's oppressive tone and borderline horror scenarios. It's still a breath of fresh air in a world where Downton Abbey is seen as the highpoint of drama programming. Don't take that the wrong way - I'm as much a sucker for teapot-porn as the next man. But I do find it hard to fully engage with a show where the big issues might as well be the over-toasting of Lady Mary's crumpets. If I'm going to sit through any drama that doesn't have the welcoming hum of the HBO logo at the start of it, I need something a little more substantial. And for that alone, I'm thankful for Charlie Brooker grim nuggets of dystopian allegory.

Last week's series two opener asked some pretty tough questions - not only about how much of ourselves we filter into our online identity, but also bigger issues about love, death and the grieving process. Challenging stuff for a nation that tends to see drama as the intermission act between instalments of Dancing On Ice.

This week, I noticed that people on Twitter were discussing how unusual it is that the show is billed as Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. It's not actually that odd, when you consider that the creator is really the only true constant in an anthology show. In much the same way that Rod Serling became synonymous with the twilighty show about that zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents never explicitly named what it was that the tubby auteur was presenting, Brooker's name has become something of a brand promise. You know that you're going to get something pitch-black and bitter that'll leave you with an unpleasant aftertaste, like an hour spent nibbling on a bar of Tesco Value dark chocolate.

Tonight's episode, cryptically entitled White Bear, was no exception. It opened with Lenora Crichlow as Victoria, slumped in a chair and looking less than her usual photogenic self. With her hair matted and greasy, eyes bloodshot, and wearing what seemed to be the same grey cardigan from Being Human that she was doomed to spend eternity in, it was clear that Victoria had issues. Just how many issues soon became apparent, as she struggled to remember who she was or why she was there. Flickers of memories; images of a smiling girl, a man and a burning car, suggested that she was a grieving mother. The bandages on her wrists and pills scattered around the floor certainly added to the air of desperation. But, why then were people standing in the windows of the neighbouring houses, filming her on their phones? And why would no-one answer when she cried out for help.

Initial suspicions suggested that we were in Sixth Sense territory, and that purgatory looks a lot like Welwyn Garden City. But even that couldn't explain the random people who kept showing up in bizarre masks and attempting to kill Victoria. As she ran for her life - or afterlife, depending on how this all played out -  the bystanders simply crowded around attempting to record it on their iPhones. The first killer wielded a shotgun, the next was wearing an animal mask and gold evening gown, and brandishing an electric carving knife. As this terrifying harbinger of death kept popping up throughout the next hour, it seemed that Charlie was trying to tell us that batteries last a lot longer in hell.

In standard 28 Days of Walking Dead Later fashion, Victoria soon stumbled across some other survivors, who helpfully offer up some breathless exposition, in between bursts of gunfire. But no sooner had Victoria and her new saviour escaped a petrol station full of assassins than they were tricked by another 'hunter' who pretended to be on their side, for all of three minutes.

It turned out that the masses had been zombified by some electronic pulse, triggered by a TV signal that looks like an enlarged Space Invader icon. As her newfound friend explained, "It did something to everyone. They just like spectators  They don’t give a shit what happens to us." In order to save the world, they need to switch off the signal at the conveniently located 'White Bear' transmitter tower. Except, it couldn't really be that easy. Especially since Victoria was still having flashbacks about her child, who also had a cuddly white bear with her. Coincidence, or set up for a MASSIVE REVEAL?

Despite the heavy-handed set-up, the reveal still came as something of a rug-pull, as Victoria attempted to shoot one of the hunters, only to release a burst of coloured confetti instead of bullets. In a way, it's as preposterous as the ending of David Fincher's The Game - the whole thing was an elaborate set-up and everyone was in it. The extra dark topping on this misery sundae, however, is the fact that this was a punishment for Victoria, who wasn't the grieving mother we were led to believe. In fact, she and her boyfriend were a modern-day Brady and Hindley - abducting, torturing and recording the murder of the little girl with the white bear. And since the boyfriend had already killed himself in custody, society had decided to put Victoria through this heavily metaphorical torture. Having been reminded of her crimes, Victoria was put in a modified Popemobile, and driven slowly back to where she started, whilst being pelted with tomatoes by a crowd of people who are now much less passive than they were a few minutes earlier. Back at the house where it all began, she's drugged and tortured, before having her mind reset to go through it all again.

Countless science fiction and horror stories have explored the notion that Hell is repetition, and White Bear is no exception. And yet, this seems like a curiously archaic Daily Mail position for Brooker to take, given his usual distaste for easy moralising and reactionary rhetoric. But there's always a sting in the tail, and Charlie hides his right at the end of the story. Interspersed amongst the end credits, like scenes of Dom DeLouise corpsing in Canonball Run, are the final little vignettes that reveal we've been in the White Bear Justice Park - £12 a day for adults. I guess that Charlie would be a masterful poker player, since he's happy to keep his hand a secret until the final moments. There are no belly laughs to be had, but we're allowed to crack a bitter smile as we see the complicit public being briefed on their interactive day out: "No talking, especially not to her. Keep your distance - remember she is a dangerous criminal. And above all, enjoy yourself."

It seems a little strange to treat the point of your film like comical deleted scenes, held back until the very end of the presentation, but since Charlie is such a masterful story-teller, we can forgive him this indulgence. And once again, we're left with more dark subjects to ponder. If someone has no recollection of their crimes, can they be effectively punished? Does our societal bloodlust for vengeance make us just as dangerous as the criminals we seek to discipline? And will the butler ever be able to get a proper shine back on the Earl of Grantham's brogues? Sorry, wrong show. 

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