I was on a binge-watching marathon of Black Mirror with a friend of mine, and we've enjoyed all of the episodes that we had viewed together, they were at times disturbing, darkly funny and bitingly satirical. Charlie Brooker has created an outstanding television legacy with his work in comedy, but Black Mirror will be his magnum opus. And this episode specifically might be the best thing to ever come from his poison-laced pen. It managed to do one thing I never thought any piece of media would do; it unnerved me.
The plot of this episode focuses mainly on a young man named Kenny, he doesn't look any older than an ordinary fellow just starting college or university. He has a job working at a fast food joint, he lives with his mother and sister, things seem to be going fine for Kenny. But as he continues his day, something rather disturbing happens. After he's finished masturbating in front of his laptop, he receives an email from a hacker(s) who has caught footage of him masturbating on his webcam, and starts to blackmail Kenny into doing tasks, or else they'll leak the footage. However, he is not the only one who is being blackmailed, and forms a somewhat forced and rocky alliance with a man named Hector who is being blackmailed for cheating or about to cheat on his wife.
The power of this episode comes from the script, the direction and the performances. We do not know, nor do we ever find out who the hacker(s) are, all we have is phone screens and all caps messages. Whoever this hacker or hackers may be, Charlie Brooker managed to make a huge threat from nothing but an unknown person messaging a phone. And the twist at the end is more alarming and disturbing that anything Shyamalan or even The Twilight Zone have ever done, but I'll get to that later.
The direction by James Watkins leaves us almost just as panicked as Kenny. When we find out he's being blackmailed, he sits on his bed, the camera pans in, giving us the sense of how paranoid Kenny is, and a taster for what is to come. The direction never lets from that point onward, making us anxious and uncomfortable to the episode's benefit.
Kenny as portrayed by Alex Lawther comes across a well meaning, genuine and relatable character, and his understandable fear, paranoia and anxiety over this situation is probably how many people would feel. But that only plays into the horror of the final reveal.
There was a moment where me and my friend spoke about Kenny's decision to rob the bank as it was happening, I knew something was up. I thought that if it was me in his situation, I'd let the hacker(s) leak the footage and face ridicule rather than jail. Something in my mind started to click, but I didn't want to believe it. Just why would he continue to follow their orders? After the robbery, Hector and Kenny make it up to a forest area, Hector is ordered to destroy the car they're driving in and Kenny is told to go into the forest. Kenny, hoping that his tasks will finally be over soon, confronts another man in the forest. The man is drunk and more anxious than Kenny is, because he knows the final task he has to do, and tells Kenny that they have to fight to the death. Kenny nearly breaks down, and just as the other man readies himself, he asks Kenny what the hacker(s) have him in for, Kenny tells him that he looked at some photos, and the other man asks him, "How young were they...?", and that was the twist.
My jaw dropped and I felt an empty pit in my stomach as I heard that line, I didn't want to believe it. But it suddenly all made sense, Kenny's extreme feelings of guilt, his persistence to keep his sister out of his room and away from his laptop and his persistence to follow all the orders given to him in order to keep his secret. But in the end, it was all for nothing, the hacker(s) have leaked everything about everyone. And while the people we see who have been blackmailed might possibly face lesser repercussions for their actions, Kenny's life is ruined after being outed as a paedophile, he receives a gut-wrenching call from his mother before he is feebly pulled away from police who arrive, and he'll most likely face consequences for looking at children, robbing the bank and murdering the other paedophile.
This episode made me want to curl up in the foetal position and take a break from the binge-watching. Which is what I ended up doing, this episode frightened me. Brooker may have tread over old ground by focusing on a protagonist who isn't all that he seems, but this is the most frightening episode of Black Mirror because it grounded itself in reality. The situations that Kenny, Hector and the other people found themselves in can happen to anyone. And that's why I consider this episode to be the best of Black Mirror, so far.
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